Young Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a tight white shirt and red tie, grinned like a Cheshire cat as his brother Mahinda embraced him tenderly in a rare public display . It was 2006, and Sri Lanka’s defense minister Gotabaya narrowly survived a suicide bombing by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during his brother’s presidency, a decades-long conflict with the country in a brutal civil war. A separatist group fought by the Sri Lankan government.
This lucky escape was a career turning point, helping his family become the political dynasty of modern Sri Lanka. Gotabaya, who crushed the Tamil Tigers in a military operation in which tens of thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed, has dismissed allegations of war crimes. He brought the family back to power in 2019 after the Easter Sunday terror attacks, sacrificing his image as a military strongman to win a decisive Sinhalese Buddhist-majority presidency.
“The main thing people are asking of me is to protect the country,” he said in 2020. He will do it “like we won the war when most people thought we couldn’t do it”.
This week’s events could have happened if allegations including military embezzlement and extrajudicial killings didn’t stop Gotabaya and his family from rising. The 72-year-old president has been accused of bringing the economy into crisis with double-digit inflation, severe shortages and a sharp drop in living standards.
His cabinet resigned on Monday – including Prime Minister Mahinda. To stay in power, Gotabaya appointed veteran political opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe to replace his brother. However, despite violent attacks on Rajapaksa’s supporters and a curfew imposed by the military, it is unclear whether Rajapaksa can quell a deep-rooted protest movement calling for his resignation.
At the heart of his humility is the story of a military leader who never learned to be a statesman, and critics say Sri Lanka is a missed opportunity to transform itself from a war-torn country into one of Asia’s economic powerhouses. Rajapaksa stacked his government with relatives and military officers, and used divisive policies and rhetoric to mobilize his hard-line base. His economic decisions, including a special fertilizer ban, have exposed his inexperience in governing.
Rajapaksa “runs government like an army, not realizing that politically you have to build these broad coalitions and make these broad compromises,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, a sociologist at Jaffna University.
Gotabaya, who looks more like a retired professor than a military veteran, is described as a conservative opponent of Mahinda, a raucous political operator. According to Nirupama Rao, a former Indian diplomat who has dealt with him for years, he was “in his state” during the war. “He tends to be a taciturn man, quite different from his brother.” However, he has sometimes exposed his sinister side, once threatening to hang a political opponent.
The Rajapaksa family comes from a political dynasty in Hambantota, a once sleepy rural area on Sri Lanka’s beautiful southern coast that Chinese investment has transformed into a future Belt and Road infrastructure hub. The family is accused of making a fortune when the island was mired in the current debt crisis. They deny the allegations.
Cotabaya was one of nine siblings who joined the army in 1971 and was promoted, while Mahinda followed their father into parliament. Sri Lanka’s civil war, which began in 1983, is a traumatic conflict that will kill some 100,000 people. Gotabaya was on the early military offensive in the United States for a while, returning after Mahinda became president in 2005.
A relentless offensive against the LTTE finally ended the war in 2009. The Sri Lankan army has been accused of indiscriminately bombing populated areas and executing suspected militants. Journalists and other perceived dissidents were also kidnapped, tortured and murdered during Gotabaya’s tenure as defense minister. The Tigers were also charged with atrocity. As president, Gotabaya has been dragging his feet on accountability efforts, downplaying allegations of wrongdoing as Western pearls, according to Human Rights Watch. “Either you are a terrorist or you are someone who fights terrorism,” he once told the BBC.
The family returned to power in 2019 after a period of opposition. Sri Lanka is already facing a brewing economic crisis after years of heavy overseas borrowing, with Rajapaksa cutting taxes and eating into government revenue. The loss of tourism during the pandemic has dealt a further blow.
Yet even as foreign reserves dwindled and supplies of everything from fuel to medicine were running low, his government resisted calls to restructure and start talks at the International Monetary Fund until a popular and political rebellion forced it to turn around in March.
Allied MP Nalaka Godahewa believes Rajapaksa is poised for a comeback. He said he was “run by professionals who wanted a non-politician”. “He has an opportunity to deliver on his promise with a new cabinet.”
But after a week of violence, soldiers are now patrolling the streets to maintain an uneasy calm in what critics hope is the last stop for the once-mighty Rajapaksa family.
“[Their] The base has been significantly reduced,” said human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka. “It was a spectacular collapse in terms of what was promised in 2019 and two years later. “