A polarising figure becomes president of Sri Lanka

Nov 21, 2019

THE SYMBOLISM of the venue clanged as clear as a temple bell. For his inauguration on November 18th Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the newly elected president of Sri Lanka, chose a sacred shrine in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. The massive stupa houses relics of the Buddha. More pointedly, in a country often troubled by sectarian rifts, it commemorates the defeat in 140 BC of Elara, a Tamil Hindu king, and the reunification of Sri Lanka under his Sinhalese Buddhist rival, King Dutugemunu.

The ceremony felt like a coronation. The vast mound of the stupa gleamed white, as did the shirts of Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters, setting off the crimson of the processional carpet and of the robes of shaven-headed Buddhist monks thronging to bestow their blessing. Crimson is also a brand marker for the Rajapaksas, chosen by the new president’s uncle to represent the famed red finger millet of their home region in the south of the island.

Mr Rajapaksa won 52% of the vote despite a crowded field. His victory was expected. His family has been in politics since the 1930s. When his brother, Mahinda, this generation’s senior Rajapaksa, ran the country as president from 2005 to 2015, Gotabaya served as his defence chief. He earned a nickname—the Terminator—by overseeing a swift and brutal conclusion to the 26-year civil war. The conflict had...

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