The generally volatile ambience in the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is ever so fraught with Sunday’s election of the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to the office of President. The voters have opted for the Rajapaksa family and it would be no exageration to aver that this augurs ominously. The 2015 presidential election was heralded as the start of a new era. Strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated when Maithripala Sirisena, a senior figure within his own party, joined forces with the opposition United National Party. The opportunity was largely squandered.
The full extent of dysfunction was exposed last year when Mr Sirisena ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed his old foe Mr Rajapaksa ~ only for Parliament to revolt and the Supreme Court to reinstate Mr Wickremesinghe. But the true cost became even clearer when Isis-inspired bombings killed 269 people during Easter this year, and catastrophic intelligence and police failures were subsequently exposed. In Sri Lanka’s game of musical chairs, quite the most critical feature of the fallout must be that the Rajapaksa family has been returned to power. Jolted by the Easter frenzy this year, the country has of course elected a strong man.
The distressing facet being that Gotabaya “Gota” Rajapaksa of the Sinhalese- Buddhist nationalist SLPP, who served as defence minister under his brother, faces lawsuits relating to torture, fraud and corruption. Arguably, he is below the benchmark to helm any country for that matter. He wants Mahinda, unable to run again due to term limits, as his Prime Minister. The Rajapaksas oversaw the end to the decades-long civil war. That “achievement” of sorts has been trashed by one UN report mentioning that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians died in its final months. Tamil politicians were murdered and thousands of Sri Lankans disappeared.
The families of the bereaved have accused Gotabaya of war cimes. His record is distressing, almost criminal, and hideously so. Ergo, a change of guard in the presidential palace in Colombo does not readily inspire optimism. Arguably, it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. And it shall not be easy for Gotabaya to live down the charge of ethnic cleansing, decidedly one of the worst in the subcontinent, embedded as it was in the religious divide. Credited with terminating the 30-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Taml Eeelum, Gotabaya has been greeted variously.
He is intensely distrusted by the Tamils of Sri Lanka, though hailed as a “war hero” by Sinhalese Buddhists. The contrasting responses to his election just about sum the fundamental malaise in a divided country, and there wil be a red herring too many on the President’s trail. Wooing the Sinhalese Buddhists is bound to alienate the Tamils further still. A vigorous crackdown on the latter will “restore” Sri Lanka on a powder-keg.