Voters looking for decisive leadership . . .
Former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in today as Sri Lanka’s new president, having won an election on Saturday with a 52 per cent majority. Rajapaksa appealed to the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, promising increased national security in the aftermath of the ISIS-linked Easter bombings, which killed 259. Although Rajapaksa is suspected of corruption and having committed war crimes during the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009), his national security message, as well as his strongman image, seem to have resonated with voters.
All in the family . . .
Gotabaya’s election likely signals a consolidation of political power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family. His brother Mahinda, who served as president from 2005-2015, is positioning himself to be the next prime minister. Several other members of the Rajapaksa clan are also expected to be given government positions. Having Gotabaya at the helm is alarming to the country’s ethnic Tamils, who experienced forced disappearances and human rights abuses when he served as defense minister during his brother's presidency. The Muslim minority is also feeling anxious; Rajapaksa enjoys strong support among Buddhist nationalists, some of whom have been taking a hard line against Muslims, especially after the Easter bombings.
Turn toward Beijing, away from reconciliation . . .
The election result will likely impact Sri Lanka’s foreign relations in two ways. First, Rajapaksa vowed to strengthen ties with China, an economy to which Sri Lanka is heavily indebted. Colombo’s inability to repay its loans to Beijing is frequently cited as an example of ‘debt-trap diplomacy,’ which ended with the transfer of Hambantota Port to Chinese control in 2017. Second, in 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored UNHRC resolution 30/1, aimed at promoting post-civil war reconciliation and accountability. After the previous government failed to act on the resolution, the deadline was extended, mostly recently in February. Rajapaksa said he will not comply with the resolution. That could cause a rift with some members of the international community, including Canada, which has a large Tamil diaspora and its own ongoing experience with truth and reconciliation.
- Al Jazeera: In Sri Lanka, presidential election deepens religious divisions
- Nikkei Asian Review: Who are the Rajapaksas?
- Reuters: Sri Lanka presidential nominee would restore relations with China: Adviser