Symbolic swearing-in for Sri Lanka's new president

Published November 18, 2019
Sri Lanka's newly elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation after his swearing in ceremony held at the 140 B.C. Ruwanweli Seya Buddhist temple in ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura in northcentral Sri Lanka on Monday. — AP
Sri Lanka's newly elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation after his swearing in ceremony held at the 140 B.C. Ruwanweli Seya Buddhist temple in ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura in northcentral Sri Lanka on Monday. — AP

Sri Lanka's new president and scourge of the Tamil Tigers Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday urged minorities unnerved by his election victory to work with him, as he was sworn in at a ceremony steeped in symbolism for his core supporters.

Having spearheaded the brutal end of the Tamil separatist war a decade ago, Rajapaksa is a divisive figure but popular among his own majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community.

His landslide win split the island nation of 21.6 million on religious and ethnic lines as never before, seven months after deadly terrorist attacks.

Unusually, his inauguration was held at a revered Buddhist shrine with an imposing stupa — reputedly built by a Sinhalese king who vanquished invading Tamils over 2,000 years ago.

At the ceremony, Rajapaksa put his success down to the “extraordinary blessings of the Buddhist monks”. “The main message of the election is that it was the Sinhala majority vote that allowed me to win the presidency,” the 70-year-old retired lieutenant colonel said.

“I knew that I could win with only the votes of the Sinhala majority. But I asked Tamils and Muslims to be a part of my success. Their response was not what I expected. However, I urge them to join me to build one Sri Lanka,” he said.

Rajapaksa was defence chief under his brother Mahinda's 2005-15 presidency, when the military conducted a no-holds-barred campaign to end the 37-year war in which 100,000 people perished.

This makes the brothers heroes among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy.

But around 40,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly killed in the closing stages of the conflict, which ended in 2009, and Saturday's election saw Tamils — who account for about 15 per cent of the population — vote overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa.

War crimes

As defence secretary Gotabaya had unfettered control over the security forces, while “death squads” that abducted dozens of dissidents, opponents, journalists and others also allegedly reported to him.

Many people were never found again after being bundled into feared white vans, while some were killed and dumped by roadsides. The new president has denied any involvement and has resisted international calls to investigate the alleged war crimes.

At his only press conference during a three-month election campaign, Rajapaksa reiterated that he will not allow Sri Lankan troops to be tried by any war-crime tribunal, foreign or local.

He had also pledged to exonerate the dozens of military personnel accused of abductions, extortion and killings during his brother's decade in power.

The island's Tamils have been campaigning for accountability for war crimes and greater autonomy in areas where Tamils are concentrated.

Tamil youth took up arms in 1972 demanding a separate state and their violent guerilla campaign at its height saw them control a third of the country.

Comeback

After being in opposition for nearly five years, Rajapaksa announced his intention to run for the presidency just days after militant attacks on April 21 that killed 269 people, promising to protect the nation.

The Easter Sunday suicide bombings on three upscale hotels and three churches was carried out by a homegrown outfit from among Sri Lanka's Muslim minority, who make up 10pc of the population.

It shocked the nation, and the world, just as Sri Lankan tourism was booming and as the nation prepared to celebrate a decade since the end of the Tamil separatist war.

Rajapakasa insisted that extremists would not have carried out any attacks if he had been in power. He blamed the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for weakening the intelligence apparatus he had built.

Opinion

Lull before the storm
24 Oct 2021

Lull before the storm

The horse they bet on to romp home a winner turned out unfocused and generally disinterested.
The larger debate
Updated 23 Oct 2021

The larger debate

The revelations show how the economy promotes inequality.

Editorial

24 Oct 2021

Anti-government rallies

THE chaos is closing in on the government and its perpetual mismanagement inspires little confidence. On Friday, all...
24 Oct 2021

End of polio?

AFTER a long struggle, the reward is finally in sight. With only a single case of wild poliovirus reported this year...
24 Oct 2021

Heritage work

IT is encouraging that, slowly, projects of heritage conservation and preservation appear to be taking off. These...
A final push
Updated 23 Oct 2021

A final push

PAKISTAN’S hopes of exiting the so-called FATF grey list have been shattered once again. The global money...
23 Oct 2021

Kabul visit

FOREIGN MINISTER Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s flying visit to Kabul on Thursday is the first official high-level...
23 Oct 2021

Baqir’s blooper

THE remarks made by State Bank governor Reza Baqir at a London press conference have hit a raw nerve in Pakistan. In...