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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

The spectacular cowardice of Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Andrew Fidel Fernando writes: Gotabaya Rajapaksa's power ran unchecked. Now, a strongman has been reduced by the people of Sri Lanka, who he had held in such contempt

While the entire Rajapaksa family has faced widespread disavowal, no figure has drawn more ire than former president Gotabaya. (Reuters)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, once Sri Lanka’s most feared figure, rumoured to run clandestine death squads, who struck dread among the press, bore down upon minorities, and whose links to the military were iron-clad, has fled the nation of which he was president, and two days later, tendered his resignation via an email.

It is a surreal consequence of several surreal months on the island. Months in which an unprecedented public uprising has put extraordinary pressure on the nation’s political establishment, particularly those within it who are accused of contributing to the harrowing economic crisis that has left many destitute.

While the entire Rajapaksa family has faced widespread disavowal, no figure has drawn more ire than former president Gotabaya. The tens of thousands (this is a conservative estimate) who flocked to Colombo in the last week despite the dearth of fuel, to storm the presidential palace and secretariat, issued a resounding repudiation. Gotabaya was not merely unpopular by the end; he was reviled. That he faced an hours-long standoff with Immigration Department staff who refused to approve his exit from the island on Tuesday, underscores the depth of displeasure he inspired among the public. Over many months, nationwide protests have not only called for his removal, but for his imprisonment, to face justice for the financial crimes he had been charged with prior to his presidency, as well as the grave human rights abuses he had been accused of.

This transformation of Sri Lanka’s relationship with Gotabaya, particularly in the Sinhalese-dominated south, has come with a plummeting assessment of his character. As recently as 2019, he was known as an iron-fisted reformer with a penchant for military-style discipline, and a reputation for getting things done (ending the 26-year civil war, beautifying Colombo). Now, it is his refusal to understand his electorate, and by extension, democratic governance, that defines his presidency.

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In fact, it is disdain for Sri Lankans that characterised Gotabaya’s public life since he became his older brother’s defence secretary in 2005. Minorities have known the worst of him. The Sri Lankan state had been accused of human rights violations right through the war, but never more so than during its furious conclusion, which Gotabaya oversaw. Even the more generous retellings of those brutal months in 2009 have Sri Lanka’s military shelling and bombing indiscriminately, with little effort to safeguard lives of Tamil civilians, as troops ordered by Gotabaya went all out to exterminate the LTTE. Less generous representations accuse Gotabaya of far worse.

In the second term of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in particular, Gotabaya terrified even Sri Lanka’s southern media outlets, who had enjoyed a longer leash than publications in the north. State-owned media channels and newspapers were unabashed in their fealty, lavishly heaping praise on the Rajapaksas, while making cynical attacks on prospective opponents. Even private media enterprises were routinely self-censoring, never venturing the kinds of stories or editorials that might see their journalists end up like Lasantha Wickrematunge, a newspaper editor who was murdered in his car in broad daylight.

For Gotabaya, his power rightfully ran unchecked. For, what were human rights and media freedoms in the enormous shadow of his war victory?

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From 2017 onwards, while the Rajapaksas were out of power, Gotabaya began to gather momentum for a run at the presidency. Not among the middle and working classes, mind. Although his older brother Mahinda is endlessly charismatic, Gotabaya has repeatedly proven to be charmless, no wit to speak of, shrill, quick to anger.

Gotabaya’s big backers instead were the professional class and corporate groups — moneyed Sri Lankans who shared his disdain for the majority of Sri Lankans, and were willing to overlook profound abuses, as long as their result-oriented prospective leader brought discipline to the masses, and western-style capitalist prosperity to those posing desperately as technocrats.

Among Gotabaya’s very first moves upon being elected in 2019, was to slash taxes across the board at the behest of his wealthy backers. The theory was that tax cuts would spur the economy to greater heights. Its only real result was to seriously deplete state coffers in a nation that had a staggeringly low tax-to-GDP ratio, as it attempted to service outsize external debts.

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Months later, in a partial attempt to protect what was left of quickly-depleting foreign exchange, Gotabaya instituted a ban on chemical fertiliser (which is largely imported), forcing farmers to overturn generations of cultivation practices, virtually overnight. They protested immediately and in numbers, but Gotabaya ploughed ahead with his policy. Food prices skyrocketed. Farmers began to abandon fields they owned. What could inspire such ruinous policy in the face of opposition other than disdain?

The farmers’ protests have been going for about a year, and teachers have been on the streets for almost as long, but it was when the worst weeks of the nationwide power cuts hit at the end of March, that Sri Lanka’s youth-led protest movement (known in Sinhalese as “aragalaya” or “the struggle”) mobilised, and achieved what at that stage was unthinkable — the literal chasing away of a president with enormous power, an outsize ego, and a grotesque disregard for its people.

Much as Gotabaya’s chastened exit is a victory for the protest movement, there are no real winners yet. Businesses continue to shut down. Children’s education continues to be suspended. There are no serious solutions to a fuel crisis that has decimated livelihoods. And the middle and working classes are beginning to starve, with a food shortage also on the horizon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, a longtime enabler of corruption, and recently a staunch defender of the Rajapaksas and their party, has been sworn in as acting president by parliament.

But Gotabaya’s exit, fleeing first on an Air Force plane to the Maldives, where Sri Lankans in Male and local Maldivians protested his presence, and then on to Singapore, before he finally felt safe enough to issue the resignation letter he had promised to deliver roughly 36 hours before, has exposed his spectacular cowardice.

A strongman, so reduced, by the people who he had held in such contempt.

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Fernando is, a Colombo-based journalist and writer, is the author of ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle: Travels in Sri Lanka in Bus, Cycle and Trishaw’.

First published on: 15-07-2022 at 09:26:12 pm
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