Sri Lankan bishops issue warning over upcoming election

Reports mount of campaign violence despite security being a key issue in the wake of Easter attacks
Sri Lankan bishops issue warning over upcoming election

Special Task Force soldiers stand guard as candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa leads a presidential election campaign rally in Bandaragama near Colombo on Nov. 3. Security is a key issue in the Nov. 16 poll. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) has called on authorities to ensure that the upcoming election is free and fair.

The CBCSL also addressed voters, reminding them of the importance of wisely exercising their sacred and democratic right to vote.

They said the future president should be a person of integrity who could work closely with everyone, safeguard the freedom and rights of the people, uphold Sri Lanka’s democratic principles and work for the country’s sustainable development.

The presidential election will be held on Nov. 16 and almost 16 million people are eligible to vote. A record of 35 candidates have filed nominations for the election.

National security, slow economic growth, corruption and ethnic and religious divisions have been the key issues during campaigning

“We expect the future president and government to formulate national policies regarding religious freedom, national security, health, education, the economy and responsible management of natural resources meant to serve succeeding generations to ensure the sustainable development of the country,” said CBCSL president Bishop Winston S. Fernando as he signed the official statement with other bishops on Nov. 1.

“We earnestly appeal to all future political leaders to guarantee justice for all citizens, who are equal before the law irrespective of their status or positions.

“Corruption has been the root cause for the setbacks in the development of the country, resulting in suffering and poverty of many people. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the future president and leaders to take drastic measures to eradicate corruption at all levels.

“Given the brutal attacks suffered by innocent people on Easter Sunday, we also urge our leaders to commit themselves to ensure that religious extremism and racism are eradicated and that peaceful coexistence among all ethnic and religious groups in our country is vigorously pursued.”

The Easter attacks, carried out on April 21 by a group of nine suicide bombers affiliated with local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), killed 259 people including 37 foreign nationals. More than 500 people were wounded and many properties were destroyed.

Corruption allegations

Among the 35 candidates are two Buddhists monks, four candidates from the minority Muslim community, two from the Tamil community and one woman. 

The main opposition party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose candidate is his younger brother and wartime defense chief Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa family face several court cases over corruption allegations.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was secretary of defense during the last few years of the long civil war, which ended in 2009 and during which Sri Lankan forces were accused of committing war crimes.

He has vowed to launch a new investigation into the Easter attacks.

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The bishops appealed to the presidential candidates, their supporters, the social media and all authorities responsible in conducting the elections to strictly adhere to election laws and ensure a free and fair election to safeguard people’s rights.

“In the run-up to the elections, we observed an unhealthy trend of election laws being violated,” said the bishops.

The National Election Commission has outlawed candidates from exploiting the war victory over the Tamil Tigers or the war crimes alleged to have been committed during it.

Election monitors have pointed to an increase in violence related to the presidential election.

People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) executive director Rohana Hettiarachchi said that 32 such complaints had been received.

The national organizer of the National Election Monitoring Center, attorney-at-law Rasanga Harischandra, said his organization had received 21 complaints of violence related to the election.

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