Media Blitzkrieg from Keenan, Al-Jazeera et al: Fear Gota

THUPPAHI NOTE: A fear psychosis is being spread through the airwaves and web-routes by powerful players  who present a picture of Gotabaya as a potential dictator …. and even deploy the fallacious readings of the death-toll in Eelam War IV perpetrated by the drawing room boffins[1] who constituted the UN Panel of Experts (Darusman, Sooka et al) as one pillar in this campaign  (see ………… for this dimension). Note that Alan Keenan’s essay is sponsored by the Lowy Institute.[2] Do read these items with a discerning eye and form your own conclusions.

ONE: Asad Hashim In Sri Lanka, fear and uncertainty ahead of presidential vote,” 15 November 2019,

At Kesbewa, a suburb ofSri Lanka‘s capital Colombo, thousands of supporters of the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna (SLPP) party wait for hours in the driving rain for the man they believe will be the country’s next president. Clad in maroon party shirts, they wave flags and cardboard cut-outs of the young lotus, the party’s symbol. Minutes later, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the SLPP’s candidate for president and brother to former two-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa, arrived to raucous cheers as fireworks went off and many supporters lit bright red flares.

“Put your trust in me,” he told them, closing out what has been a hectic six weeks of official campaigning. “Make sure that you take care of your responsibility. [I promise] a safe country, a prosperous country and a confident nation.”

About 20km away, green fairy lights were strung across what is normally a busy commercial road in the heart of Colombo’s Maradana area, as thousands of supporters of the SLPP’s rival United National Party (UNP) awaited their candidate, Sajith Premadasa.

Clad in a white shirt and garlanded with flowers and a green shawl, Premadasa told supporters the UNP – which has controlled parliament since 2015 – will usher in a new era of prosperity.

“We will start a new era within a united Sri Lanka by strengthening national security, protecting sovereignty and integrity, safeguarding political freedom, and giving prominence to Buddhism, while also protecting other religions,” he said.

  Supporters of Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party (UNP) cheer at the final election campaign rally in Colombo [Indunil Usgoda Arachchi/Reuters]

Sri Lankans go to the polls on Saturday in an election that has seen an energetic – and, at times, ethnically divisive – campaign between the two frontrunners, Premadasa and Rajapaksa.  Premadasa, representing the ruling party, has built his campaign on promising a mixture of continuity and new leadership. Rajapaksa, a former defence chief under whom Sri Lanka’s 26-year war with Tamil rebels ended, has promised a return to the policies of his brother Mahinda, who many rights groups accused of widespread violations during his 10-year rule.

Showdown with PM?

Whoever wins, a showdown with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be on the cards, with Rajapaksa likely to attempt to unseat him, while Premadasa has also promised to replace the powerful UNP leader.

In October last year, outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena attempted just that, dismissing Wickremesinghe through a presidential order and appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa – Gotabaya’s brother – in his place, a move that prompted weeks of political unrest and was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court.  “If Gotabaya [Rajapaksa] wins, […] they will be faced with the same situation they had before: how do you get rid of the PM,” said Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Sri Lanka project director.

In Sri Lanka, presidential election deepens religious divisions

Sri Lanka will hold a parliamentary election following the presidential vote, but it cannot legally be held before February.  “How do you buy and cajole and threaten enough people in parliament to switch sides to have a no-confidence vote [against PM Wickremesinghe]?” asked Keenan.  He pointed out that for Premadasa, who may belong to the same party as the prime minister but has had serious differences with him, including on his own presidential nomination, will also try to distance himself from the previous government.

“Morally, it makes it harder for Sajith Premadasa to say he will bring in a new government, because he will be stuck with the same PM who is unpopular, or he will have to find a plan to eject him.”

Sluggish economy worries 

For voters, questions of constitutionality appear to be far from the top of their electoral priorities. The South Asian country has faced sluggish economic growth in recent years, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimating that gross domestic product growth in 2019 will slow further to 2.7 percent.   Burdened with $34.4bn in foreign debt (38 percent of GDP) – much of it owed to China for projects undertaken during the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government – the government has struggled to pay back loans while also generating jobs and income.

“The cost of living is very high, and the youth are not able to get jobs,” said MB Nandipala, 75, a retired factory worker who supports Gotabaya Rajapaksa.   Premadasa supporters, too, said they were feeling the economic pinch and were hoping his leadership could help steer the UNP government towards better policies.

  A rally in support of Gotabaya Rajapaksa rally in the Kesbewa suburb of Colombo. The controversial former defence minister is campaigning to become Sri Lanka’s next president. [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

“Poverty is the biggest problem facing Sri Lanka right now,” said Melanie Perera, 46, a tailor who supports Premadasa for president. “We hope that there will be jobs created.”

