Sri Lanka’s new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has urged minorities — who emphatically voted against him in the recent election — to work with him to build the country.
Mr. Gotabaya was sworn in on Monday, following a huge win in the November 16 presidential poll, with 52.25% votes.
Beating his main challenger Sajith Premadasa by a margin of more than 13 lakh votes, he paved the way for his family’s return to power, five years after his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was dislodged from office.
Mr. Gotabaya succeeds President Maithripala Sirisena, who did not seek re-election.
“The main message of the election is that it was the Sinhala majority vote that allowed me to win the presidency,” the former Defence Secretary said. “I knew that I could win with only the votes of the Sinhala majority. But I asked Tamils and Muslims to be a part of my success. Their response was not what I expected. However, I urge them to join me to build one Sri Lanka,” he said in a televised speech.
Emphasising national security as a top priority, the 70-year-old President vowed to rebuild the state security structure. Speaking of a non-aligned foreign policy approach, Mr. Gotabaya said: “We will remain neutral in our foreign relations and stay out of any conflict of world powers.”
Fielded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Party), Mr. Gotabaya campaigned on a plank of enhanced national security — a dominant concern for many citizens after the Easter terror attacks in April — development, and prosperity for citizens. He beat the incumbent United National Party’s Mr. Premadasa with a decisive mandate, mostly from the country’s Sinhala-majority areas.
On Monday, he was sworn in near the Ruwanwelisaya, a Buddhist shrine in the historic city of Anuradhapura in the island’s North Central Province. The symbolism was hard to miss.
Considered a sacred site by Buddhists, the shrine was reputedly built by Sinhalese King Dutugemunu. According to popular legend, Dutugemunu defeated Elara — a Tamil prince from the Chola kingdom — more than 2,000 years ago, and reigned as the king of entire Lanka.
The site has remained powerful and symbolic in the stage of Sinhala-Buddhist political history, according to Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, a historian at the University of Colombo. “There are many mythical constructs around Dutugemunu that some historians are sceptical of,” he told The Hindu .
However, the king “defeating” the Tamil prince became a “paradigmatic” event in popular Sinhala-Buddhist perception and “whoever is trying to defeat a perceived enemy is seen by some as a reincarnation of the king,” he said. “The image was invoked when they [Rajapaksa administration] defeated Prabhakaran [LTTE] too.”
The choice of venue and the symbolism around it, Mr. Dewasiri said, went in line with Mr. Gotabaya’s vote base this election, which was “overwhelmingly” Sinhala-Buddhist.