Who is Gotabaya Rajapaksa: The man who brought all of Sri Lanka to the streets

A profile of the soldier-turned-politician Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose current regime has been under fire as the country’s economic crisis begins to take the shape of a humanitarian crisis

April 24, 2022 by Shriya Singh
Gotabaya Rajapaksa Sri Lanka
Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Photo: Daily News)

A tent city has emerged outside the office of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa where large-scale demonstrations have been taking place for more than five days to demand his resignation. At Galle Face, where the president’s office is located, sign boards have been renamed ‘Gotagoma’ or ‘Gotago village’, highlighting the central role of the president in the ongoing difficulties faced by the country.

Three months of an acute economic crisis has left the Sri Lanka’s markets without essentials like diesel, milk powder and medicinal drugs. Between April 9 and 11, the country recorded three more deaths in fuel queues. Under pressure from the civil society and with increasing international attention on the continuing crisis, Sri Lanka engaged in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from April 18-22. Following the talks the IMF released a statement wherein it vowed to “support Sri Lanka’s efforts to overcome the current economic crisis by working closely with the authorities on their economic program, and by engaging with all other stakeholders in support of a timely resolution of the crisis.”

Factors explaining the current crisis vary from populist tax cuts to short-sighted policymaking, COVID-19, and the global oil price rise following the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The demand of the citizens remains the same – the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his position as president. Some are even demanding the political exit of the influential Rajapaksa family. 

Peoples Dispatch takes a look at the life and career of the embattled president of Sri Lanka as he struggles to retain his presidency.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – ‘The Terminator’

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected to become the seventh executive president of Sri Lanka in 2019 replacing Maithripala Sirisena. He is the first elected president with a military background, having served as a career military officer during the 26-years-long civil war in Sri Lanka. The soldier turned politician also served as the war-time defense secretary during his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency from 2005 until the end of the war against the separatist militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.

Sri Lanka’s civil war began in 1983 when the LTTE launched an intermittent insurgency against the government, leading to a long drawn ethnic conflict between the Tamil-speaking and Sinhala-speaking populations on the island.

Often referred to as ‘The Terminator’ for his role in brutally suppressing the LTTE, the current president of Sri Lanka has been accused of grave human rights violations and the deaths of at least 40,000 civilians (as estimated by the UN) in the Tamil areas in north-eastern Sri Lanka towards the end of the war. He was also allegedly associated with the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.

Amongst the nearly 16 million Sinhala Buddhist population, the two Rajapaksa brothers are projected as ‘heroes’ who brought the country out of the civil war. This sentiment was reflected in the run-up to the 2019 presidential elections when Gotabaya won with a significantly polarized mandate shortly after the Easter Sunday attacks which targeted minorities like Christians and Muslims.

Veteran journalist and watcher of Sri Lanka M.R. Narayan Swamy writes, “It is sad but true that the mayhem had the widespread support of the Sinhalese, the majority community, large sections of which had come to identify themselves with the overwhelmingly Sinhalese military as it battled the LTTE.”

The Rajapaksas in Sri Lankan politics 

The Rajapaksas have dominated the political history of post-2009 Sri Lanka for the most part. The family rose to prominence under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency where as many as 40 ministerial positions (including seven cabinet posts) were assigned to the Rajapaksa family members. Dynastic power politics has led to accusations of nepotism and autocracy which have continued under Gotabaya’s rule. 

Senior journalist Amantha Perera wrote in TIME magazine in 2010, “Throughout his career, one of Rajapksa’s (Mahinda) main traits has been his reliance on close family members. Immediate family members who hold top and influential positions in his government have steadily risen, despite complaints from the opposition of nepotism.” This holds true even now.

Before the mass resignations of cabinet members of the Gotabaya government on April 4, important portfolios were being handled by his close family members like brothers Mahinda (prime minister), Basil (finance) and Chamal (irrigation), and nephew Namal (sports). 

Governance and policies

At the time of his election as president in 2019, Gotabaya’s promises of economic revival and providing security worked well for his electoral win, given his image as a military man coming to power after the shock of the Church attacks. However, three years later, his government has not only failed on the economic front but has turned ‘security’ into a tool of public surveillance and further militarization.

Using the anti-terrorism law Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to curb dissent and target minorities like Muslims is a case in point. Appointment of ex-military personnel as governors of Tamil-speaking minority provinces have proved to further obstruct the autonomy of the provincial councils which overlook administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces as a part of the post-war peace process.

Gotabaya’s policies have been largely criticized for their short-sightedness. For example, many activists have denounced the forced eviction of slum dwellers for the project to beautify Colombo. 

On April 22, 2021, Gotabaya’s government announced a complete ban on the use and import of chemical fertilizers in order to make the country the “world’s first 100 percent organic food producer.” Being a primarily import-dependent agricultural economy, the overnight shift to organic farming posed a serious challenge to Sri Lankan farmers. This has contributed to the food shortage that is currently being witnessed across the country.