#GottaGo: Why Sri Lanka’s Iron Man hit melting point

He fled the island as the country’s chief executive to go down in the island’s political history as the first president to be ousted from office through a popular uprising.
Express Illustrations | Soumyadip SInha
Express Illustrations | Soumyadip SInha

The resignation of Sri Lanka’s 8th president Gotabaya Rajapaksa took place under unusual circumstances. After three months of continuous public protests demanding his resignation, the ex-military officer-turned-politician, credited for leading a ruthless military offensive to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, eventually fled his island home fearing for life.

His exit was dramatic and similar to an episode from a suspense thriller. Amidst palpable public anger, airport officials refused to facilitate his departure via Sri Lanka’s main international airport, the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), forcing Gotabaya and his wife Ioma to secure passage to the Maldives on a military jet. He was greeted by angry street protests by Sri Lankans working there. Incidentally, Gotabaya created aviation history as his flight from Male to Singapore became the world’s most tracked flight in real-time.

His departure creates a temporary impasse. The Sri Lankan Constitution never envisaged the possibility of a fugitive president on the run. He fled the island as the country’s chief executive to go down in the island’s political history as the first president to be ousted from office (through a popular uprising), the first to flee the country and to tender his resignation from overseas.
Gotabaya as fugitive president is in stark contrast to his image as a ruthless leader who not just crushed the LTTE but civil liberties at will and was feared by sections of the population, including Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as dissenting journalists.

Three years ago, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa presented himself as the presidential candidate, he evoked strongly divided emotions of admiration or great dislike/fear. Credited for leading the island’s war effort towards crushing the LTTE militarily, a separatist outfit that had for decades fought for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka’s northeast, it was expected that Gotabaya would rule with an iron hand and in military style. The island’s Sinhala Buddhist majority gave him an overwhelming mandate in 2020, expecting the “no-nonsense” president to create a path towards prosperity in which the ethnic majority would enjoy priority. His official website says: “Now is the time to embrace nationalism. Love your country, play your part in the future.”

Yet, at the end of 31 months of his rule, Gotabaya left office as a failed leader whose inefficiency and lack of management skills pushed the country towards complete collapse and unprecedented economic woes.

To be fair, his presidency was marred by the multiple impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, loss of tourism, and an economic meltdown precipitated by imprudent decisions ranging from a ban on importing chemical fertiliser and a balance of payments crisis that he failed to manage and made worse by reducing taxes to appease the masses. Long before the country’s political activists, rights groups and youth drove massive mass mobilisations against him, it was the farmers who began protests owing to the lack of chemical fertilizers. Gotabaya, known for his obstinacy and political arrogance, failed to see how sections of the public that once hailed him as their leader were rapidly turning against him. As much as the calls for accountability, transparency and better governance, it was Gotabaya’s failure to provide the people with essentials such as fuel, gas, medical supplies and food that eventually brought about his fall from grace. His attempts to get a financial bailout and reschedule the Chinese loans and strike an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lending agencies further aggravated the financial crisis at home. That quickly turned into a massive political crisis.
His period as defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade as president gave him an image of a warrior and a quick decision-maker, albeit a hawkish leader. In this period not less than 13 journalists were murdered, including Lasantha Wickrematunga, the founding editor of The Sunday Leader who exposed corrupt military deals under Rajapaksa’s watch. That enraged him. He publicly ridiculed Wickrematunge and continuously dismissed allegations of killing, abducting or disappearing journalists and activists. He was dubbed the “white van man”, a reference to his alleged links to white-coloured vans used for abducting people. Part of Gotabaya’s legacy is not just the crushing of the LTTE but also how he undermined the rights of the ethnic Tamil community and his refusal to peruse a path of peace and reconciliation after the war’s end or to cooperate with the international community to improve the human rights record. The UN estimated that over 40,000 civilians who surrendered during the final phase of the war were killed. Rajapaksa rejected allegations of war crimes, but they always hung over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Besides their strong-arm politics, the Rajapaksas were shrewd manipulators of popular sentiment and used Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to gain political office. This approach was used to suppress both ethnic and religious minorities, curb civil liberties and crush dissent. Assuming presidency in 2020, Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke of being elected purely on the Sinhala Buddhist vote and claimed that his victory debunked the myth that it was impossible to elect a president purely on the Sinhala Buddhist vote.

Like Mahinda, Gotabaya too mobilised people using majoritarianism. But three years into office, the same forces evidently turned against him, even supporting Marxist protesters, to oust the president they elevated to high office. Much like Mahinda, he also nurtured family politics and was committed to building the Rajapaksa dynasty further. Using his impressive mandate, he reversed several democratic gains made through a previous constitutional amendment. He consolidated presidential powers, removed the two-term restriction on the presidency and paved the way for dual citizens to hold public office, thus creating a window for brother Basil, a US citizen, to enter parliament. Gotabaya improved on the nepotism project by appointing Mahinda Prime Minister and his other two siblings, Chamal and Basil, to key positions. Between May and July 15, anti-government protesters forced a series of resignations from all the Rajapaksa brothers, showing how peoples’ revolution can bring down the country’s most powerful political dynasty.

With his vacation of office, there now exists a man once hailed as the one who freed the island from the tyranny of the LTTE and loved by large sections of the Sinhala Buddhist population. At least for now, Sri Lankans like to believe that they broke the Rajapaksas’ stranglehold on national politics and defeated the island’s biggest nepotism project.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Executive Director, Center for Investigative Reporting, Sri Lanka

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