Did Sri Lanka’s defeated president leave willingly?

Last Thursday, early presidential elections in Sri Lanka resulted in an upset against the autocratic war criminal President Mahinda Rajapaksa. After a campaign that had clearly (and unexpectedly) trended sharply in favor of the challenger, former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, despite the president vastly outspending the opposing campaign, the final result was estimated to be 51.3%-47.6% in favor of Sirisena.

By early Friday morning, President Rajapaksa had conceded defeat and appeared to be exiting unexpectedly quickly and without fuss.

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa has left Temple Trees a short while ago,” said the statement from Wijeyananada Herath, Mr. Rajapaksa’s media director “President Rajapaksa said he is leaving in order to respect the verdict of the people.”
Mr. Rajapaksa’s son Namal wrote on Twitter that his family had accepted the results. “Thank you to everyone who supported us through these years,” he said. “We respect the voice of the people and Sri Lanka’s great democracy.”

There was immediate local speculation, however, that Rajapaksa had likely been strongly urged by allied authorities to step down immediately, rather than trying to drag things out or stage a coup:

After counting began on Thursday night, [Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo] said, the president must have quickly understood that he had lost the election, and been encouraged to concede by army and police officials.

“I think he saw the writing on the wall,” Mr. Saravanamuttu said. “He would have realized there was a swing. His representatives within the arms of the state would have told him, ‘Look, we are not going to buck the popular will.’”

The incoming president’s team is already vowing an investigation into whether President Rajapaksa attempted to reach out to the country’s security forces, as the election results began rolling in, to solicit their support in remaining in power by force: Read more

Things to think about as Sri Lanka votes

Early presidential elections in Sri Lanka — between the incumbent (increasingly dictatorial) president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his former Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena — have unexpectedly become a nail-biter race.

Some of the Western coverage has focused on the frivolous and bizarre. (For example, the New York Times’s “As Vote Nears, Astrologer for Sri Lanka’s President Faces Ultimate Test of His Skills”.) Some has focused on the president’s troubling alliance with extremist Buddhist/Sinhalese nationalism.

But most importantly, there are reflections on President Rajapaksa’s appalling war crimes during his decisive but extremely violent conclusion to Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war:

By the first few months of 2009, with the [Tamil] Tigers in hopeless retreat, the government declared a series of what they called “no fire zones”, into which they encouraged as many as 400,000 Tamil civilians to gather “for their own safety”.

Government forces then relentlessly shelled these zones
and, as a later UN report concluded, systematically denied them food and humanitarian supplies. The UN estimates that there were “as many as 40,000 civilian deaths in a matter of weeks, most as a result of government shelling. There was also a World Bank estimate that 100,000 civilians were missing after the war.

It takes a special kind of monster to urge civilians into safe zones and then direct military to shell those zones.

President and Mrs. Obama in an official photo with President and Mrs. Rajapaksa at the September 2013 UN General Assembly in New York. (White House Photo)

President and Mrs. Obama in an official photo with President and Mrs. Rajapaksa at the September 2013 UN General Assembly in New York. (White House Photo)