Gotabaya: Sinhalese adore him; Tamils, Muslims fear him

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the darling of the Sinhalese establishment for his pivotal role in ending the Tamil conflict. Photo: Twitter.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president has evoked either of two feelings in Sri Lanka – a shiver down the spine or jubilation, depending on whether one is Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim.

As military strategist during the time of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as president, Gotabaya was credited with the ruthless precision with which he crushed the decades long Tamil insurgency, decimating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and following these up by systematically targeting anyone with even a suspected link to the separatist Tamil organisation.

Gotabaya is fashioned on the likes of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro who nonchalantly flick aside concerns of human rights abuse when dealing with people they think are “criminals”. In the case of Duterte, suspected drug traffickers have been mercilessly killed – without waiting to confirm suspicions in a court of law. Reams have been written, filmed and international outrage expressed but to no avail.

In Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro alone, state security forces have killed 1,249 people in 2019, the highest amount since records began, in 1998, according to an Amnesty report.

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Similarly Gotabaya could not care less what is said of his tenure as a military strategist – that human rights abuses were inflicted on an unimaginable scale especially in the north and east of Sri Lanka during and in the aftermath of the Tamil separatist conflict in 2009. Under his oversight, some 40,000 people were killed in the country’s civil war, many of which he allegedly authorised. Though he has denied the charges, his own family gave him the sobriquet of “The Terminator”.

Gotabaya bluntly said, on the eve of his victory, he would honour none of the agreements that the previous Maithripala Sirisena government signed with the UN Human Rights Council on post-war accountability and reconciliation.

The new president, as his win shows, is the darling of the Sinhalese establishment for his pivotal role in ending the Tamil conflict. And, he is expected to play his role as the Sinhala saviour to the hilt. Reports attribute Gotabaya as the inspiration behind the Buddhist fundamentalist group, Bodhu Bala Sena, which was responsible for the anti-Muslim riots in 2014 and more recently, in 2018.

Gotabaya is the fifth of nine children in the Rajapaksa family. The father, D A Rajapaksa was parliament deputy speaker. If his elder brother Mahinda preceded Gotabaya as president, his other older brothers Chamal and Basil too are very much in the fray.

Chamal was speaker of parliament during the time of Mahinda as president. Basil was an MP too and a senior adviser to Mahinda – in other words, the four Rajapaksa brothers work closely and form a powerful band. Mahinda, who could not contest again due to a law that prevents presidency for more than two terms, is expected to contest for the post of prime minister when parliamentary elections are held next.

Gotabaya’s track record is ecletic in that after two decades in senior positions in the Lankan military, during which he did a stint at the Madras University, for a Master’s degree in Defence Studies in 1971, he returned to civilian life. He enrolled in an information technology course at Colombo, and left for the United States in 1998, where he worked as an IT professional.

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His acquiring a US citizenship almost made him ineligible for the post of presidency. However, before it could become a major impediment, Gotabaya renounced the citizenship.

Gotabaya term as defence secretary for Mahinda was replete with controversies, the most talked about which he has never been able to play down was the assassination of the Sunday Leader newspaper Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The Editor in a letter stunned the world by predicting his own violent death, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. Gotabaya was a key suspect in the killing. Lasantha’s daughter Ahimsa took Gotabaya to court in the United States, which last month dismissed her lawsuit on the grounds that it lacked the jurisdiction to go into it.

But he is not totally out of trouble. In June this year, 10 Sri Lankans petitioned the US District Court for the Central District of California for damages arising from torture inflicted while Gotabaya was defence secretary.

For Gotabaya, the Easter Church killings in April this year was the trigger that propelled him to contest for the presidency. As one who was already an inspiration for Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist groups, the bombings by Muslim radicals on three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka killing 259 people put him on the path to win the elections.

As the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a avowedly Sinhala nationalist party, Gotabaya leveraged the revulsion against the attacks, cautioned against the rise of Muslim extremism and united the Sinhala vote in the south and western parts of the country and swept to power.

Gotabaya is the latest right-wing nationalist figure to be elected to power resembling the coming to power of the BJP’s Narendra Modi in India, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Philippines’s Duterte among others.

Gotabaya’s rise to the top is a cause for worry for India’s establishment as he is seen to be closer to China.

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For Gotabaya, China is special as it was Beijing’s intervention that turned the tide in the Lankan military favour during the conflict with the Tamil separatists in 2009. Since then, he has had a close relationship with China and has said so in various interviews. At the same time, Gotabaya recognises India’s importance to his country.

As president, he is bound to continue with close ties to China while letting India continue with its traditional relationship albeit sharing its proximity with Beijing. For India, China may be a problem. For Gotabaya, no.

So, given his mixed legacy, how will the Gotabaya presidency turn out to be? The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that the political environment will see a rise in anti-minority sentiment, relations with China will strengthen, expect a general erosion of checks and balances on the security services concomitant with increasing concerns regarding the health of the country’s democracy.