News analysis

Terror-wary Sri Lankans pine for strongman

Many root for opposition's pick as presidential candidate: former defence secretary Gotabaya

COLOMBO • Sri Lankans, angered by the government's inability to prevent the Easter Sunday terror attacks that killed more than 250 people, want a strongman back in power who can guarantee their safety and bring back economic growth.

Many were rooting for Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, despite fighting allegations of war crimes, was nominated yesterday as the opposition's candidate for the presidential election scheduled for later this year. The Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya and Mahinda, were credited with bringing peace to Sri Lanka in 2009 by defeating the Tamil Tigers in a brutal end to the 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and minority Tamil groups. Mr Gotabaya was the defence secretary at the time and Mr Mahinda the nation's president.

Mr Mahinda announced his brother's candidacy to cheering supporters at a rally in Colombo. Earlier at the rally, he was named leader of the Sri Lanka People's Front, under which Mr Gotabaya will contest.

"I thought of a man who is sought by the country's history to build a future," Mr Mahinda told the gathering. "I hand over my brother as a brother to you. He is no other, he is Gotabaya."

Mr Gotabaya is facing lawsuits in the United States for allegedly instigating and authorising the extrajudicial killing of a journalist and of war crimes against the Tamils during his time as defence secretary. He has denied the allegation.

A final date for the presidential election has not been decided but it must be held before Dec 9.

Sri Lanka's Constitution is modelled on the French system of government where the president has executive powers while the prime minister heads Parliament. The current government is headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, the leader of centre-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is from the centre-right United National Party, which has a majority in Parliament.

Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe, who have been at loggerheads since last October, have blamed each other for ignoring warnings from India and failing to stop the Easter attacks.

Calls for a nationalist leader like Mr Gotabaya, who has strong support from within Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese Buddhist community, echo similar choices made by voters in other nations including India and Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka's former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa waving to supporters. He is facing lawsuits in the US for allegedly instigating and authorising the extrajudicial killing of a journalist and war crimes against Tamils.
Sri Lanka’s former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa waving to supporters. He is facing lawsuits in the US for allegedly instigating and authorising the extrajudicial killing of a journalist and war crimes against Tamils. PHOTO: REUTERS

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected for a second term in May in a landslide victory, rallied his Hindu-nationalist base and turned the campaign into a fight for national security and an aggressive stance against Pakistan.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who won a third straight term in an election last December, has been criticised for suppressing dissent and jailing critics.

Reuters spoke to about 60 people, many of whom were victims of the terror attacks or affected by communal violence over the past year, and while some plan to abstain from voting, many of those who will vote say they want a more authoritarian figure.

Many Sri Lankan Catholics will not vote for Mr Sirisena if he stands, said a senior Sri Lankan priest. He is looking at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs as an example of the kind of behaviour that is required despite evidence that it involved extrajudicial killings by police.


"A Third World country like us needs a tough leader like Duterte - he is doing whatever is needed to rid his country of evils," said the priest, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"Gotabaya is accused of crimes but he is tough and that is what we need right now to bring back some order," he said.

Father Jude Chrysantha Fernando, director for social communication at the Archdiocese of Colombo, said the Church did not take political sides and would not ask people to vote for one candidate over another.

A country of 21 million, Sri Lanka has been a tinder box of sectarian and ethnic tensions, first between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population and Tamil groups, and in recent years between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Muslim minority.

While most Tamils are unlikely to vote for Mr Gotabaya, the Muslim community might be divided.

Mr S. H. M. Thameem, a government employee who is a Muslim, said he will vote for Mr Gotabaya because the current government has failed to deliver. "When there were anti-Muslim riots when he was the defence secretary, they were controlled within a day or two but Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have failed to control it. That adversely impacted the Muslim businesses and overall economy," said Mr Thameem, who lives in the north-central district of Anuradhapura.

Mr J. M. Faleel, a Muslim autorickshaw driver in Colombo, feels differently. "We need a dictator, but I will not vote for Gotabaya as he is partially responsible for most of the suffering we see today," he said, referring to anti-Muslim riots and alleged abuses against the Tamils.

The lawsuit allegations in the US might not hurt Mr Gotabaya's chances of winning because he has the overwhelming support of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, said Mr Kusal Perera, a political columnist in Sri Lanka.

"This election will be decided by the large majority of Sinhalese Buddhists who believe they need a hardline president to put things right. The Tamils and Muslims will be left out in deciding the president," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'Terror-wary Sri Lankans pine for strongman'. Print Edition | Subscribe