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Shots fired at Muslim voters as hotly contested Sri Lankan presidential polls close

Some observers believe there is a concerted attempt to stop Muslims voting [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 November, 2019

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Shots have been fired at a convoy of Muslims heading to vote in northern Sri Lanka as a polls close in a hotly contested presidential election.
Shots were fired at a convoy of Muslims in Sri Lanka travelling to cast their ballots in the presidential elections.

Polls closed on Saturday evening in the election. Some observers see the incident as part of a coordinated effort to disenfranchise Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority.

There were no reported injuries in the convoy attack and police were investigating, said Manjula Gajanayake, spokesman for the Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence.

The centre said there were reports elsewhere of minor election law violations, such as supporters influencing voters near polling stations and distributing mock ballots with party symbols.

Campaigning for Sri Lanka's presidential election was dominated by worries over national security, which was pushed to the forefront after deadly Islamic State-inspired suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday that killed 269 people.

At the same time, there is fear among both the Tamil and the Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka about a return to power of front-runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a hard-line former defence official under his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Read more: Weaponising the Muslim vote in Sri Lanka’s election

Rajapaksa had been widely expected to triumph over the ruling party candidate, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, but as the election approached, the race became very close.

Nearly 16 million of the 22 million people were eligible to vote and choose a new president from a record 35 candidates. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, is not seeking reelection. Results are expected as early as Sunday.

A decade of peace following nearly 30 years of civil war was shattered earlier this year when homegrown militants pledging loyalty to the Islamic State group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three hotels. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, cast himself as the only candidate capable of protecting Sri Lankans from such attacks.

During the war, he was accused of persecuting critics and overseeing what were called "white van squads" that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers.

Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared. The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war.

The Muslims attacked on Saturday were part of a convoy organised by Premadasa's supporters, who had taken them back to vote in the northern district of Mannar. Many Muslims fled the area in 1982, when the Tamil insurgency began to grow, while others were evicted from northern Sri Lanka in 1990.

Read more: For my Muslim family in Sri Lanka, life has changed forever

The Elections Commission had encouraged them to register as voters in Mannar but had not arranged enough transportation to bring them from their homes in the northwestern district of Puttalam, Gajanayake said.

As they were heading to vote, they were shot at, pelted with stones and blocked by burning tires hours before polls opened.

Shreen Saroor, an activist working with displaced Muslims, said the attack made them more determined to vote. Many used public transport and private vehicles to get to the polling stations in Mannar.

"There is a concerted effort to keep the Muslims away from the ballot box," Ratnajeevan Hoole, a member of the Elections Commission, told The Associated Press.

It wasn´t immediately clear whether any of the attackers had been arrested.

Hoole said he had called for the arrest of a former top Tamil rebel commander in the east, now in alliance with Rajapaksa, for making inflammatory comments against Muslims in the run-up to the election. However, his request was not heeded.

The ex-rebel commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, broke away from the Tamil Tigers in 2004 and worked with the government to defeat the rebel group. His split helped the government end the 26-year war.

Hoole said that in videos posted on social media, Muralitharan - also known as Karuna Amman - had talked about the need to suppress the Muslim vote to undermine Muslims' growing influence in Sri Lanka's Eastern province.

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