Symbolic swearing-in for Sri Lanka’s new strongman

ANURADHAPURA, SRI LANKA (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in yesterday at a temple revered by his core Sinhalese nationalist supporters, following an election victory that triggered fear and concern among the island’s minority communities.

Rajapaksa’s landslide win split the nation of 21.6 million people on religious and ethnic lines as never before, seven months after deadly extremist attacks rocked the country.

The former defence secretary is lauded by his majority Sinhala community for leading a no-holds-barred military campaign that crushed Tamil rebels and ended a 37-year separatist war in 2009 when his brother was president. Rajapaksa took his oath of office at an ancient temple at Anuradhapura, in the northern part of the island.

He did so facing the temple’s stupa, which is the tallest in Sri Lanka and dates back more than two millennia.

The imposing structure is said to have been built by a Sinhalese king who is venerated by Sri Lankans for vanquishing an invading south Indian Tamil ruler.

Around 40,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly killed at the end of the civil war in 2009.

Last Saturday’s election saw the country’s Tamils, who account for about 15 per cent of the population, vote overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa.

During his brother’s 2005-15 presidency Gotabaya had unfettered control over security forces, while “death squads” that abducted dozens of dissidents, opponents, journalists and others also allegedly reported to him.

Sri Lanka’s new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signs documents during his swearing-in ceremony at the Ruwanwelisaya temple in Anuradhapura. PHOTO: AFP