Sri Lanka holds presidential elections on Saturday with a possible comeback by the powerful Rajapaksa clan sparking fears of a return to murky disappearances, murders and Chinese submarines docking in Colombo.

The frontrunners among the record 35 candidates – who include two monks but just one woman – are Sajith Premadasa, son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Deputy leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP) and New Democratic Front presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa waves to supporters during the final campaign rally in Colombo on November 13, 2019, ahead of the November 16 presidential election. Photo: AFP / Ishara S. Kodikara

Gotabhaya, 70, is the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005-15 and adored among the majority Sinhalese community for ending in 2009 the 37-year civil war with Tamil separatists in which 100,000 people died.

The horrific closing stages saw at least 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by government troops – at a time when Gotabhaya was effectively in charge of the security forces.

He is also accused of running a “death squad” that bundled dozens of Tamils, political opponents, journalists and others into vans and dumpws their bodies on the road – something he denies.

One of its alleged victims was journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, stabbed in the head in 2009 days before he was due to testify in a defamation case Gotabhaya had filed against his paper over corruption claims.

It has just happened again, to another critic. Armed men stabbed and injured Lasantha Wijeratne on Thursday, storming his home a week after he published a book criticizing Gotabhaya, police said.

Wijeratne had given a copy of his book,  Wasteful Development and Corruption, to ruling party candidate Premadasa.

“Four men broke into the house and stabbed him in the arm after holding a pistol to his wife’s head,” Wijeratne’s lawyer Tharaka Nanayakkara told AFP by telephone. “They smashed furniture before escaping.”

Nanayakkara said the attackers accused Wijeratne of harming Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign.

Police said they launched an investigation into the incident in the south of the island nation, but were yet to arrest any suspects.

‘Terrified’

The 2009 victim’s daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge said that she is “terrified” that under Gotabhaya “many brave police officers, prosecutors, witnesses, judges and journalists who have crossed his path … will find themselves on the firing line.”

According to press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in the “dark decade” of Mahinda’s rule, at least 14 journalists “were murdered in connection with their work.”

“Everyone needs to be afraid of what might happen if Gotabhaya becomes president, everyone,” analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu told AFP.

“For journalists, for any kind of dissent, it’s going to be very, very tough.”

It came even as Election Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said the campaign had been relatively peaceful compared with previous polls.

However, he said the behavior of both private and state-controlled television networks had been highly biased and he hoped to prosecute offenders after the election.

Media ‘worst ever’

No media organization has been prosecuted for violating election laws, but last week Deshapriya banned a state TV network from broadcasting any political content after accusing it of partisan coverage.

However, the commission reversed the move the next day following protests that it was not being even-handed with all media outlets violating campaign rules governing broadcasts.

“The run-up to the election was relatively peaceful, but the campaign in the media is the worst we have ever seen,” Deshapriya said.

Campaign rallies ended Wednesday night leaving two days of cooling-off period before Saturday’s poll at which 15.99 million people are eligible to vote.

Frontrunners Premadasa and Rajapaksa wrapped up their final rallies amid tight security involving hundreds of elite police and paramilitary units.

Premadasa, 52, is the son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was targeted by a suicide bomber during a rally in Colombo in 1993.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack in 2006 blamed on Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.

While ethnic tensions have eased, this year the country was rocked by coordinated Islamist extremist bombings on Easter Sunday that killed at least 269 people.

The European Union on Wednesday despatched 30 additional election observers around the country, joining 50 who have been in Sri Lanka for a month following the campaign.

China angle

Besides human rights violations, one thing that also concerns Western countries, as well as India, is that under Mahinda, strategically located Sri Lanka moved closer to China, even allowing two Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo in 2014.

China also helped shield Sri Lanka from international criticism of its human rights record under Mahinda in international forums such as the United Nations.

Beijing lent and granted Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects under China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative spanning Asia and beyond. Mahinda says credit was unavailable elsewhere.

Sri Lanka was forced in 2017 to hand Beijing a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota after being unable to service a $1.4-billion Chinese loan to build the harbor, highlighting for critics the debt dangers of Belt & Road.

Many of the deals are also mired in corruption allegations. An airport built in the south has so far not been able to retain a single international airline.

At a time when the tourism sector has slumped following the April attacks, official figures show Sri Lanka will have to repay $5.9 billion this year.

Chinese investment “facilitated the mismanagement of the Rajapaksas,” analyst Saravanamuttu said. “They spent and spent without giving any consideration to how it has to be paid back.”

– AFP