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Roundup: Echoes of conflict and deepening divisions in Sri Lanka elections

Jewel Samad/AFP
Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks during a campaign rally on 13 November, watched over by an image of his brother, Mahinda, who was president during the violent end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls on Saturday, 16 November for presidential elections, the country is facing the unresolved legacy of a 26-year civil war and new tensions along religious fault lines.

The vote will likely come down to two candidates from well-known political families: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary who oversaw the war’s violent end in 2009; and Sajith Premadasa, the current housing minister and son of a former president assassinated during the conflict.

Gotabaya is also the brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was ousted at the polls in 2015.

Tens of thousands of civilians died during Sri Lanka’s civil war, which pitted rebel “Tamil Tiger” fighters drawn from the country’s mostly Hindu Tamil minority against the government and military dominated by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Efforts to reconcile and account for atrocities on both sides have been slow or non-existent. The UN says Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing war crimes allegations. A long-delayed office to investigate thousands of unresolved disappearances only began its work last year amid scepticism and distrust.

And newer divisons have also deepened, with Buddhist nationalist groups attacking minority Muslim communities. Tensions heightened this year after a little-known group claiming allegiance to so-called Islamic State staged April’s Easter Sunday bombings, which killed more than 200 people.

Mobs targeted Muslim communities in the aftermath. Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers were also swept up in the backlash – evicted from their rented homes and in some cases spending weeks on the run.

Analysts say a victory for Rajapaksa, the perceived frontrunner, would raise tensions even further. A Sinhalese nationalist also supported by hardline Buddhist groups, Gotabaya has already said he won’t investigate war-era abuses if elected.

“Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win,” said Alan Keenan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Here’s a roundup of our recent reporting exploring the echoes of conflict in today’s Sri Lanka:

Old land issues and a new prime minister highlight post-war traumas

A surprise move to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister last year ultimately failed. But it pushed Sri Lanka into weeks of political chaos and foreshadowed the family’s return to prominence.

A hand over an open book whose pages are filled with faces.

A decade on, distrust grows for families of Sri Lanka’s missing thousands

A fledgling investigations office has unearthed controversy, but few answers, for relatives of the civil war’s disappeared.

UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

Warnings of “a second fault line” threatening to explode: Past abuses fuel new problems in a divided nation.

After Sri Lanka attacks, anti-Muslim backlash points to new divisions

Sri Lanka’s government arrested dozens following anti-Muslim mob attacks. But critics say Buddhist nationalists have long targeted minority communities with little pushback.

Photo of shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka after suicide blasts.

Running from safehouse to safehouse, evicted refugees search for shelter

“We’re all traumatised”: Local groups are trying to bring divided communities together after the Easter Sunday attacks, but they face hostility and fear.

Sri Lanka's new asylum route: A 4,000-km journey across the Indian Ocean

Faced with tightening borders in Australia and elsewhere, minority Muslims and Christians now join Tamil asylum seekers on migration routes crossing the ocean.

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