Sri Lanka gets its first president with military credentials

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, credited with defeating Tamil rebels and accused of war crimes, is considered a polarising figure.

Sri Lanka''s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation, at the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura
Rajapaksa is Sri Lanka's first president to choose a place of worship for his oath-taking ceremony [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka‘s newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a polarising figure to many in the South Asian island nation.

The first president to have served the Sri Lankan army, Rajapaksa, 70, comfortably garnered more than 52  percent of the popular vote in Saturday’s election, primarily from the island’s Sinhala majority, a mandate that reflects Sri Lanka’s deep ethnoreligious divide.

The former defence secretary and now president, who won the decades-long war against the Tamil rebels, acknowledged that he “always knew it was possible to win an election only with a Sinhala majority vote”.

A retired lieutenant colonel, who served the military from 1971-1998, Rajapaksa left for the United States with his family. He returned to Sri Lanka before the 2005 presidential polls which installed his elder sibling, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the country’s fifth president.

‘Old wine in same old bottle’

Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the powerful secretary of defence during his brother’s regime, quickly winning a reputation for efficiency, arrogance, and in the final phase of the island’s ethnic war, of committing war crimes.

He brooked no opposition when given the strategic leadership to defeat the separatist Liberation Tigers, decisively ending a 27-year-old bloody conflict, though allegations of war crimes against the Rajapaksa administration tainted the victory.

In December 2006, Gotabaya Rajapaksa survived a suicide bomb attack in capital Colombo.

Besides scores of Tamils in the island’s north who blamed the Rajapaksa administration for the atrocities, there were others who were labelled as “traitors” by the administration, including civil society members and journalists.

Sandhya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, has been looking for her husband since 2010.

She said that any hope of achieving justice for the missing is lost with Rajapaksa’s election as president.

“This is old wine in the same old bottle. As president, he reiterated his previous stances. He has indirectly faulted the minorities for not supporting him. His first appointments reflect a military mindset. Sri Lanka’s presidency is now militarised,” said Ekneligoda, who is a powerful voice on behalf of the families of nearly 60,000 people believed to have disappeared during the civil war.

Supporters of Sri Lanka's President-elect Rajapaksa carry a poster of him in Colombo
Supporters of Gotabaya Rajapaksa carry a poster of him in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Easter Sunday bombings ‘decisive’  

Though his wartime legacy made him unpopular among Sri Lanka’s ethnic minorities, the war-weary Sinhalese considered him the best person to lead the country following the Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 260 in the violence inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.

“The bombings were a decisive factor. We do not want to experience any kind of terrorism again. Gotabaya can snuff out violent extremism,” said Wathsala Dissanayake, a 50-year-old Catholic.

Udaya Gammanpila, who leads the ultra-right Pivithru Hela Urumaya, a constituent of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is one of the architects of Gotabaya’s victory.

“This mandate reflects people’s primary need to live in a safe country. Gotabaya gave strategic leadership to end the war and people trust him,” he told Al Jazeera.

But this overwhelming confidence is not a shared sentiment among Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious minorities, a fact well understood by Rajapaksa’s lieutenants such as Gammanpila.

“President Rajapaksa secured the Sinhala majority vote. We need to inspire confidence among the minority communities through inclusive governance [which is] a future priority,” he added.

Such an inclusion, he said, would “exclude tolerance for terrorism, separatism or any compromise on sovereignty or territorial integrity”.

Rajapaksa’s campaign was dominated by similar issues: national security, sovereignty, and the Sinhala Buddhist identity. And he matched his words with symbolism.

Rajapaksa’s choice for the venue for his oath-taking ceremony was viewed by many as one that intended to deliver a direct message to the country’s minorities.

Ruwanweliseya, an iconic Buddhist temple located in the ancient kingdom of Anurdhapura, was constructed by the warrior king Dutugemunu (161 BCE – 137 BCE), who is said to have united the island by defeating the Tamil prince, Elara or Ellan.

By holding his swearing-in ceremony inside the temple, Rajapaksa also became the first Sri Lankan president-elect to choose a place of religious worship to assume office.

“It’s a statement of Buddhist power and a reminder of the victor and the vanquished – a stark reminder to Tamils in particular,” Shreen Saroor, a human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“This portrayal of the state with a religious mandate is problematic. By claiming that he relied only on the Sinhala vote to become the president, he has disrespected the Tamils and Muslims who voted for him, however small they may be in numbers.”

Mixed feeling among minorities

Despite a legacy tarnished by allegations of human rights abuses, Varadaraja Perumal, the first chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council and once the face of Tamil separatism, believes that Sri Lanka should turn a new leaf under Rajapaksa.


Perumal told Al Jazeera that the Sri Lankans needed political stability, tangible reconciliation and a home-grown economic programme.

“Decisive leadership and political stability are key to advancement. Rajapaksa has a reputation of a man who delivers. Now, it is his duty to serve the country as everyone’s president,” said Perumal, founder of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).

Rajapaksa, for his part, sent out a conciliatory message after his victory that he considered himself “everyone’s president”.

But the current leader of the EPRLF and former parliamentarian, Suresh Premachandran, remains sceptical.

“We hear the same battle cry in a softer tone. His declared priorities are national security and development. He never spoke of a political problem or a desire to address it. For Rajapaksa, it is only a terrorist problem,” said Premachandran.

“The north has over 50,000 women-headed families, rehabilitated former LTTE cadres without employment, families of missing persons and political prisoners. We want President Rajapaksa’s programmes to assist these communities.”

Karunarathna Paranawithana, a United National Front (UNF) legislator who resigned his portfolio on Sunday following his coalition candidate’s defeat in the presidential race, said it is too early to assess a presidency that is yet to take its full form.

“As the president of the entire country, I hope he will refrain from repeating his undemocratic practices committed during his days as the all-powerful defence secretary,” he said.

Saroor said pluralism is “not a part of Rajapaksa’s vocabulary”. “Given his extremely polarising personality, it is impossible to think of engaging with the state on any reformist agenda,” she said.

But Gammanpila disagreed, saying the new president would promote communal harmony.

“It’s a modern presidency that prioritises meritocracy and technocracy. The new administration will have the vision and the programmes to propel the country towards unprecedented development,” he said.

Economic policy

The new Rajapaksa administration is likely to emulate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s economic model, albeit with some tinkering.


Though expressing a commitment to a neutral foreign policy, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to strongly lean towards China for funding of the developmental projects.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term (2009-2015), the family was blamed for controlling 80 percent of the national budget by keeping defence, finance, urban development, agriculture and land protfolios within themselves.

The island nation’s exponential debt burden – currently at $34bn amounting to 45 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) and mainly due to borrowing from China – is another Rajapaksa legacy. 

Nevertheless, for now, the powerful Rajapaksas, known for their consolidation of power and keeping it well within the family, have staged a comeback.

The powerful family has already produced two presidents, a record that comes second only to the famous Bandaranaike family, which boasts of three Sri Lankan prime ministers and a president.

One of the Rajapaksa brothers, Basil, served as a powerful cabinet minister while the eldest of the four, Chamal, was a minister and speaker of the Parliament.

Source: Al Jazeera