The divisive legacy of Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit brings a dramatic end to the clan’s rule for more than 20 years, leaving a country in deep political and economic crises.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a 73-year-old retired military officer, was the eighth executive president of Sri Lanka [File: Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned after fleeing to Singapore via the Maldives, bringing a dramatic end to the rule of the powerful Rajapaksa clan for more than 20 years, leaving behind a country in deep political and economic crises.

Rajapaksa, a 73-year-old retired military officer, was the eighth executive president of Sri Lanka.

He is the younger brother of the family patriarch and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ruled Sri Lanka for two terms and also served as prime minister until he was forced to quit earlier this year.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nearly three-year rule was criticised as the worst in post-independence Sri Lanka for his failure to contain the worst economic meltdown the island has seen in decades.

The skyrocketing cost of living and enormous shortages of fuel and other essential items triggered unprecedented protests in the country of 22 million people earlier this year, forcing him to flee the country and quit.

Rajapaksa is also faulted for reversing the country’s democratic gains by changing the constitution and giving himself sweeping powers after winning the presidency in 2019.

Interactive - Who is Gotabaya Rajapaksa?

Divisive legacy

Until recently, Rajapaksa was hailed as a war hero who led a ruthless military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels demanding a separate state in northern Sri Lanka.

The decades-long civil war ended in 2009, leaving thousands of Tamil rebels, civilians and soldiers dead. The offensive was led by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with Gotabaya serving as his defence secretary.

Following the deadly 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in churches and hotels, Rajapaksa, until then a political novice, was elected as president on the plank of national security as he rode on anti-Muslim sentiment in the Buddhist-majority country.

Akram Ashroff, a 22-year-old IT undergraduate and resident of the eastern district of Batticaloa, said he was a consistent visitor to the anti-government protest venue in the heart of Colombo, dubbed “GotaGoGama”.

“He (Rajapaksa) made people feel insecure, especially the ethnic and religious minorities. He divided the communities and was politically arrogant. He will be remembered as the most ineffective president who in a short time drove his country to bankruptcy, an unparalleled legacy,”  Ashroff told Al Jazeera.

“Besides, he drove religious hatred and targeted Tamils and Muslims from time to time. He was the president of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, in his own words. But these Sinhalese Buddhists have now driven him out of office,” he said.

He (Rajapaksa) made people feel insecure, especially the ethnic and religious minorities.

by Akram Ashroff, Student

Rajapaksa leaves a country in a state of chaos and without the affection he once received from a large majority of the people.

“His refusal to accept advice and political immaturity contributed to his downfall. He wanted to run the country as a military leader but unlike the military, he lacked both strategy and pragmatism,” a close Rajapaksa aide told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

“The constitutional amendment to undo democratic reforms showed his lack of respect for democratic institutions. His populist politics at the end could not contain a popular uprising against him.”

Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka with the International Crisis Group, says Rajapaksa has left behind “a shattered and much poorer country facing an economic collapse that threatens lives and has no easy or quick remedy”.

“But his failed leadership has also helped generate a citizenry newly energised and unexpectedly united in their resistance to exploitative and authoritarian rule,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The racism and militarism and visions of a return to pre-colonial glories that won Gotabaya – and his brother Mahinda before him – so much support from Sinhala voters have proven unable to rescue the millions now struggling to find fuel and medicine or afford their next meal.”

With the Rajapaksas gone, Keenan hoped the Sri Lankans would learn “lasting lessons about the dead-ends of authoritarian nationalism”, find “new political vehicles to carry forward the democratisation project begun by the people’s struggle” and “hold to account – or push aside – Sri Lanka’s established political class”.

“History does not offer many grounds for optimism but it does bring surprises, like the implosion of a ruling dynasty that looked invincible less than two years ago,” he told Al Jazeera.

Shanthi Jesudasan, 41, from the northern Vavuniya city and a mother of three school-going children, said she joined the protesters for two reasons.

“As a Tamil, I have only witnessed violence and discrimination targeting the community. My relatives living in the north have lost family members and have been looking for the missing since 2009,” she told Al Jazeera.

“He is the president who denied us our yesteryears and had no interest in steering this country towards peace. In the past few months, he also robbed the future of the next generation and crippled the entire country,” she said.

His (Rajapaksa's) ouster shows resurgence of democratic forces within Sri Lanka and public anger against nepotism, undemocratic practices and political arrogance.

by Manjula Gajanayake, Analyst

Dharmanath Dissanayake, a retired school teacher from Kurunegala, says he used to swear by the Rajapaksas because the two brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya were able to bring the civil war to an end.

“There was peace finally and people could move about freely without fear. But he had no plan beyond that and that is why Sri Lanka has now been declared bankrupt,” he told Al Jazeera.

“He lacked foresight and vision. There are allegations of corruption as well. He has failed the entire country, including the Sinhalese he pledged to serve, and finally it is the Sinhalese who brought his regime to an end,” he said.

‘Nepotism project’

Post-independence Sri Lanka has been ruled by a handful of families. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a member of one such family.

Manjula Gajanayake, the executive director of the Colombo-based Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), says Gotabaya was not elected to the presidency “due to some unique ability or service rendered” but because it was a “family project”.

“The Rajapaksa stranglehold on Sri Lankan politics was also the country’s largest nepotism project,” Gajanayake told Al Jazeera.

“He rode to office having whipped up communalism and drew support from those who did not believe in democracy or democratic governance. Part of his legacy is the crushing of democratic voices and spaces to improve on his nepotistic project,” he said.

“But his ouster shows the resurgence of democratic forces within Sri Lanka and the public anger against nepotism, undemocratic practices and political arrogance.”

Rohan Pethiyagoda is a top Sri Lankan scientist, winner of the prestigious Linnean Medal for zoology in 2022, and a public policy advocate.

Summing up Rajapaksa’s legacy, he said: “His presidency was defined by ignorance, obstinacy and an inability to communicate effectively with his people. He prohibited modern agriculture, forcing two million farmers into destitution. He printed trillions of rupees while denying a causal link between money supply and inflation. He obstinately refused to yield to expert advice that these ‘innovations’ would destroy the economy.

“And for 31 months of his presidency, he didn’t hold a single press conference, relying instead on delivering poorly scripted speeches to a teleprompter. All this, haunted by the ghosts of journalists murdered on his watch,” Pethiyagoda told Al Jazeera.

Between 2005 and 2015, at least 13 journalists were murdered in Sri Lanka, press watchdogs say. Among those was government critic and founding editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, whose assassination was linked to Gotabaya.

A trial is ongoing in the People’s Tribunal at the Hague where incriminating evidence has been given to implicate him.

Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer and researcher, told Al Jazeera the Sri Lankan leader is facing serious allegations of rights violations both during and after the civil war.

“These are documented widely and some of these cases have been filed both locally and internationally. This indicates he has had an entrenched role in these violations. These cases could not process partly due to his immunity and partly due to the weaknesses in the justice system in Sri Lanka,” she said.

Fonseka said the leader will always be linked with serious violations committed against citizens of the country and that he will never be able to escape that legacy.

“He has fled and is expected to resign, but the citizens must remember his role in all these transgressions, demand accountability and explore options both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The resignation will result in the loss of immunity and this will make it somewhat easier to hold him accountable,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera