By Nisthar Cassim
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his ally Ali Sabry PC, made a very strong and seemingly compelling case for the Muslim community to back the former last week at the packed National Muslim Collective Forum at the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, with a key highlight being the continuous applause for various statements made by both Rajapaksa and Sabry.
“Under my leadership, I will leave no room for any form of extremism or terrorism by any group,” Rajapaksa said, drawing applause. “I will ensure trust among all communities, promote harmonious co-existence so all can live with dignity as Sri Lankans. We will ensure an environment in which all can follow their religion, do their businesses well, and be gainfully employed. This I will wholeheartedly promise,” he added.
“Trust me,” Rajapaksa appealed to Muslims, adding that any responsibility assigned to him in the past had been 100% fulfilled by him. This remark too was applauded by the audience.
“This new mandate I am seeking is not from one community, but from all Sri Lankan Buddhists, Tamils, and Muslims. I will rebuild the economy and ensure security for all, so trust me and support me,” reiterated Rajapaksa during his speech.
Earlier on, Sabry in his remarks said that over 35% of Muslims had turned to Rajapaksa, a reason why his lawyer said the event had been titled ‘Turning Point’. Sabry said the goal was to increase Muslim support to over 50%.
However, Rajapaksa during his speech quipped: “I am surprised why 35%, as I think 65% of the Muslims support me now” – again drawing applause at the forum, at which former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was also present.
To drive home the point about security and safety, a key concern following the Easter Sunday tragedy, Rajapaksa said he personally knew how terrorism had destroyed Sri Lanka, and also how difficult it was to defeat it.
“So I assure that I will not let terrorism rise again in Sri Lanka,” he reiterated, to applause from the audience. “We must appreciate the value of the peace we won, and it must be preserved, as without peace there cannot be real socioeconomic progress,” he added.
Rajapaksa said it was for this reason that the then-Government strengthened security after defeating terrorism, although ordinary people didn’t understand it properly.
“Security is not something that can be taken for granted, which is why the current Government failed, and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE, the country was devastated by attacks by another extremist terrorist group.”
Rajapaksa said following an incident such as the Easter Sunday attacks, it was only natural suspicion and distrust among communities to return. “It is the responsibility of the Government to create conditions to build trust and strengthen security,” he emphasised.
The former Defence Secretary recalled that, despite allegations, the then-Government didn’t work against any community. “We didn’t fight the Tamil people, but we fought and defeated terrorism. Thereafter we ensured benefits to Tamil people, with rapid socio-economic development post-war,” he added.
Sabry, in his remarks, said the tide had turned and claimed Muslim backing for Rajapaksa was on the rise. This remark drew widespread applause. “This is long coming,” Sabry added.
Asserting that Muslims were proud Sri Lankans, he said: “We are first Sri Lankans. We are proud we are born in this blessed country. We are not interested in giveaways. Hopefully we can look after ourselves. We don’t go behind people and ask with a begging bowl. What we need is someone who will empower the community, who will get this economy going. That’s the kind of leader the Muslim community is looking for.”
He pointed out that what was expected from a Government was stability, national security for all, communal harmony, progress and prosperity.
Sabry stressed that no Government should permit any sort of extremism, be it Sinhala, Muslim or Tamil. “We don’t want anything above or below the law. We want equality. We want dignity,” Sabry said, adding that after 21/4, it seemed as if there was a seal on the face of every Muslim, as if all Muslims were part of a terrorist organisation.
“Muslims have lived for 1,100 years in Sri Lanka without getting involved in extremism,” he said, claiming that despite 97 different intelligence reports, the current Government had failed the country and the people, as a result of which the Easter Sunday tragedy happened, and the entire Muslim community was being looked down upon as if it was part of terrorism.
“We Muslims do not, nor will we, approve of any form of terrorism,” Sabry reiterated at the National Muslim Collective Forum, drawing applause.
He questioned how the 19 Muslim Ministers could remain in Government, after it had failed to act on intelligence reports, and when the entire Muslim community was under unnecessary suspicion.
“Before they ask other Muslims with what conscience they are supporting Gotabaya, I like to ask these Muslim Ministers to question themselves, and ask whether they are in the right path or whether we are,” Sabry pointed out as the audience clapped.
“There is a lot of support and a growing consensus among Muslims that they can’t work with race-based, ethnic-based parties. We must work with national parties and the majority. Over 35% of the Muslims are supporting Gotabaya. Our attempt is to achieve 50%, and God willing we can achieve that, and an administration under Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a real possibility,” Sabry said, claiming the SLPP candidate would secure the required votes to win the Presidential Poll.
He also used the speech to tell Gotabaya Rajapaksa about the expectations of the Muslim community.
“Muslims need to live with dignity and respect. Ensure communal harmony and security; that is all we want. The rest of it we can look after ourselves because we love this country,” he said.
Going macro, Sabry also said Sri Lanka needed a President who was a real leader with a proven track record, hence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the right choice. “When all pundits and the West said terrorism could not be defeated, Gotabaya Rajapaksa defied and proved the world wrong, and singlehandedly defeated the terrorists,” Sabry recalled.
Countering the allegation that Rajapaksa was anti-Muslim, Sabry claimed the Rajapaksas were the closest to the Muslims among the present lot of political leaders.
“If someone says the UNP, which is closest to the West, is best at looking after Muslim interests, it is a myth, and Muslims are being taken for a ride. They (UNP) will never look after the Muslims, but have a different agenda. Mahinda Rajapaksa has been fighting for the Palestinian cause for decades, and there is even a street named after Mahinda Rajapaksa in Palestine, and Gotabaya is his brother,” Sabry emphasised.
The National Muslim Collective Forum was also told that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a meritocrat. “For him, what matters is ability, loyalty, and sincerity. Let us hope we will have a great future together. It was one person who transformed countries. It was Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia, and General Park in South Korea. Sri Lanka will be turned around by Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” Sabry said, eliciting applause.
Western Province Governor A.J.M. Muzammil, who in his greetings before the speech identified Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the audience as the seventh president of Sri Lanka, said the choice for Muslims on 16 November was easy, and it was Rajapaksa.
He claimed that Sajith Premadasa lacked vision and acumen, unlike Gotabaya, and assured that under the leadership of the latter, all communities would benefit. “Don’t fear or doubt,” Muzammil told Muslims, saying Rajapaksa would usher security and prosperity to all.
He also said “with almighty Allah’s blessings on 17 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be President,” and come 18 November, there will be another milestone, with birthday boy Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister.
Faiszer Musthapha and Razik Zarook were among others who spoke.