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‘Run Sri Lanka like Hitler’, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was once told. Now he’s on the run himself

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man who never wanted to join politics, fled Sri Lanka in the face of massive protests against misgovernance during his tenure.

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New Delhi: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of the prominent Rajapaksa brothers after Mahinda, twice took the oath to defend his country — first as a soldier and then as President. Yet, the former defence secretary, who thrived on his reputation in some sections as the “saviour” of Sri Lanka, fled to the Maldives at an ungodly hour Wednesday, leaving his countrymen in the throes of a deepening economic crisis.

The man who never wanted to join politics is now on the run, seeking refuge in another country. His options are limited, but it seems likely that he could end up in Singapore

Gotabaya was believed to hold dual citizenship of Sri Lanka and the US, where he worked as an IT professional. However, in 2019, he claimed that he gave up his American citizenship, which paved the way for his ascent to the highest office in Sri Lanka.

While the US State Department has never confirmed whether he gave up his citizenship, Gotabaya’s younger brother and former Sri Lankan finance minister, Basil Rajapaksa, has reportedly fled the island nation and is believed to be headed for the US.

Gotabaya, 73, was once revered by the majority of Sri Lankans, especially the Sinhalese Buddhists, as the “saviour” of the country for the role he played in ending the nearly three-decade Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. 

During the civil war, Gotabaya is seen to have played a key role in crushing the Tamil insurgency led by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president.

It is believed that the assault on LTTE fighters during his tenure as defence secretary, from 2005 to 2009, enabled Gotabaya to strengthen his Sinhalese nationalist base. 

However, he has been accused of grievous human rights abuses during the war — allegations he denies. In 2006, he reportedly survived an assassination attempt by an LTTE suicide bomber.

After being rooted out of power in 2015, Gotabaya returned as president of Sri Lanka in November 2019, riding on the nationalist wave that gripped the island nation in the wake of a series of terror attacks, also known as the ‘Easter Bombings’. Public outrage over the attacks proved to be a boon in disguise for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) — a new party floated by Mahinda to pave the way for Gotabaya’s victory in the presidential election.

Apart from nationalism, anti-incumbency sentiment also played a key role in prompting the Rajapaksas’ comeback.

At the time, many Sri Lankans reportedly referred to Gotabaya as “Hitler”. But such appeared to be his popularity among his Buddhist base that these words were turned into a compliment by a prominent and influential Buddhist monk, who said if that is the case, Gotabaya should be one and build the country. 

“What we need is a leadership that has the blessings of Mahinda Rajapaksa and is linked with Buddhism, the Buddhist Order and the Sinhalese. We can see that the law has completely broken down. We need a leader who shows fidelity to the doctrine (dahami naayakayek),” the monk had said during an event marking Gotabaya’s 69th birthday in 2018.

However, it was under Gotabaya’s leadership that Sri Lanka declared bankruptcy, resulting in massive socio-economic turmoil that gave rise to a peaceful aragalaya(Sinhalese for ‘struggle’) that entered its 96th day on 13 July.

Also Read: Charred coconut shell stoves, cycling — 5 hacks helping Sri Lankans survive economic crisis

IT professional to military strongman

Born on 20 June 1949 at Palatuwa in Matara district of Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, Gotabaya hails from the majority Sinhalese community. The fifth of nine siblings, he was born in a high-profile family active in politics.

He joined the Sri Lankan Army (then the Ceylon Army) in 1971 and served his country for two decades till 1991, winning multiple gallantry awards.

However, he left Sri Lanka thereafter and moved to the US where he worked as an IT professional in Los Angeles. 

Gotabaya returned from the US in 2005 after his elder brother Mahinda, who had by then become President, appointed him defence secretary. Elevating kin to top positions in government is among the allegations that mar the legacy of the Rajapaksas.

The two brothers, Gotabaya and Mahinda, relied heavily on China for loans and infrastructural development, thereby falling into Beijing’s ‘debt trap diplomacy‘. 

While Beijing regarded Colombo as the crown jewel for President Xi Jinping’s mega ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, the island nation has paid a heavy price for Chinese investment. 

In 2017, the former Maithripala Sirisena government had to formally hand over the Hambantota Port, along with 15,000 acres of land, to China in order to pay off debt accumulated during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime between 2005 and 2015.

“With President Xi’s ‘New Era’ of national rejuvenation, Sri Lanka has now discreetly become a strategic ‘colony’ of battleships with massive projects to advance the Chinese interests against India and the United States in the Indian Ocean,” Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and military professor in the NATO and Indo-Pacific Commands of the US Department of Defense, noted in a piece in the Harvard International Review.

Relationship with India

As someone who oversaw and put an end to the Tamil insurgency, Gotabaya is said to have disliked India for the role New Delhi played in the Sri Lankan civil war.

He was critical of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and even blamed the Indian government for reversing gains made by the army against the insurgents.

Referring to one such operation against the LTTE, which came to be known as the Vadamarachchi Operation and was foiled by Indian troops in 1987, Gotabaya said in 2011 that it “could not be sustained because the Indian government intervened”. He, however, added that in the final phase of the civil war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa “went out of his way” to brief New Delhi about all the latest developments.

Yatish Yadav, author and journalist, notes in his book ‘RAW: A History of India’s Covert Operations’ that the Indian intelligence agency sought to help the Sri Lankan Army in crushing the LTTE and protecting Indian assets.

Decades later, after assuming the role of president, Gotabaya sought to mend ties with India while maintaining a tilt towards China. Immediately after winning the elections in 2019, he chose India for his state visit as both Colombo and New Delhi sought to reset strained ties.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: China’s failing white elephant projects in Sri Lanka have lessons for India


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