Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s swearing in on November 18 as Sri Lanka’s new president has put the island’s powerful Rajapaksa family back in the saddle. His victory in the presidential election does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s minorities or its democracy.
A former colonel in the Sri Lankan Army, Gotabaya was defense secretary between 2005 and 2015 when his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was Sri Lanka’s president. The two brothers oversaw the military operations that culminated in the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 and ended the 26-year-long civil war on the island. To many among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, the brothers are “war heroes,” strong leaders that they believe their country needs to keep them safe.
The need for robust leadership was felt acutely by many Sri Lankans in the wake of the deadly terror attacks that rocked the country on April 21, 2019. A string of suicide bombings in churches and luxury hotels in Colombo and other towns that were carried out by local Muslim extremists of the National Thowheed Jama’ath left over 250 people dead on Easter Sunday.
The attacks triggered a wave of Sinhala nationalism, Islamophobia, and insecurity on the island. Public anger with the government for failing to act on intelligence that could have prevented the attacks soared. These sentiments were swiftly harvested by Gotabaya and put to work in the election campaign.
Gotabaya focused on national security and the need for strong leadership. His campaign played on public insecurities and reminded voters of his role in the defeat of the LTTE. On the campaign trail, he promised that just as he had ended terrorism in 2009, he would ensure that “there won’t be room for extremist terrorism” during his presidency. He was the “only” one “capable of ensuring 100 percent security in the country,” Gotabaya said.
This struck a chord with the Sinhalese.
Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, a Colombo-based political commentator, recalls that “when Gotabaya mingled with people at his election rallies many were seen begging him to ‘make the country safe again.’” This perception of Gotabaya as one who could deliver on security appealed to voters, she said.
Although 35 candidates contested the election, it was truly a two-horse race between Gotabaya and Sajith Premadasa, candidates of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the United National Party (UNP), respectively.
Gotabaya did poorly in areas that are predominantly populated by Tamils and Muslims. However, the solid backing he received from the Sinhalese enabled him to surge ahead to win the presidency. According to the Election Commission, Rajapaksa took 52.25 percent of the vote, while Premadasa took 41.99 percent.
Gotabaya’s victory has sparked apprehension among the island’s minorities and democratic-minded Sri Lankans. Muslims fear that they will be targeted by the government in the name of national security. After all, it was Gotabaya’s patronage of the Bodu Bala Sena, an outfit of Sinhalese-Buddhist thugs, that set in motion the post-2012 targeting of the island’s Muslims.
Gotabaya’s record in the 2005-2015 period does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s democracy more broadly. The final stages of the military operations against the LTTE saw unprecedented violence unleashed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. There is evidence that Gotabaya himself directed the bombing of civilian hospitals and of Tamil civilians fleeing the war zone. A former Sri Lankan Army commander alleged that Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of surrendering LTTE leaders and their families as they emerged from their hideouts waving white flags. He has been accused of war crimes.
According to Kurukulasuriya, however, the allegations of war crimes “draw on the flawed UN Secretary General’s Panel Experts … Both the PoE and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights make their unsubstantiated war crimes allegations while ignoring a significant body of evidence to the contrary.”
Still, in critics’ eyes Gotabaya’s abuse of power and flagrant disregard for human rights was not confined to the war. Military death squads acting on Gotabaya’s orders allegedly abducted, tortured, and killed critics of the Rajapaksa family after the war too.
Therefore, many activists fear that President Gotabaya will ride roughshod over human rights and democratic norms. His impatience with debate and discussion and intolerance of dissent is well known, sparking expectations of a clampdown on media freedoms and other rights.
But not everyone shares those fears. Kurukulasuriya argues that such concerns are “premature, I think, and not warranted by the signals so far.” As evidence, she points to Gotabaya’s remarks upon being declared president: “I well understand that I am the president not only of those who voted for me, but also of those citizens who voted against me. I am well aware that I am obliged to serve every Sri Lankan, regardless of race or religion. I will make sure to fulfill this responsibility.”
