ReutersBERUWALA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) — Sri Lanka presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been a polarizing figure for much of his political life. It is an image he is trying to change.
When he was defense chief in his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government he crushed ethnic Tamil separatist rebels, bringing a 26-year-long civil war to a close. But relatives of dead or missing Tamils have accused him of war crimes, including extra-judicial killings and abductions, in lawsuits filed against him in the United States.
Rajapaksa has denied the accusations.
His failure to publicly distance himself from radical Buddhist monks makes him a figure of suspicion in the minority Muslim community, as well as among some in the small Christian community.
In 2013, he was chief guest at the opening of a leadership academy run by a hardline Buddhist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Groups such as BBS see the minorities as a potential threat to the Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka.
But that hasn’t stopped Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party from seeking to woo Muslim and Christian voters after he recently declared he was standing in the election due to be held by Dec. 9.
His overtures might work in parts of the Christian community fearful after Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels by Islamist militants that killed 250 people.
Some Christians say they are looking for stronger security policies, even if that means going with a hardliner like Rajapaksa.
But Muslims are less convinced because they suspect a Rajapaksa government may turn a blind eye to attacks by Buddhist extremists. That is what some say happened in 2014 when anti-Muslim riots in the southwestern Kalutara district displaced thousands during the time of his brother’s presidency.
A spokesman for the Rajapaksa’s SLPP, Keheliya Rambukwella, said the riots were orchestrated to turn Muslims away from the Rajapaksa camp.
As a politician who respected all communities and religions, Rajapaksa was doing the “right thing” by visiting houses of worship, Rambukwella said.