Weaponising the Muslim vote in Sri Lanka's election

Weaponising the Muslim vote in Sri Lanka's election
Comment: A video produced by Rajapaksa's campaign misleadingly positions him as a candidate who would look out for Sri Lanka's Muslims, writes Tasnim Nazeer.
5 min read
15 Nov, 2019
Sri Lankans go to the polls this Saturday [Getty]
Sri Lankans go to the polls this weekend in what is shaping up to be a decisive presidential election. Seven months after the horrific Easter bombings, the political instability that made them possible, the social tensions and the Islamophobia and discrimination they aggravated all remain unaddressed - an unacceptable state of affairs.

Many Sri Lankans are still reeling from the tragedy, and  members of the Muslim community have found themselves susceptible to discrimination, while trying their best to restore peace and better interfaith relations.

Some of my own family fear going out in public wearing a headscarf, despite the fact that months have now passed since the tragedy. Frustratingly, little has been done to restore harmony or dispel tensions.

There are 35 candidates contesting in this week's election but all eyes are on two in particular - SLPP Sinhalese National Party candidate and former defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Sajith Premadasa, running for the current ruling United National Party (UNP). The pair differ significantly in their political background, values and their links to previous governments.

It is worth noting that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the brother of former prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who governed Sri Lanka for 10 years until the 2015 election. During his premiership, he faced multiple lawsuits involving human rights abuses, corruption and fraud. Under Rajapaksa's rule, hardline group Bodu Bala Sena were given room to flourish and carried out numerous anti-Muslim attacks in towns across the country.

Many Muslims believe that the Rajapaksas deliberately inflamed tensions and hate against minority groups under their rule, and that Muslims experienced heightened levels of persecution during his presidential years.

The Rajapaksas haven't acted against Islamophobia in the past, nor will they do so in the future

For his part, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a longstanding reputation as nationalist, and has been described by Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), as "the most hawkish, the most nationalist, the most ruthless, the closest to the military and the volatile in terms of his temperament, of all the Rajapaksa brothers."

This is a fact known to many in the country and one reason why many Muslims fear the prospect of the Rajapaksa clan's return to power. Their fears are further stoked by the heightened tension Muslim communities have experienced since the Easter bombings, leaving room for voters to support the Rajapaksa campaign, and potentially see Muslims reprimanded in the future.

As a Sri Lankan Muslim myself, I am under no illusion that Rajapaksa's racist and nationalistic values will appeal to some of my fellow citizens. If Rajapaksa does make it into power, we risk reprisals in the form of repression or authoritarianism directed against the Muslim community.

During the 2014 Aluthgama riots, for example, Muslims felt unprotected by police and even accused the government of "enabling the mobs", feeling they had to take security measures into their own hands.

The Rajapaksas have not only stoked Islamophobia, but will never act in the interests of creating harmony, or make any effort to tackle the current spike of anti-Muslim hate. They haven't acted in the past, nor will they do so in the future.

While rival candidate Premadasa has vowed to tackle Islamophobia, Rajapaksa is using propaganda tactics to position himself as being the better choice for Muslims.

Rajapaksa's campaign song video, for example, is frankly laughable for its misrepresentation of how Muslims perceive their party. The video shows a Muslim hijab-wearing woman and a group of Muslim men praying freely with a young boy waving the national flag.

This is a clear misrepresentation of what his party really stands for.

A Rajapaksa government would have no interest in addressing the concerns of minority groups. Instead, the video is a clunky and transparent effort to win votes from the Muslim community, and portray the party in a "new" light, much to the dismay of Muslims on the island who can see through their tactics.

The Rajapaksa campaign has also indirectly intimidated Muslims by stating that it would be "better to be with us than against us". But Muslims in Sri Lanka should not fear being reprimanded for voting for other candidates, should they choose to do so, for voting out of fear will only put the future of a democratic society at risk.

The video is a clunky and transparent effort to win votes from the Muslim community

In contrast, Sajith Premadasa is seen as a "people's candidate", with a reputation for being fair and just, and for garnering support from minority groups. Muslims and Tamils appreciate Premadasa's efforts in actually listening to the ordinary citizens of the country. His dedication to help usher in a more tolerant mode of governance is commendable.

Premadasa has addressed previous anti-Muslim attacks carried out under Mahinda Rajapaksa's rule, such as the Aluthgama riots. He states that, "I will take all steps to usher in a peaceful Sri Lanka, which is now in shambles with various issues politically and globally. I will never betray the trust Buddhists, Muslims and Tamils have on me".

The UNP-led ruling coalition includes partners representing the Muslim and Tamil minorities to give them a chance to share their voices in the political spectrum. Rajapaksa's party are known to appeal to the Sinhala-Buddhist elite and nationalist electorate of the island's south.

Many Muslims fear another authoritarian Rajapaksa government that would ignore minority groups in the country.

It's time Sri Lankans elected a leader who will address security concerns not through authoritarianism but through community building

It's time Sri Lankans elected a leader who will address security concerns not through authoritarianism but through community building and peaceful initiatives.

If Rajapaksa succeeds, our fragile democracy will be in danger and Muslim minorities will face the wrath of his government. It is imperative that every Sri Lankan citizen makes the effort to vote. Ultimately Sri Lanka's minority groups have the most to lose, and a prosperous future depends on a tolerant, democratic society. 

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others. She was awarded the FIPP the global network of media Rising Stars in Media Award 2018.

Follow her on twitter: @tasnimnazeer1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.