Alan Keenan, project director for Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group (ICG) warns that the return of a Gotabaya presidency has already heightened fears amongst minorities and will lead to losses in terms of "reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations".
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defense Secretary during the final stages of the war which witnessed a litany of human rights violations as well as hundreds of people surrendering to the army during the final stages of conflict to never be seen again. Rajapaksa has been accused of being implicated in the deaths of dozens of journalists as well as their exile.
Keenan writes that Gotabaya announced his candidacy shortly following the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka which took the lives of over 250 civilians. In doing so he "positioned himself as the nation's protector" and accused the government, with little evidence, of weakening state security through the arrest of key intelligence operatives alleged to be implicated in cases of abduction and murder.
The Rajapaksa family are accused of corruption and authoritarian rule. If Gotabaya becomes president it is expected that he will name his brother, and former president, Mahinda as prime minister as there is a limit to the period he could rule as president. Keenan maintains that a return to Rajapaksa rule would "bring more of the same".
Gotabaya is the front-runner in the presidential election and is expected to gain heavily from a staunch Sinhala nationalist base as well as middle-class voters who appreciate redevelopment projects. They, Keenan states, see Gotabya as someone who "gets things done".
Minority communities such as the Muslim community are especially fearful of Gotabya's return given his support for militant Buddhist groups. These groups have a history of anti-muslim attacks such as in 2013 and 2014. Keenan further notes that politicians from Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019. Gotabaya has denied links with hard-line Buddhist groups.
In Keenan's statement, he references a widely circulated video in which Ali Sabry, a member of Gotabaya's legal team and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP, warned a Muslim audience that if they did not vote for Gotabaya they would suffer a "beaten a lot".
Read more here: “If we don’t support him, what will happen?” - Ali Sabry
Reflecting on the UNP's candidate Sajith Premadasa, Keenan notes private polling, run by largely pro-Rajapaksa media, positions Premadasa as an "underdog". Whilst smaller party candidates could form a "significant block of anti-Rajapaksa votes", Keenan is sceptical of the promises of a Premadasa presidency. He writes;
A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation.
Keenan further maintains that Sirisena administration ultimately failed, "to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk".
The statement concludes;
Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
Read the International Crisis Group's full statement here.