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said there was not much to choose between the two candidates’ economic plans.    “They are both sort of very [similar] – the two of them believe that poverty is the main issue in the country and that it needs to be gotten rid of through discipline and economic rights,” he told Al Jazeera.

Divisive campaign on ‘national security’ 

In April, a series of six coordinated bombings hit three churches and as many luxury hotels rocked Sri Lanka, killing more than 269 people and wounding at least 500 others. The attacks shattered the calm and relative security the island nation had enjoyed in the 10 years since the end of the war with Tamil rebels.

Almost immediately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his intention to run for president, predicated on the stance that he and his brother had ended the war against the Tamils and could deliver strong leadership.    “We were introducing a clear programme to ensure security of this country after we ended terrorism,” he told the crowd in Kesbewa on Wednesday. “But this government … failed to give prominence to national security. That is why bombs started to go off again in this country.”

Rajapaksa is supported by a number of Buddhist monks, many of whom have backed strong security actions against the country’s roughly 10 percent Muslim population. Premadasa, too, has been backed by monks, although his agenda has not been as identified with the strand of Sinhalese nationalism that has run through the Rajapaksa campaign.

“This is the only Sinhalese country in the world,” said DW Danushka, 32, a Rajapaksa supporter at a recent rally. “The minorities also live in this country, but they should stay in a certain way. We should live in harmony, but Buddhists should be given priority.”  

In the background, a Rajapaksa campaign song played over an array of speakers: “If we are divided, we will be destroyed”.  Non-Sinhalese on the island say they fear the consequences of another Rajapaksa presidency, given widespread allegations of war crimes – including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests – made during the previous Rajapaksa government.

Ahilan Kadirgamar, a prominent academic in the northern city of Jaffna, said the later years of the Mahinda Rajapaksa era were characterised by an attempt to “construct Muslims as the new enemy”. A recent ICG report documents numerous incidents of violence directed at Muslims since 2011, which saw a resurgence following the Easter Sunday attacks. “The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists,” said a statement released by the ICG on Wednesday.

In the north, dominated by the country’s roughly 11 percent Tamil minority, Kadirgamar expects most people will vote against Rajapaksa.  “I think this election for the Tamil voters in particular, and generally the north, is going to be a major protest vote against Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” he told Al Jazeera. He was defence secretary who … was responsible in the last days of the war and he oversaw post-war repression and militarisation [of the north] in the five years after the war.”

Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a law professor at the University of Jaffna, said he did not expect either candidate to seriously engage with Tamil voters’ issues, including the decentralisation of power and accountability for alleged war crimes committed by the military.

“For the Tamils, presidential elections ave always been a matter of choosing the lesser devil, particularly after the war,” said Guruparan. “None of the candidates would come forward to talk about solutions to the national questions, of war crimes, accountability, and the specific needs of northeast when it comes to post-war development.”

Saravanamuttu believes that the island’s non-Sinhalese-Buddhist minorities, which make up roughly 25 percent of the population, could be decisive, but are unlikely to benefit regardless of who wins.  “The Sinhalese majority will be split about 50-50, and the minorities will be decisive but will get nothing out of the result,” he predicted.

Potential ‘spoilers’ 

Sri Lanka’s presidential vote is conducted under a contingent vote system, where voters express their top three preferences for president. If one candidate is unable to attain more than 50 percent of the vote, the votes of those who listed them as their second preference will be added to the tallies of the top two candidates to pick a winner.

In such a situation, analysts say, voters are being forced to think strategically about who they back.  Two other candidates –  Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) and Mahesh Senanayake of the National People’s Movement (NPM) – have emerged with the possibility of breaking either candidates’ vote bank, they say.   “If it becomes a close election, the extent to which the JVP’s Dissanayake or the former army commander Senanayake take away votes from Premadasa or Rajapaksa could prove crucial in terms of who wins,” said Guruparan.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Thursday, Senanayake, who retired as army chief in August, said while he did not expect to win, he was determined to run as “an apolitical candidate”.  “It is not about winning [necessarily], it is about exhibiting our protest against the [political] system,” he said.

Back at the rally in Kesbewa, as Gotabaya Rajapaksa descended the metal stairs to head to his next campaign rally, a voice boomed over the speakers exhorting people to stay in their seats.  “The honourable Mahinda Rajapaksa […] will be arriving soon,” said the announcer.

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TWO: Alan Keenan:Sri Lanka’s election threatens a return to authoritarian rule,” 13 Nov 2019, in The Interpreter, … published by the Lowy Institute Sydney

A looming comeback by the powerful Rajapaksa family stirs fear among minorities and imperils fragile democratic gains

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression.

During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north-east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains.

Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Displaced ethnic Tamil women and children wait for access to a free government clinic in eastern Sri Lanka, December 2006. The scars of the civil war, which ended with the defeat of Tamil separatists in 2009, remain close to the surface

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya, hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins.

In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees, and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution.

Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder, and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

Supporters hold placards of presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans.

During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

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.

For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

THREE: Sri Lanka Campaign = A Decade of Impunity: unlocking accountability for the victims of Sri Lanka’s killing fields”

This Saturday, Sri Lankans will head to the polls to select a new President: the culmination of a high-stakes election battle dominated by questions of national security and economic development. Strikingly absent from the campaign trail has been any meaningful discussion of the enduring legacy of Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war in 2009, and the concerns of those most affected by it.

Today we publish a major new report that aims to redress that imbalance. A decade after the war’s end, we speak to ten Tamils who lived through and survived the final stages of the armed conflict in 2009, re-tracing allegations of serious human rights violations through the eyes of those who witnessed them first-hand, and asking the vitally important (but largely neglected) question of what can be done to ensure that those responsible for some of the worst atrocity crimes of the 21stcentury are one day held accountable.

Read ‘A Decade of Impunity: unlocking accountability for the victims of Sri Lanka’s killing fields’

As the current candidates vie, in the words of one front-runner, to become “the president of the future of Sri Lanka”, our findings underscore that many of those most affected by the war are yet to be allowed to move on from the past. Today, nearly five years after Sri Lanka’s incoming coalition government promised change – and four years since it pledged before the international community to confront allegations of war-time abuses – many survivors feel angry and let down about the shocking lack of progress in bringing perpetrators of grave human rights abuses to justice.

While Sri Lanka’s political leaders are the principal target of blame for this failure, our research reveals a clear and growing sense of frustration directed towards the international community – an international community who, despite previously placing the concerns of war-affected communities firmly on the agenda, are perceived as having failed to apply the pressure needed to bring about decisive change. And yet notwithstanding this sense of missed opportunity – and the dismay with which activists have observed the government of Sri Lanka’s recent efforts to position itself as a champion of human rights on the world stage – many do still retain a belief that members of the international community are, or can be, important and effective players in the fight for justice.

Where there is disappointment, so too there is fear. Several of those whom we spoke to signaled a sense of alarm about what the possible return of members of the former regime, including those implicated in serious human rights abuses, could spell for the immediate future. While many victims and survivors have seized the modest increases in democratic space since 2015 to speak up for their rights, there is now concern that this openness could leave some exposed to the risk of reprisals. There is an overarching worry, too, that Sri Lanka’s unaddressed culture of impunity for war-time violations could provide fertile soil for further ethnic violence down the line.

As a non-partisan organisation, we take no view as to how, or whether, Sri Lankans should vote this Saturday. But whichever candidate succeeds, it is clear that war-affected communities and members of the international community will face huge challenges to ensure that the grave abuses of the past are not ignored by Sri Lanka’s newly elected President. Survivors have not forgotten, and nor should we.

That is why we have set out a blueprint for action by members of the international community in our report,one that must begin with a frank acknowledgement of the failure of recent attempts to lay the foundations for sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, and a re-focusing of minds on the issue of accountability. To that end, we highlight some of the options available to policy-makers in the context of limited domestic political will to tackle impunity. We look, in particular, at ways in which accountability-seeking efforts can be enhanced – including through the establishment of mechanisms (already in place in other contexts) for collecting and preserving evidence of atrocity crimes, as well as the pursuit of justice beyond Sri Lanka’s borders via universal jurisdiction. We also consider the need for forms of engagement which deprive alleged perpetrators of legitimacy and material support, and which ensure that the government of Sri Lanka’s participation in global human rights and peacebuilding bodies is commensurate with its record on these issues at home.

Click here to read the report

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END NOTES from Editor, Thuppahi

[1] Apart from the fact that the team was appointed by Navy Pillai of the UN secretariat (with grounds for us to consider the goals as already determined), The Panel (a) did not visit Sri Lanka and review the terrain of war and (b( was made up of drawing room bourgeoisie with absolutely no experience of war and the sort of pragmatics of death outlined by Narendran Rajasingham and others.  Signficanylt The “Sr I Lankan Campaign” has not consulted th e review of the UNPoE by a competent Marga team that included Godfrey Gunatilleka and Padraig Michael O’Leary as well as an experienced ex-soldier, David Blacker.

[2] Quite recently the Lowy Institute also sponsored an article by one Taylor Dibbert which was another assassination job marked by flawed reasoning and a (deliberate?) bypassing of not only my own writings but a whole range of articles by the Marga team as well as Mango and Citizen Silva (both individuals working in Britain who had to protect their jobs via anonymity …but hose capacities of analysis are evident in their products).

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