Rajapaksas back in the saddle

Despite a resounding electoral triumph for the brother of Sri Lanka’s former president, he will still, warns Neville de Silva, need the support of the minorities who spurned him

When the recently elected president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, chose to be sworn in at the sacred city of Anuradhapura, not everyone would have understood the symbolism.

It was there that King Dutugemunu from the Kingdom of Ruhuna in the country’s deep south – from where the Rajapaksa family hails – led his army into battle with the Tamil Chola King Ellalan (or Elara) who reigned in Anuradhapura, defeating him in a duel.

The Mahavamsa, an epic poem chronicling the history of Buddhism and dynastic succession in Sri Lanka, records that King Dutugemunu, out of respect for the slain Tamil king, had a tomb built in the place where Ellalan fell, ordering that all passers-by must walk past it barefoot and no drums were to be sounded.

With the battle won, the entire country was unified under King Dutugemunu, with Anuradhapura as the capital. He had the great Buddhist dagoba or stupa, Ruwanwelisaya, built in 140 BC with some Buddha relics enclosed. This is where Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose to take his oath of office.

Today, Anuradhapura borders the predominantly Tamil Vanni district to the north. The Rajapaksa brothers, then president Mahinda and defence secretary Gotabaya, who themselves come from Ruhunu, are credited with a major role in the 2009 defeat of the minority ‘Tamil Tigers’ (LTTE), the separatist organisation from the north and east.

Some Sinhala nationalists often recall the Dutugemunu-Elara conflict and compare the Rajapaksas’ defeat of the Tamil separatists to that ancient Mahavamsa story and the subsequent unification of the country.

The LTTE’s defeat saw Sri Lanka unified under the central government in Colombo and peace restored after a quarter century. But that peace was shattered when, on Easter Sunday this year, Islamic extremists bombed three churches in Sri Lanka’s east and west and three luxury hotels in Colombo, killing some 270 locals and foreigners.

After nearly a decade of peace, which saw huge infrastructure projects under construction – some, financed by Chinese loans, dismissed by critics as ‘white elephants’ intended simply to perpetuate President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s name – and major hotels opening their doors , the Islamic attacks shook the country out of its complacency.

The Sinhala majority and others living in the south were once more seized with fear that terrorism had returned. A new spectre loomed, this time created by the Muslim minority who make up almost 10 per cent of the population and are suspected of having international jihadist links.

Curiously, it is the majority Sinhala community, making up 70 per cent of the population, that felt under siege by militant minorities. The Tamils, with ethnic and cultural affinities to over 70 million people in India’s Tamil Nadu, separated from Sri Lanka by the narrow Palk Strait, served as a rear base of the ‘Tigers’ during years of war. But now it is extremist Muslims the Sinhala people feel threatened by, with IS leader Al Bakr al-Baghdadi (later killed) claiming they were linked to the Easter atrocities.

Agitated Sri Lankans blamed the ruling coalition government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, for neglecting national security while they fought their bitter personal wars over power-sharing.

Evidence suggests that Indian intelligence had warned Sri Lanka several days ahead of the attacks but was ignored or treated with appalling casualness by Colombo’s security apparatus. This caused an uproar within the Sinhala community, who condemned the government for its lackadaisical attitude.

Troubled by intimations of new nightmares, worried Sri Lankans demanded strong and competent leadership, not the vacillating governance of a Sirisena presidency. Into the breach stepped Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had hitherto had only a perfunctory interest in politics, serving in the shadow of his elder brother, the then President Mahinda Rajapakasa, who himself had followed in his father’s political footsteps.

When the new National Unity Government of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership introduced the 19th Amendment to the constitution that hoped to eliminate – at least for a decade or more – the Rajapaksas from national politics, Mahinda and his political colleagues sought ways to make a comeback to centre stage.
Gotabaya, a US citizen, was the ultimate choice. But first he had to renounce his US citizenship, for the new government had blocked the pathway to power for another Rajapaksa brother by declaring dual citizens ineligible to hold public office.

A former military officer and a man of deeds rather than words, Gotabaya stepped out of the shadows, castigating the government for the Easter Sunday massacres and saying it would not have happened if the intelligence apparatus he had set up as defence secretary had not been dismantled by the current administration.

The Easter massacres sparked off a concern over national security which became a core issue in last month’s presidential election, much to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political advantage. He won 52.25 per cent of the total vote and a healthy margin of 1.3 million votes over Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa from a near 84 per cent voter turn-out.

The voting showed one stark reality: the country was sharply polarised along ethnic lines. The north and north-east, which are predominantly Tamil, voted 80 per cent or over for Premadasa, with the east, collectively dominated by the Tamil and Muslim communities, also comprehensively rejecting Rajapaksa.

On the other hand, Gotabaya Rajapaksa swept the Sinhala-Buddhist south, thus debunking a long-held assumption that no candidate could secure the magic 50+1 per cent of the poll to win outright, without the minority vote.

The huge anti-Rajapaksa minority vote proves one thing: his relentless pursuit of the military option against the LTTE and defeat of the enemy, when many foreign defence analysts and western media were saying that the Tigers were invincible, has made him a figure disliked and even hated by sections of the minority Tamil and Muslim communities.

Gotabaya knows this. He also knows that, given his election promises and commitment to economic development, he needs the support of the minorities.

His post-election appeals to the Tamil and Muslim communities to also ‘become parties in this victory’ is genuine enough, for he knows that without their support he cannot take the whole country forward as he hopes to.
‘I expect your support to create a moral, disciplined and lawful society,’ he said, on assuming office. ‘As president my responsibility is to serve all Sri Lankans and I will respect the rights of all Sri Lankans.’

He is aware that he must endeavour to reach out to the minorities in efforts at reconciliation. This is not only because it will serve Rajapaksa well in the long run but also because neighbouring India wants to see it happen.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promptly dispatched External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar as a special envoy to Colombo to invite new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to New Delhi, he carried a special note. It said that India expects the new government to take forward the process of national reconciliation in order to meet the ‘aspirations of the Tamil minority for equality, justice, peace and dignity’.

This time Indian diplomacy moved fast, even before China – perceived to be very close to the Rajapaksas, now holding Sri Lanka’s two top posts – could act. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa responded with alacrity to the Indian invitation, agreeing to a three-day visit to New Delhi on November 28, while elder brother Mahinda minded the store as prime minister.

But international relations will not be President Rajapaksa’s immediate priority. He will be a domestic president until he sorts things out at home, including a date for the parliamentary elections.

Right now, he has an interim government until those elections, probably sometime between April and May. This should be a cake-walk. The presidential poll results showed he had won 114 of the 160 electorates; the opposition United National Party (UNP), currently in disarray, secured just 46.

Unless the now victorious Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, takes a false step between now and then, it should romp home at next year’s parliamentary polls.


Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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