Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa: Civil war winner toppled by protests


NEW DELHI, July 9 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw a ruthless crushing of the Tamil Tigers to end the country’s long civil war and became president, looks set to be forced out of office. functions after months of protests.

Following the dramatic storming of the president’s official residence by protesters on Saturday, the speaker of parliament said in a video statement that Rajapaksa had informed him that he would step down on July 13. There was no immediate word from Rajapaksa himself. Read more

Unlike his older brother Mahinda, who dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly 20 years as president and prime minister, Gotabaya did not embark on a life in government.

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Instead, he joined the army at the age of 21, serving for two decades and reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. Retiring early, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked in information technology.

Gotabaya’s entry into politics came when Mahinda became President of Sri Lanka in 2005 and appointed him Defense Secretary, putting him in charge of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a guerrilla group fighting for an independent state in the north of the country.

After 26 years of conflict, the Tigers finally conceded defeat in 2009 following a fierce government offensive in which the United Nations estimated that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians had been killed in the past few months alone. of the war. The government countered that the rebels were keeping thousands of civilians as human shields, adding to the death toll.

While Gotabaya was considered a war hero by many Sinhalese Buddhists on the island, others accused him of war crimes, including murder, torture and the disappearance of government critics – charges he has always denied.

Although he resigned in 2015 when Mahinda lost power, the Rajapaksas, seen as tough on extremism, were able to return to the political fore after coordinated suicide bombings by Islamist militants who killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday 2019.

With Mahinda barred from running due to a two-term limit, this left Gotabaya as the obvious candidate to represent the Rajapaksa family and their Sri Lanka Podujana party.

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Gotabaya was scathing at the government at the time, claiming it had dismantled a comprehensive intelligence network it had set up during the civil war.

“They didn’t prioritize national security,” he told Reuters a week after the bombings when announcing his presidential bid. “They were talking about ethnic reconciliation, then they were talking about human rights issues, they were talking about individual freedoms.”

Gotabaya won the November 2019 poll by a wide margin and vowed to represent all Sri Lankans regardless of ethnic and religious identity.

His campaign was little affected by two trials in the United States which accused him of being involved in the kidnapping and murder of a journalist, as well as being complicit in the torture of a man belonging to the Tamil ethnic community.

He called the lawsuits baseless.

In August 2020, his party increased its two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing the repeal of laws limiting presidential power – including the two-term limit.

He reappointed Mahinda as prime minister and a host of other relatives in ministerial posts, cementing the Rajapaksa family as one of the most dominant in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history.

But the family’s hold on power did not last long.

Hit hard by the pandemic and populist tax cuts, Sri Lanka has fallen into its worst economic crisis since the end of colonial rule. Shortages of basic necessities and runaway inflation have taken thousands to the streets during months of protests this year.

Mahinda resigned as prime minister after a mob of his supporters attacked anti-government protesters on May 9, leaving Gotabaya an increasingly isolated figure, rarely leaving his residence as the unrest escalated.

Protesters stormed Gotabaya’s residence on Saturday and also set fire to the Prime Minister’s house in Colombo. Neither were in their residences at the time. Two Defense Ministry sources said Rajapaksa left the official residence on Friday ahead of the planned weekend protest and Reuters could not immediately confirm his whereabouts.

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Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Alex Richardson

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