Sri Lankans have voted for Gothabaya Rajpaksa, a hero who ended the 30-year ethnic war with the Tamil Tigers when he was Defence Secretary, as their President after he promised to equally ruthlessly put down the new threat from Islamic terror groups in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombing in churches in Colombo and elsewhere last April that killed over 260.
Younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gothabaya renounced his US citizenship early this year mainly to contest the election. Like Mahinda, he has won mainly on the vote of the majority Sinhalese. The minority Tamils never voted for Mahinda in the two elections that he won in 2005 and 2010. They are accusing Mahinda as well as Gothabaya of war crimes.
This time around, Tamil speaking Muslims also have joined hands with the minority Tamils in voting against Gothabaya as they fear that he will further sharpen the divide between Muslims and Buddhists as many Muslims in Colombo as well as in eastern Batticaloa faced the heat of the security forces after the Easter Sunday bombings.
As minority communities account for 20 percent, Gothabaya has cruised home with a 52.5 percent vote, in a closely fought election in which the winner has to get 50 per cent plus vote.
Contesting on behalf of the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana ( Sri Lanka People’s Front), he has defeated his nearest United National Party rival Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Pramadasa, by 13 lakh votes or ten percent margin.
It is a repeat of history and India has once again backed the wrong horse. It tried to undermine Ranasinghe Premadasa after he got elected in 1989, because he was opposed to India-Sri Lanka peace agreement and wanted the Indian army to leave.
It worked against Mahinda when he wrested the Sri Lanka Freedom Party from former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and won in 2005 and again in 2010. After the war ended India mended fences with Mahinda as it could reach out to the Tamils only through him in reconstruction of the northern province after the end of the war.
It accused Mahinda of pro-China tilt after he awarded the Hambantota port to it in a 99-year lease. Mahinda went to China after India showed no interest.
India has always been seen as a big brother and a meddlesome neighbor by successive rulers except for Ranil Wickremasinghe who as Prime Minister was friendly.
Gothabaya entered the race by promising that “we will not allow outsiders to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs”. He meant, more than India, the more imminent threat from Islamic terror groups like IS.
Mahinda, congratulating the people for voting for Gothabaya, has however said they have defeated backroom manouvres by vested interests “to promote religious and ethnic chauvinism for narrow political purposes”.
Gothabaya’s immediate challenge is to remove Constitution 19th amendment that has fettered the wide powers that executive President enjoyed so far. It was enacted during the presidency of Maithrapala Sirisena when he headed a national government of UNP-SLPP coalition from 2005 to 2009.
Gothabaya accordingly has promised “to introduce Constitutional and legal reforms” to give a direction to governance as it had “drifted for the past five years”. He has also said he will give priority to reviving the economy.
Gothabaya has said he will not abide by the resolution introduced by Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015 under international pressure to go into human rights violations during the final phase of the war with the LTTE which ended with the elimination of V Prabhakaran in May 2009.
Gothabaya’s victory is a reassertion of majoritarianism seen in the region and elsewhere in the world. In such a situation, Tamils have to be content with provincial autonomy that the India-Sri Lanka peace agreement has brought about in 1987. Like their counterpart in India, Tamil speaking Muslims in Sri Lanka remain defenceless.
The only minority group unaffected is the plantation Tamils of Indian origin. Having lived in Central Hills amidst Sinhalese, they have always gone with the government in power. They will continue to look to Colombo and New Delhi to protect their interests.