Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

Updated 06 January 2015
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Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa will face an unprecedented challenge from a newly galvanised opposition when he seeks re-election this week, five years after his crushing military victory over Tamil guerrillas.
South Asia's longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict and ushering in a new era of prosperity for the island nation.
Rajapaksa won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say the 69-year-old has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.
His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
The surprise decision of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect from the ruling party and stand as the main opposition candidate has turned what might have been a walk-over into a real contest.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said the low-profile Sirisena had become a symbol of simmering discontent over corruption.
"He (Rajapaksa) failed to ensure reconciliation," Ivan said.
"His focus was in mega-highways and ports. That was good for GDP growth, but not enough to heal a society wounded by decades of conflict."
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from close Rajapakse ally China.
But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.
Opposition parties including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.
While he still has support among Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.
The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.
Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
Last week he told voters in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, listing a series of infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged region.
Describing himself as the "known devil", the president urged people not to vote for the "unknown" Sirisena. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me," he said through a translator.
The Tamils could be king-makers if the majority Sinhalese constituency is split down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
"We will vote for Sirisena not because we like him, but because we don't like the president," said Colombo-based Tamil company executive Ratnavale Chandrasekaran.
Rajapakse called snap elections two years ahead of schedule in the hope of preempting an opposition fight-back.
Close associates say the timing was decided partly on advice given by his personal astrologer.
The 69-year-old, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010.
Sirisena's defection was carefully choreographed by Rajapakse's bete noire, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to politics after a nine-year retirement, and has split the ruling party.
A hardline party of Sinhalese Buddhist monks that had cheered Rajapakse's refusal to bow to an international probe defected to the opposition in November, accusing him of unprecedented corruption and nepotism.
The president's eldest brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, another brother Basil is economic development minister while a third, Gotabhaya, serves as the defence secretary.
Other family members dominate state institutions and government-owned companies, with the Rajapakse tentacles extending even to sporting bodies.
Rajapakse himself holds a host of ministerial portfolios including finance, ports and highways.
The pro-government media are predicting a close fight, while diplomats in Colombo say they sense a shift in favour of the opposition.
Last week one of Sirisena's top supporters accused the government of deploying thousands of troops to Tamil-majority areas as part of a strategy to intimidate voters against backing Rajapakse's main challenger.
The military has denied accusations of campaigning for Rajapakse.
As signs of opposition strength grew, the privately-run Sunday Times newspaper questioned the wisdom of Rajapakse's decision to call a snap election.
"It was his own calling," the paper said. "President Mahinda Rajapakse for once goes as the underdog."


Scores dead in bomb attacks across Sri Lankan capital

Updated 2 min 38 sec ago
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Scores dead in bomb attacks across Sri Lankan capital

  • Attacks happened as Christians attended Easter Sunday services
  • Sri Lankan police chief warned of planned attacks by radical Muslim group on ‘prominent churches’ 10 days before deadly blasts

COLOMBO: At least 156 people, including 35 foreigners, were killed in Sri Lanka on Sunday, when a string of blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches as worshippers attended Easter services.

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the blasts as “cowardly” and said the government was working to “contain the situation.”

The public has been told to excercise caution in the following days, with emergency numbers being circulated for people who want to seek help.

The country’s police chief made a nationwide alert 10 days before the blasts that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches,” according to the warning seen by AFP.

Police chief Pujuth Jayasundara sent an intelligence warning to top officers on April 11 setting out the threat.

“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” said the alert.

The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that came to notice last year when it was linked to the vandalization of Buddhist statues.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least 42 people were killed in Colombo, where three hotels and a church were hit.

The first explosions were reported at St. Anthony’s Shrine — a church in Colombo — and St. Sebastian’s Church in the town of Negombo just outside the capital. Dozens of people injured in the St. Anthony’s blast flooded into the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official told AFP.

“A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there,” read a post in English on the Facebook page of the St. Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo.

Shortly after those blasts were reported, police confirmed three hotels in the capital had also been hit, along with a church in Batticaloa.

An official at one of the hotels, the Cinnamon Grand Hotel near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, told AFP that the blast had ripped through the hotel restaurant. He said at least one person had been killed in the blast.

An official at the Batticaloa hospital told AFP more than 300 people had been admitted with injuries following the blast there.

“Emergency meeting called in a few minutes. Rescue operations underway,” Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said in a tweet on his verified account.

He said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St. Anthony’s Shrine, and described “horrible scenes.” “I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners.”

“Please stay calm and indoors,” he added. Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been almost blown off in the blast.

The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood. Several people could be seen covered in blood, with some trying to help those with more serious injuries. The images could not immediately be verified.

Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.