Sri Lankans are voting for a new president on Saturday, and in the wake of the worst terror attack of the year, one of their top priorities is national security. That’s propelled an alleged war criminal to the front of the race.
Many blame the current administration for dropping the ball on valuable intel that could have prevented a string of suicide blasts coordinated by a local Islamist group that killed 259 people in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, part of a prominent political family and the leader of the opposition, has capitalized on that anger. Leveraging his background as a former defense secretary who ended a civil war, the 70-year-old found support through pitching himself as the guy who’ll make Sri Lanka safe again.
“He led and finished the war that lasted for 30 years. He saved the country as the defense minister. That reason alone is more than enough for us,” G.M. Gunarathna, a retiree at a Rajapaksa rally, told VICE News.
In 2009, Rajapaksa ended the country's decades-long civil war, winning victory for the majority Sinhalese Buddhists by crushing a rebellion led by Tamils, the largest ethnic minority. Many Sinhalese Buddhists believe that makes him qualified to prevent ethnic extremism in the future.
Minorities and advocacy organizations see his tenure very differently. In the final months of the war, the government says fewer than 10,000 civilians were killed. But human rights groups allege Rajapaksa oversaw widespread war crimes; one U.N. estimate says the number of civilians killed by the military is closer to 70,000.
Video authenticated by the U.N. show Sinhalese forces killing captured soldiers, who are bound and stripped naked. Rajapaksa’s spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella told VICE News those videos were “manufactured” for use by terrorists as propaganda to revive extremism.
The current government agreed to let the U.N. investigate those alleged crimes, but Rajapaksa says he won’t honor that deal if he wins. In doing so, he could minimize his family's role in the carnage at the end of the war.
“The criticism of the international community is based on baseless information,” Rambukwella told VICE News. “We are a sovereign nation. We are able to handle ourselves.”
If Rajapaksa wins the election, it would be a reminder to all minorities that the Sinhalese are in charge.
But while Rajapaksa ending the war might have many Sinhalese convinced that he can keep the country safe going forward, those votes alone won’t guarantee a win.
He’ll need some support from Tamils and Muslims, but minority leaders are urging people to vote for his opponent, Sajith Premadasa.
“He won't make it safe for anybody … the communities that are smaller in number will be under siege, but that doesn’t mean the majority will thrive. They’ll have to face the discontent of minority groups and will have to attend to those issues.” M.A. Sumanithiran, a leading Tamil politician, told VICE News.
“The whole approach seems to be a dangerous one for a country like ours.”
Sumanithiran was one of a handful of parliamentarians who put together a report on the Easter Attacks. In it, they found that the Easter Attacks were linked to the rise in militant Sinhalese Buddhism.
The ringleader of the bombings used Sinhala mob violence against Muslims to radicalize young people. The report specifically points to an attack in 2018, when a radical Buddhist group torched a mosque, and the house of Samsudeen Fazal, a Muslim father of three.
Fazal said he knows the attackers, and is aware that their radical group is openly supporting Rajapaksa. At a time when security is everyone’s top concern, the best choice for Fazal and his family’s safety might just be appeasing the majority.
“I think it's better if Mr. Gotabaya [Rajapaksa] gets elected, because they won't attack if his party wins,” Fazal said. Now if Sajith [Premadasa] wins, they will form organizations like before, and may attack the minorities.
Video produced by: Susitha Fernando, Joshua Paul, Angad Singh
Edited by: Rachel Win