Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, likely the next President of Sri Lanka, is best known as the man who crushed the Tamil Tigers.
As a former Army officer who served as Sri Lanka’s defence secretary when his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, Gotabaya led the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam between 2007 and 2009, which ended with the final defeat of the Tigers, and the killing of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The Rajapaksa brothers have repeatedly claimed credit for having “defeated terrorism”, and for being the only country in the world to have succeeded in doing so.
The quartet of the Rajapaksa brothers includes, besides Gotabaya and Mahinda, Basil Rajapaksa, who served as an adviser to the President when Mahinda occupied that post (2005-15) and was a Member of Parliament between 2007 and 2015; and Chamal, who was Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament between 2010 and 2015.
Gotabaya has a robust reputation for hard-edged ruthlessness and has been followed by allegations of human rights violations and crimes against humanity during the brutal LTTE war.
The war led to thousands of civilian deaths in the country and created a narrative of muscular Sinhala Buddhist supremacy that continues to dominate the Sri Lankan national discourse a decade after the defeat of the Tamil rebels.
Gotabaya is personally seen as the force behind the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist extremist outfit that has repeatedly agitated against Muslims in Sri Lanka, and played a role in the 2014 anti-Muslim riots in the country. The BBS is also seen as having fanned anti-Muslim violence in Kandy in 2018.
Gotabaya has been accused of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Europe and the United States. He was once a US citizen and had a home in that country. He has said that he has renounced his American citizenship in order to contest the presidential elections.
Earlier this year, two civil court lawsuits were brought against Gotabaya in the US, accusing him, among other things, of torture and the murder of a journalist. The time of the Rajapaksas’ rule in the country saw many instances of forced disappearances of dissenters, and attacks on independent journalists.
Gotabaya has a barely disguised obsession with national security and probably sees himself more as a national security tsar than a conventional president.
In the run-up to the Sri Lankan election, several commentators had underlined that a victory for him would suggest that the majority of voters were ready to invest in a tradeoff between likely curtailment of civil liberties, and an anticipated return to political order and resuscitation of the faltering economy.
With the return of the Rajapaksas to power, India would be closely watching the trajectory that Sri Lanka’s relationship with China takes. China got huge concessions when Mahinda was President, and Beijing extended loans worth billions of dollars, which, while helping build ports and highways in Sri Lanka, rapidly drowned the country deep in debt.
The debt has dragged down the economy, and in 2017, the Sri Lankan government, having struggled with repayments, was forced to hand over the port of Hambantota and 15,000 acres of land around it to the Chinese for 99 years.
During the last couple of years of Mahinda’s rule, Chinese military submarines and warships made repeated undeclared visits to the port of Colombo, to India’s great concern.
Early in the first term of the Narendra Modi government in India, when Gotabaya was in charge of Sri Lanka’s defence ministry, New Delhi had protested against a Chinese submarine docking in Sri Lanka. Colombo had at the time said this was “nothing unusual” and military vessels of many countries have over the years come to Sri Lanka on “goodwill visits and for refuelling and crew refreshment”.