Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, set to be Sri Lanka’s new president, was the de facto military chief who crushed Tamil guerrillas a decade ago, making him a revered figure among the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy.
Dubbed the “Terminator” by his own family, the 70-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel secured victory in the election by promising to fight corruption and make Sri Lanka safe seven months after Islamist extremist attacks killed 269 people.
Under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency from 2005-15, as defence secretary “Gota” is accused of allowing death squads that bumped off critics, rivals, journalists and others. According to press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in the “dark decade” of the Rajapaksas’ previous time in office, at least 14 journalists “were murdered in connection with their work”.
Rajapaksa “presided over a national security apparatus which was really quite deadly. Anyone who dissented was disappeared”, analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu told AFP before the election. He denies the charges.
While the grey-haired president-elect has no experience in politics, he made up for it by campaigning with the more charismatic Mahinda, who is now set to become prime minister.
Asked tough questions at his only public press conference during the three-month campaign, he turned to Mahinda for answers and was ridiculed by opponents. He also brushed aside questions about war crimes during the final offensive of the Tamil war, during which some 40,000 Tamil civilians are alleged to have been killed.
“Why are you talking all the time on the past? Ask (about) the future,” he asked. “I am trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka. So if you concentrate on the future, it is better.”
He is on bail facing prosecution for allegedly siphoning state cash to build a monument for his parents when his brother was president.
Gotabaya has denied allegations that he received millions of dollars by way of kickbacks from a second-hand aircraft purchase from Ukraine in 2007. He has not been indicted, but police are investigating the purchase.
He also faces a civil suit in the United States for allegedly ordering the torture of a Tamil man and several others when he was in power. Another civil action against him in a US court in connection with the death of an anti-establishment newspaper editor in Sri Lanka in 2009 was rejected on the basis that Gotabhaya had “foreign official immunity”.
– Passport probe –
Rajapaksa reportedly had dual US-Sri Lanka citizenship, which should have precluded him from running for election, but he says he renounced US nationality this year so he could enter the race. Rajapaksa’s nationality is still being investigated by a local magistrate, but following his victory, the case — as well as others — are set to be frozen until his five-year term ends.
The brutal end to the civil war alarmed many in the international community, with some leaders boycotting a Commonwealth summit that Mahinda hosted in 2013 and the United States and the European Union cutting aid.
Also of concern to the West was that when the Rajapaksas were last in power, Sri Lanka borrowed heavily from China, which offered Colombo diplomatic protection in international forums over its rights record. Many of the China-funded infrastructure projects have been mired in corruption allegations and have turned into white elephants, including a new airport in the south devoid of any airlines.
The borrowing spree also led to a ballooning of Sri Lanka’s debts. Sri Lanka was forced in 2017 to hand Beijing a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota after being unable to service a $1.4-billion Chinese loan, alarming Western countries and also traditional ally India.
In 2014 Sri Lanka also allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo. The Chinese “at the end of the day facilitated the mismanagement of the Rajapaksas”, Saravanamuttu said. The brothers “spent and spent without giving any consideration to how it has to be paid back”, he said.