South Asia

As Gotabaya Flees, Sri Lanka Finally Closes the Rajapaksa Chapter

How the Sri Lankan president lost a golden opportunity to exit in peace and with dignity.

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If only Gotabaya Rajapaksa had understood the pulse of his people, the Sri Lankan president would not have had to flee his house the way he did in Colombo.

This is the tragedy around the world, with dictators who think – even as they start to sink – that they can manipulate events and personalities to remain in power, ignoring the shrill calls for their ouster.

If Gotabaya had not presided over the seemingly impossible military destruction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, it is doubtful if he would have earned a safe passage on July 9 courtesy the Sri Lanka Navy.

Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photo: Andy Buchanan/Pool via Reuters

When the president forced his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign as prime minister after nationwide violence on May 9 and dropped from the government his other equally wily sibling Basil Rajapaksa, he assumed he would now be able to somehow surmount the anger on the streets.

In all probability, the entire Rajapaksa clan thought on those lines. As Mahinda took shelter in a military camp in the eastern town of Trincomalee after quitting as PM, his son Namal Rajapaksa had the gumption to say that what had happened to his father was only “a bad patch”.

Also read: Sri Lankan PM Wickremesinghe to Step Down, Make Way for All-Party Government

The Rajapaksas, Namal insisted, had no intention of fleeing the country.

But as tens of thousands of determined and angry protesters marched in Colombo on the morning of July 9 after pouring into the capital from all over the country, Gotabaya had no choice but to take the same hurried exit as his elder brother – shelter in the arms of the military. The entire security and military establishment could not save the President’s ultimate humiliation.

One wonders what could have happened to Gotabaya had he remained in the President’s House when the frenzied crowds defied tear gas, gunfire and multiple security barricades to storm his official citadel. It was good for him that he had vacated the plush residence which in no time became “public property” – from the tastefully-decorated rooms to the well-stocked kitchen, from the private gym to the swimming pool.

The mass uprising to oust a president who had defiantly declared that he will not quit could have been avoided had Gotabaya heeded repeated warnings from friends and foes and bowed out of office in a dignified manner.

After all, as Sri Lankans began to get impoverished because of an unprecedented economic meltdown, with even essential commodities like food, fuel and medicines disappearing or becoming too costly for most people to afford, the anger across the country steadily mounted.

Not only the opposition parties but even religious figures (Buddhists and Christians in particular) and leaders of the civil society and professional groupings began to pester the President to resign along with his handpicked prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who came in after Mahinda quit.

The Sri Lankan media more or less faithfully echoed people’s sentiments.

Even before Mahinda stepped down, I had commented in The Wire on April 5:

“Gotabaya has lost the moral right to rule Sri Lanka. The thousands who take to the streets almost daily across the country of 22 million are united in their demand: this government has to go, Gotabaya must exit… Cosmetic changes are not going to change the mood on the Sri Lankan street. Gotabaya may or may not be the only reason for Sri Lanka’s worst economic meltdown but he cannot evade responsibility. The opposition or even an all-party government may not provide immediate solutions to the crisis. But once you lose the moral right to rule, it is best to quit, on your own. Gotabaya must do that. He will never be able to win Sri Lankan hearts again.”

Also read: For Sri Lanka’s Sake, Gotabaya Rajapaksa Must Resign

Gotabaya did lie low for a while but suddenly bounced back as if he was confident of restoring the fiscal health of a country battered by huge foreign debts and a bankrupt economy. After a brief honeymoon, the president and the prime minister began to hold meetings with officials separately, adding to the confusion and mess.

Much to the chagrin of the man on the street, Gotabaya added fuel to the fire by becoming pro-active on the diplomatic front, meeting top diplomats and even telephoning Russian president Vladimir Putin, while his clueless foreign minister flew from one country to another seeking bailouts for Sri Lanka.

The president was under pressure to go so that an all-party government could take over for at least a year to let the international community know that any aid given to prop up Sri Lanka would not end up enriching the Rajapaksas or their coterie.

Just days before the momentous events of July 9, Gotabaya almost set Parliament ablaze by making a sudden appearance in the House, sparking noisy protests by opposition MPs. The president was cleverly trying to rehabilitate himself politically so that he himself could preside over a pliant all-party government. 

The tragedy with the Rajapaksas is that they killed innocent Tamils just because they wanted to crush the LTTE come what may; then, with the military victory going into their head, they ruled Sri Lanka as if it was a personal fiefdom.

Corruption, never a stranger to Sri Lanka, became a way of life. The Rajapaksas spent millions of dollars on productive projects even as the economy began to take one blow after another. With large sections of the military beholden to them for letting the army defeat the LTTE, the Rajapaksas assumed that they were secure forever.

Clearly, they had not read contemporary history very well.

M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.