As the holy season of Ramadan winds down Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka’s former Defense Secretary and a Mahinda Rajapaksa era strongman has been in the news recently, more so seen earnestly attending many ‘ifthars’, the Ramadan break fast functions of Muslims, continuing to woo the Muslim community for what observers say is a likely presidential bid.
The latest appearance was at a grand Ifthar ceremony at the Galle Face Hotel Colombo on Friday, organised by loyalists.
Friday’s Ifthar was hosted by the ‘National Muslim Collection’, an organisation which counts among its membership Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyer Ali Sabry, Jihan Hameed and Asad Ali, a prominent businessman, all considered to be in the former defence secretary’s inner circle. The Galle Face event was well attended by leading Muslim community business leaders, and members of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. Pro-Rajapaksa politicos Danasiri Amaratunga, Dulles Alahapperuma, Udaya Gammanpila, Bandula Gunewardane, Shehan Semasinghe, Tissa Attanayake and even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha.
The Galle Face Ifthar comes on the heels of the widely publicised Beruwela Ifthar, where the former Defence Secretary was greeted and brought into the hall in procession while Muslim attendees recited prayers. Ifthar at Beruwela was organised by Milfer Cafoor, the son in law of Beruwela Urban Council chairman Marjan. Cafoor is a suspect in election violence targeting former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s vehicle during the presidential election campaign in 2015 in Beruwela.
A video recording of Presidential aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa ushered to a grand ‘Iftar’ function at Beruwela has gone viral. Pundits who poo-poohed his candidacy on the premise of his ill-favoured repute among Muslims are thunderstruck and stupefied. The sight of a saintly Gotabaya daintily keeping step with white robed Mullahs chanting panegyric poems in praise of the Prophet was enough for the eyeballs of his detractors to pop out of their crevices. The pundits are still busy adjusting their dumbstruck eyeballs.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa argued in Beruwela that the Rajapaksa regime had always been committed to the safety and well being of the Muslim people. When he was handling urban development, he rendered untold assistance to them. Today, the Muslims have realised that they were misled by conspirators and schemers whose only purpose was to alienate them from the then ruling family.
He had a receptive audience. Violence unleashed by ethno religious prejudices in the Central and Eastern Provinces has severely dented minority confidence in the current administration.
Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa also make separate appearances
Interestingly, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was also seen attending a Muslim religious event in Gampaha on Friday, June 8 while Basil Rajapaksathe brother and senior advisor for then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Cabinet minister attended a fanfare filled ifthar in Galle.
Attempts to recapture the Muslim electorate?
The moves are widely seen as attempts to recapture the Muslim electorate with an eye to future elections, after the Rajapaksa administration’s tactics from 2012-2014 when it offered active patronage to the Bodu Bala Sena and like-minded groups alienated the Muslim community from the regime.
At the Ifthar in Beruwela, Gotabaya Rajapaksa showed no signs of having reflected on the regime’s own tactics, insisting instead that the Muslims had allowed themselves to be misled in the grander conspiracy to topple the Rajapaksa regime.
The affair was arranged by a Muslim politician in the ‘Pohottuwa’ party. While the organiser had his own agenda, the participants were certainly in a mood for adjustments and reconciliation.
However at the Galle Face event the former strong man said he agrees that they could have done certain things differently without leaving room for opportunists,while reiterating that local and foreign elements attempted to drive a wedge between the Rajapaksa government and the Muslims which was done in an organized manner.
“The lies that were spread within the community and actions that were instigated to cause unfortunate incidents led to a perception that the Muslim community has a cause to be wary of the Rajapaksa administration. This is very far from the truth. However, those Muslim leaders who work closely with me and the former government, know very well that we took great care to uphold the security and dignity of the Muslim people under very sensitive circumstances,” he said.
He said the false impression created by the lies and orchestrated incidents was so strong, that they were unable to convince many in the Muslim community about the sincerity of their actions.
“This was a trust deficit that contributed to the unfortunate defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 and halted the rapid progress Sri Lanka was making. However, that is the past. Soon, we may have another opportunity to continue that journey of progress. We have engaged in continuous dialogue with religious leaders and the elders of the Muslim community and will continue to discuss the issues that trouble you, the fears that you have and the measures that can be taken to resolve them,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.
He said the intention of the Rajapaksa Government was always to create a nation where Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils and people from every community in this country can get on with their lives, knowing that they are safe. “If we can all come together once again, I am sure we will be able to achieve this. That will be to the lasting benefit of all Sri Lankans living in this country today and for all our future generations. It is something I hope, we can all work towards,” he told the Iftar gathering.
A clear overture to the Muslim middle class, a masterpiece of political ice-breaking
The ifthar events demonstrates that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is making a clear overture to the Muslim middle class. The intent was to repair and restore his ties with the Muslim community, disastrously ruptured by his early open and later clandestine support for extreme groups such as, Bodu Bala Sena and Ravana Battalion.
The immediate goal was to allay any lingering Muslim apprehensions over his Presidential bid. Beruwela and now Galle Face could be a masterpiece of political ice-breaking. Indecisive governance usually provokes a yearning for non-democratic forms of authority. Amid the chaos in Kandy and Ampara, the Muslim middle classes in affluent Beruwela have found non-democratic authority not only tolerable but as a desirable alternative.