11/20/2019, 16.54
SRI LANKA
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Intellectuals, priests and Tamils fear new ethnic clashes under the new president

by Melani Manel Perera

The former Secretary to the Defence Ministry won with the support of the Sinhalese majority and Buddhist monks. On social media, his supporters are posting hateful comments about Tamils ​​and Muslims. “It is almost the same situation of 2009, when the war was ended,” says one priest.

Colombo (AsiaNews) –Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president brings the real risk of new ethnic and religious divisions, as already evinced by the hateful comments flooding social media, this according to several Sri Lankan intellectuals, clergymen and Tamils.

Speaking to AsiaNews, they expressed their view about the victory of the former secretary to the Defence Ministry, celebrated by majority Sinhalese for defeating Tamil Tigers rebels. The new president won thanks to the vote of Sinhalese Buddhists.

Harini Amarasooriya, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Sustainable Development Studies at the Open University, believes that it is not a good sign that "in the aftermath of the vote, in his maiden speech, he criticised the very right to vote, emphasising racism and that he was able to win thanks to the Sinhalese majority and Buddhist monks.”

According to the scholar, "a president has the responsibility for the entire nation. It is difficult to trust him (the new president), seeing how he started.”

Fr Rohan Dominic, coordinator of the Claretian missionary group at the United Nations, is very “saddened by the environment created after the election.”

Voting is a "democratic exercise,” says the clergyman, with voters expressing their preference for the candidate they think best represents them. But now the “Sinhalese majority that voted for Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa is once again expressing hate and making racist comments in social media and in public. It is almost the same situation of 2009, when the war was ended.” By contrast, “the majority of Tamils who overwhelmingly voted for Sajith Premadasa feel once again insecure, fearful, frightened and scared. It reminds me of the scenario of 2009.”

Since 2009, he notes, "the most recurrent term has been reconciliation.” Thousands of activities have been undertaken to pacify the country, including some by the (Catholic) Bishops' Conference, Caritas, and the Justice and Peace Commissions in all the dioceses. But “What was the effect of all that was done in last ten years? Were all those programmes not the paths for change? Racism and supremacy theories are surfacing again,” he laments.

“We are really disgusted after hearing the first comments by new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” said a Tamil living in the north of the country. “Our people voted for Sajith Premadasa because he addressed our problems and wanted to help us.” Conversely, both “Rajapaksas, Mahinda and Gotabaya, have misled our people with many promises and many useless words.”

For him, “there are two major matters that minorities need to have addressed.  First is the fear for our personal security as a community.” Secondly, “the new president must agree to maintain law and order, respect the rule of law and nurture the country’s pluralistic and democratic values.”

According to Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, “Divisions along ethnic and confessional lines are not new, neither in Sri Lanka nor in other countries;” however, “The [election] results show that ethnic and religious minorities also voted for a candidate from the majority ethnic community.”

“The great chronicle of Sinhalese history has as one of its central themes, the protection of Buddhism and the Sinhalese race from Tamil invasions from South India. President Rajapaksa could have mentioned that when he took the oath of office at the sacred Buddhist temple built nearly two thousand years ago.” Instead, “Rajapaksa was reassuring, asking his supporters to celebrate his victory peacefully.”

At the same time though, "violence is not just physical; it also comes from hateful comments. As a first step, the president must demand the end [of verbal violence], reassure ethnic and religious minorities and bring together the divided country.”

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