Colombo, Sri Lanka – Famous President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka resigned after fled to Singapore via the Maldivesbrings a dramatic end to the rule of the powerful Rajapaksa clan for more than 20 years, leaving a deep country economic and political crisis.
Rajapaksa, a 73-year-old retired army officer, is Sri Lanka’s eighth executive chairman.
He is the younger brother of the family patriarch and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ruled Sri Lanka for two terms and also served as prime minister until he was forced to step down earlier this year.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nearly three-year rule was criticized as the worst in post-independence Sri Lanka for failing to contain the worst economic crisis the island has seen in years. decade.
The cost of living has skyrocketed and huge shortages of fuel and other essential goods have caused unprecedented protest in the country of 22 million people earlier this year, forcing him to flee the country and quit his job.
Rajapaksa is also to blame for overturning the country’s democratic achievements by changing the constitution and giving himself far-reaching powers after being elected president in 2019.
Until recently, Rajapaksa was hailed as a war hero who led a ruthless military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels demanding a separate state in northern Sri Lanka.
The decades-long civil war ended in 2009, leaving thousands of Tamil rebels, civilians and soldiers dead. The attack was led by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with Gotabaya serving as defense secretary.
After the deadly 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in churches and hotels, Rajapaksa, until then a political novice, was elected president on national security as he turned against his government. Islam in a majority Buddhist country.
Akram Ashroff, a 22-year-old IT student and resident of the eastern district of Batticaloa, said he was a frequent visitor to the anti-government protest site in central Colombo, dubbed “GotaGoGama”.
“He (Rajapaksa) made people feel insecure, especially ethnic and religious minorities. He divides communities and is politically arrogant. He will be remembered as the most ineffective president who in a short time drove his country to bankruptcy, an unparalleled legacy,” Ashroff told Al Jazeera.
“Besides, he promotes religious hatred and occasionally targets Tamils and Muslims. He is the president of the majority Sinhalese Buddhism, in his own words. But these Sinhalese Buddhists have now kicked him out of office,” he said.
He (Rajapaksa) made people feel insecure, especially ethnic and religious minorities.
Rajapaksa left a country in turmoil and without the affection he once received from the majority of the people.
“His refusal to take advice and his political immaturity contributed to his downfall. He wants to run the country as a military leader but unlike the army, he lacks both strategy and pragmatism,” a close aide of Rajapaksa told Al Jazeera under the condition that anonymous.
“Amending the constitution to undo democratic reforms shows his lack of respect for democratic institutions. His late populist politics could not prevent a popular uprising against him.”
Alan Keenan, senior consultant on Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group, said Rajapaksa had left behind “a broken and much poorer country facing a life-threatening economic collapse. and there is no easy or quick fix.”
He told Al Jazeera: “But his failed leadership has also helped create a new citizenry unexpectedly energetic and united in the resistance against tyrannical and exploitative rule. “.
“Racism and militarism and a vision of a return to pre-colonial glory have won Gotabaya – and its brother Mahinda before it – so much support from Sinhala voters that it is not could rescue millions of people who are currently struggling to find fuel and medicine or pay for their next lives’ meals.”
With Rajapaksas’s departure, Keenan hopes Sri Lankans will learn “long-lasting lessons about the dead end of authoritarian nationalism” and find “new political means to project democracy.” modernization begins with the struggle of the people” and “holds firmly into account – or promotes aside – the established political class of Sri Lanka”.
He told Al Jazeera: “History does not provide much basis for optimism but it does bring surprises, like the fall of a seemingly invincible ruling dynasty less than two years ago. .
Shanthi Jesudasan, 41, from the northern city of Vavuniya and a mother of three school-going children, said she joined the protests for two reasons.
“As a Tamil, I have only witnessed violence and discrimination directed at the community. My relatives who live in the north are all missing and have been searching for missing people since 2009,” she told Al Jazeera.
“He is the president who has rejected us over the years and has no interest in moving this country in a peaceful direction. In the past few months, he has also robbed the future of the next generation and crippled the entire country,” she said.
His overthrow (Rajapaksa) shows the rise of democratic forces in Sri Lanka and public anger against authoritarianism, undemocratic practices and political arrogance.
Dharmanath Dissanayake, a retired teacher in Kurunegala, said he once swore to Rajapaksas because brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya were able to bring the civil war to an end.
“Finally there is peace and people can walk freely without fear. But he has no plans other than that and that is why Sri Lanka has now been declared bankrupt,” he told Al Jazeera.
“He lacks foresight and foresight. There are also allegations of corruption. He failed the entire country, including the Sinhalese he pledged to serve, and it was the Sinhalese that ultimately brought his regime to an end,” he said.
‘The Prudentialism Project’
Post-independence Sri Lanka was ruled by a handful of families. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a member of such a family.
Manjula Gajanayake, executive director of the Colombo-based Institute for Electoral and Democratic Reform (IRES), said Gotabaya was not elected to the presidency “due to some unique ability or service.” but because it’s a “family project”.
Gajanayake told Al Jazeera: “Rajapaksa’s hold on Sri Lankan politics is also the country’s biggest housewarming regime project.
“He made his way to office after knocking out socialism and garnering support from people who did not believe in democracy or democratic governance. Part of his legacy is the crushing of democratic voices and the space to improve his neo-right project,” he said.
“But his ouster shows the rise of democratic forces in Sri Lanka and public anger against autocracy, undemocratic practices and political arrogance.”
Rohan Pethiyionary is a leading Sri Lankan scientist who won the prestigious Linnean Medal in zoology in 2022, and is a public policy advocate.
Summing up Rajapaksa’s legacy, he said: “His presidency was defined by ignorance, bigotry and an inability to communicate effectively with his people. He banned modern agriculture, forcing two million farmers into poverty. He printed trillions of rupees while denying a causal link between money supply and inflation. He stubbornly rejected the advice of experts that these ‘innovations’ would destroy the economy.
“And for 31 months of his presidency, he did not hold a press conference, relying instead on delivering badly scripted speeches to a remote camera. All of this, haunted by the ghosts of murdered journalists on his watch,” Pethiyionary told Al Jazeera.
Press watchdogs say that between 2005 and 2015, at least 13 journalists were murdered in Sri Lanka. Among them was the government critic and founding editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was implicated in the Gotabaya assassination.
A trial is underway at the People’s Court in The Hague where incriminating evidence has been presented to indict him.
Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer and human rights researcher, told Al Jazeera that the Sri Lankan leader is facing allegations of serious human rights abuses both during and after the civil war.
“These cases are well documented and some of these cases have been filed both nationally and internationally. This suggests he had an intentional role in these violations. These cases cannot be handled partly because of his immunity and partly because of the weakness in the justice system in Sri Lanka,” she said.
Fonseka said the leader will always be linked to serious violations against the country’s citizens and that he will never be able to escape that legacy.
“He has fled and is expected to resign, but citizens must remember his role in all these violations, demand accountability and explore options both in Sri Lanka. and other places. Resigning would result in a loss of immunity and this would make it easier to hold him accountable,” she said.