Former Sri Lankan diplomat Dr. John Gooneratne told The Diplomat that after Mahinda’s defeat in the 2015 election, the new government under President Maithripala Sirisena co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council Resolution and pledged to work toward achieving transitional justice. The government did take “steps to set up several institutions in this direction,” including the Office of Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations, Gooneratne said.
Whatever progress has occurred in securing justice for victims of atrocities during the war has now been dealt a blow.
On the campaign trail, Gotabaya said that he would free military officers now in detention for human rights abuses. Although he subsequently retracted that statement, whether the new government will co-sponsor UNHRC resolutions as did the previous government or adopt a different approach to military personnel accused of abuses remains to be seen, Gooneratne said.
Gotabaya is expected to appoint Mahinda as prime minister, although the SLPP, which now sits in opposition, does not have the requisite numbers to form government on its own.
A year ago, Sirisena, who was a Rajapaksa loyalist prior to the 2015 presidential election, fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite his government enjoying adequate support in parliament, in order to appoint Mahinda in his place. The firing plunged Sri Lanka into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Wickremesinghe was subsequently reinstated following a Supreme Court ruling declaring Sirisena’s move unconstitutional. Will Gotabaya go down that path again? Or will the Rajapaksas seek support among parliamentarians of other parties? It remains to be seen how the prime minister question will be resolved, Kurukulasuriya, the Colombo-based commentator, said.
Update: On November 20, after this article was published, Wickremesinghe stepped down as prime minster, paving the way for Mahinda to head up a minority government.
The return of the Rajapaksas to the helm in Sri Lanka has evoked concern in India. During Mahinda’s presidency, Sino-Sri Lanka relations expanded rapidly. The Rajapaksa brothers’ warm ties with the Chinese paved the way for Sri Lanka’s enthusiastic participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s presence and influence on the island soared, as did Sri Lanka’s dependence on Beijing.
This shift toward Beijing triggered apprehensions in New Delhi that an inability to repay debts would force Sri Lanka to hand over ports and other infrastructure for use by the Chinese military. Such fears received a boost when Chinese naval vessels docked at Colombo harbor in 2014.
This tilt toward China was corrected somewhat by the pro-West Wickremesinghe government, but India fears that Gotabaya will restore relations with China to their pre-2015 level.
Sri Lankan analysts say that Gotabaya’s presidency need not alarm India. “Gotabaya in particular has had experience working with the Indian political establishment especially during the crucial latter stage of the war, when he was part of the ‘troika’ that was formed to keep communication lines open with Indian security and defense officials at the highest level,” (the other members of the “troika” being Gotabaya’s younger brother Basil Rajapaksa and Lalith Weeratunga) Kurukulasuriya says. “This experience could work in favor of a robust Sri Lanka-India relationship under the new dispensation,” she points out.
The United States has reason for concern, too. The fate of three controversial Sri Lanka-U.S. pacts – the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA), the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact – hangs in the balance. While ACSA was signed in 2017 by the Sirisena government, SOFA is currently under negotiation, and the MCC compact was on the verge of being signed days before the presidential election, but was stalled.
Will Gotabaya give his assent to these agreements? ACSA’s Sri Lankan proponents point out that the pact was signed in 2007 when he was defense secretary. This will make it difficult for him to axe ACSA now. However, the 2007 version of ACSA was a much shorter document signed by the government at the height of the civil war. ACSA’s critics say that the document Sirisena signed was rushed past the Cabinet. Its contents were kept secret.
The three pacts figured in the election campaign. When questioned on his stance on them, Gotabaya repeatedly said he would “never do anything to harm the sovereignty of the country,” Kurukulasuriya said. Besides, Gotabaya’s election manifesto also mentioned that his government would not enter into agreements or treaties that would be “harmful” to the country. “There is likely to be significant public pressure to hold him to these pledges,” she pointed out.
Defense pacts with the United States have triggered strong opposition in Sri Lanka and other countries as well. But over time, protests die down and the governments usually sign.
Will the Gotabaya government do the same? Much will depend on the new government’s relations with Beijing.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.
This article has been updated to clarify comments from Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.