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Sri Lankan presidential candidates 'exploiting tragedy'

Rights activist says those who failed to prevent the Easter attacks are now promising to fix security issues

ucanews reporter, Colombo

ucanews reporter, Colombo

Updated: October 18, 2019 08:52 AM GMT
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Sri Lankan presidential candidates 'exploiting tragedy'

Supporters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrate in Colombo on Oct. 4 after a petition challenging his Sri Lankan citizenship was dismissed by a court, freeing the way for him to stand in the Nov. 16 election. He is among those promising to fix the country's security issues. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

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Sri Lankan human rights defender Ruwan Darmasiri says politicians and religious leaders have been using the Easter Sunday attacks to promote the candidates they support in the upcoming presidential election.

Darmasiri said every presidential candidate had exploited the bombings in pursuit of victory in an attempt to make the vote about country’s security while avoiding the real problems facing the country.   

He accused Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of using the killings to promote its candidate, ex-army officer Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and convince the people he was the answer to security issues.

The election campaign has centered on the theme of national security in the wake of the April 21 attacks when a group of nine suicide bombers affiliated with local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) blasted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 259 people and injuring at least 500.

SLPP is led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who nominated Gotabaya, his younger brother and wartime defense secretary. The Rajapaksa family face several court cases over corruption allegations.

“The Easter Sunday blasts left many innocent people dead, many injured and disabled, and destroyed many properties,” said Darmasiri. “The damage was caused because precautions weren’t taken by officials, yet candidates claim in their campaigns they are the answer to the security of the country.”

Sri Lanka will hold presidential elections on Nov. 16. A record of 35 candidates have filed notice of being candidates, including Sajith Premadasa, deputy leader of the ruling United National Front alliance party.

Cardinal also exploited

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has urged political party supporters to refrain from using his name and photographs when promoting their campaigns on social media.

Political party supporters have been using his name and photo in Facebook posts and several users have mentioned his alleged support for their preferred candidate.

Deep ethnic and religious divisions, weak economic growth and corruption are key issues in Sri Lanka.

Cardinal Ranjith announced in July that he would refuse to meet any candidate until the investigation reports into the Easter Sunday attacks were handed over. He further said that there had been a clear attempt to hide the truth as all those responsible had not still been brought to justice.

He didn’t just point the finger at the government — he said the opposition had also shown no real interest in the issue.

Nine Muslim cabinet ministers and junior ministers were forced to resign after the opposition parties accused them of supporting Islamist militants.

Tharuka Jayaneththi, a university student, said people were angered by the government’s inability to prevent the attacks. “People want a strong man back in power who can guarantee their safety,” he said.

Moreover, he said Cardinal Ranjith had never spoken in favor of any particular candidate or party. “The only focus people have is how to acquire power from the election,” he added.

SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa has vowed to appoint an independent commission under his leadership to help secure justice for the Easter Sunday victims.

He said he fully understood the gravity of the situation and promised to do whatever was necessary to prevent it happening again, if elected.

The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, an election watchdog, said it had received 131 complaints of impropriety since the election was announced.

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