As the outcome of Saturday’s presidential polls in Sri Lanka became clear, some voters’ message to the winner Gotabaya Rajapaksa was even clearer.
The island’s minority Tamils and Muslims, most of whom live in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, had voted decisively for ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa, giving him over a million votes — about 80% of the vote share in the regions.
In effect, they had rejected Mr. Rajapaksa, a powerful former defence secretary accused of war-crimes — which he has denied — and linked to reactionary anti-Muslim groups.
“We respect the mandate of the people of the country and congratulate Mr. Rajapaksa, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that he polled so low in the two provinces. This is an issue we must address, and he must engage with elected representatives of the minorities,” Jaffna legislator and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran said.
According to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem, a Minister in the incumbent government, the voting pattern demonstrated “a deeper polarisation” of communities. Pointing to “many challenges” and “hard decisions” ahead, he said the most urgent priority was to maintain law and order, respect rule of law and nurture the country’s pluralistic and democratic values.
“We fervently hope for peace and amity, restoration of harmony and lasting goodwill among all communities under your administration,” he said in a letter to President-elect Mr. Rajapaksa.
For Tamils, Mr. Rajapaksa’s former avatar brings back disturbing memories of stifling military surveillance and many enforced disappearances — for which families are still seeking answers. The brutal finish to the war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, took away lives of tens of thousands of civilians and the wounds have hardly healed in the last decade.
For Muslims, on the other hand, it is fear, according to N.M. Ameen, President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council. The post-war years saw frequent attacks on Muslims and the Easter bombings in April made the community a target of hate and violence unleashed by hard-line groups.
“Even if people don’t associate Mr. Rajapaksa with the anti-Muslim attacks that followed Easter, they fear that forces behind them might feel emboldened under his presidency,” he said.
Mr. Rajapaksa knows this, as his tweet on Sunday indicated.
“I am the President of not only those who voted for me but also those who voted against me and irrespective of which race or religion they belong to,” the newly-elected leader said.
“That is a very welcome message and shows his willingness to reach out,” Mr. Ameen noted. “National leadership in a plural country like ours only grows stronger with the support of all communities.”