Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is driving the governing party’s Parliamentary Election campaign and at the outset has taken a hard right turn.
He has also revived the discussion over the controversial anti-conversion Bill.
In the week preceding the dissolution of Parliament which happened at mid-night Monday, Rajapaksa has been seen with dozens of leading Buddhist Monks, offering them gifts and alms and on occasion appointments and honors.
Rajapaksa has been and is the undisputed political leader for the Right-wing Sinhala Buddhist community in the island and this opening period of the campaign is being spent shoring up that base.
One of the most important speeches that he made in the week that preceded the declaration of the elections was at the Annual Convention of the All Ceylon Buddhist Councils (සමස්ත ලංකා ශාසනාරක්ෂක මණ්ඩල සමුළුව).
It is a network of 324 Councils around the country responsible for running Buddhist Dhamma schools and disbursing funds for various charities and were set up during British Colonial times in 1895.
They were run on volunteer contributions until 1956 when they were granted state funds.
In his speech the Prime Minister identified the “threats facing the Sinhala Buddhist Nation,” reinforcing the notion that he is the protector.
The major threats he said was the introduction of narcotic drugs to school children and the other, the conversion of “traditional Buddhist families to other religions.”
He said he attended a wedding of a friend recently where the family which had been Buddhists for generations had converted to another religion which he did not name.
In a video widely circulated on Social Media of that speech, he also refers to “a Bill that was brought to Parliament that you have been talking about.”
It was a hint at the controversial Anti-Conversion Bill which was proposed in 2006 and has been struck down by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa told the audience that if that Bill is revived it must “have the support of all quarters. There are many that oppose it and that is why we don’t want to touch it. If you want it you must bring it forward unanimously otherwise it will be my neck on the line.” (සියළු දෙනාගේම කැමැත්ත ඇතුව ඉදිරපත් කරන්න …… නැත්තම් මගේ බෙල්ල තමයි අහුවෙන්නේ)
This particular remark was not included in the official text version of the speech released to media, but was reported by Swarnavahini news. A clip of that apparently off-the-cuff remark is being shared widely on social media. The particular newscast that of February 26 is no longer available on the Swarnavahini.lk website.
Rajapaksa’s own family is multi-religious. His wife Shiranthi is a practising Roman Catholic and one of his sons, Rohitha, is married to a Christian, Tatyana Lee Jayaratne. The couple went through several wedding ceremonies including a full Mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Bambalapitiya.