Home » Eventually his and his wife’s lives were at stake
Gotabaya did not control protestors even as they turned violent

Eventually his and his wife’s lives were at stake

by Gayan Abeykoon
September 18, 2023 1:26 am 0 comment

Is former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa planning to return to politics, is the buzzing question circulating around Colombo. It has been alleged that under a new party, Mawbima Janatha Party, he is visiting the villages he went to as President during the “Gama Samage Pilisadara” program. This is in an effort to consolidate support from the grassroots.

At this juncture, this is mere conjecture. Apparently, the former President is trying to ‘clean’ his image with explanations as to what went wrong during his tenure. Even if these reports are true, to jump to the conclusion that the objective is to emerge again as the next Presidential candidate is a wide leap.

Hence he allowed anti-Government protesters to march right up to his gate in both his private and official residences as well as the Presidential Secretariat. He even prepared a ground right outside his Office for protestors to voice their dissent. This must be compared to the response protestors received from Presidents before and after him.

He was the Chief of all the Security Forces of the country. Yet, he did not use any to control the protestors even as they turned violent and eventually his and his wife’s lives were at stake. Instead, he opted to resign from Office and leave the island.

The 2022 Fiasco

The economy began to collapse with the dawn of 2022. This was due to a multitude of reasons.

The economy was already in bad shape when Gotabaya took Office in late 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out a month later and the global lockdown that took place less than six months into Office seriously challenged his plans for economic resuscitation.

While these plans were backfiring, he remained determined to safeguard democratic rights. That is like attempting to drink fresh water in a waterway that had a huge oil spill. Allowing the protests further damaged the chances of economic recovery.

The saga of the tourist industry is a case in point. That industry buckled with the Easter Sunday attack in April 2019 and remained shutdown during the two years of lockdown was beginning to raise its head when the anti-Government protests began. As the velocity of the protests gained, tourist arrivals began to rapidly drop. With that, a key forex earning avenue was blocked.

For unfathomable reasons, the Gotabaya Administration failed to stop the unofficial money-exchange rates that were established in the country. Nearly 50 percent of our national debt was owed to foreign creditors. Therefore the then Government was desperately trying to protect the LKR from devaluing. If that happened, the country would get even more weighed down by the debt burden.

While that made financial sense, it left those earning and dependent on forex feeling cheated. Their foreign currency was not given the ‘true’ rupee value by the Central Bank. This made many exporters stop bringing their earnings into the country.

All the Government had to do was reintroduce laws compelling these exporters to bring in their earnings and stop parking them overseas. Without these laws, these companies were able to keep their earnings in foreign banks. In time, forex reserves in local banks depleted. This allowed exporters at exorbitant exchange rates determined by them, to open Letters of Credit for manufacturers. Officials including middle-level executives in banks began to facilitate this system for commissions. Thereby the entire banking system began to corrupt.

Therefore, the economic crisis of 2022 is not due to a particular factor or person. It was a cumulative effect and every single adult citizen of the country is responsible for it. However, without attempting to understand the true causes that contributed to the economic near collapse, it was easier to blame the politicians.

The Rajapaksa family

The Rajapaksa family was especially at the receiving end of these allegations. President Gotabaya’s successful efforts at combating the pandemic and having the entire population vaccinated lay forgotten as people queued for fuel and gas whilst enduring power outages for half the day.

There is a history to this accusation. After the war against terrorism was defeated, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political standing was considered to be unshakable. The victory of peace had greater implications than merely winning a war.

This was a war that was considered to be militarily impossible to defeat. Self-claimed experts pronounced that a military intervention at its best would only result in civilian casualties at catastrophic levels rather than defeating terrorism. Therefore, the actual defeat severely discredited the naysayers.

Furthermore, the Western Governments were vehemently against the Military intervention. The US supported Sri Lanka under the Bush regime. However, once Obama Barrack came to power in January 2009, the US stance too changed.

This change of stance could be due to numerous reasons. One could be the change of administration. Another could be the emergence of China as a potential superpower.

Until 2008, the US had good cordial relations with China. However, it was during the 2008 economic global meltdown that it dawned on the US the financial superiority of China.

The then President Mahinda took full advantage of China’s deep pockets. Thus, countries who did not like or feared China’s rise in power and influence began to see President Mahinda as a problem.

Whether it was a change of policy or a realization that to downsize China’s rise, those like President Mahinda need to be chopped down is a question before our political scientists. Either way, the West did not want the terrorists defeated.

It is against this prescription that President Mahinda proceeded and resolutely ended terrorism. In the process, the then Sri Lankan Government ensured by adopting a zero civilian casualty policy, civilian casualties were kept at the minimum.

Unfortunately, the then political Opposition sided against the Government and did not support the war effort. Thus, when the war that was pronounced to be impossible to win was won, the West and their self-proclaimed experts were left red-faced and the then Opposition politically discredited.

Whilst winning the war, the Mahinda Administration’s economic revolution was remarkable. The country’s landscape changed dramatically as infrastructure that had been in the pipeline for decades came into existence. At the time it appeared that the then Opposition had zero chance of ever coming into power and that the Rajapaksa clan was politically set for life.

The West too could not afford to lose face in this manner. Their power was been challenged by not only China but also India. Hence allowing a proud national leader as Mahinda Rajapaksa could lead to a bad precedent.

The only way to dislodge the Rajapaksa administration was to discredit the war and its economic activities. Hence precipitated allegations of war crimes as well as insinuations of corruption. It was claimed that one-third of all project funds went into the Rajapaksa pockets. If one-third of the money was stolen, then how was the project completed was neither asked by any nor explained.

Once Tarnished, Always Tarnished

In a combination of arrogance and ignorance, the Rajapaksas never bothered to respond to these allegations. To be fair, the allegations of Human Rights violations during the final phase of the war took place in the august halls of UNHRC, Geneva. This is a diplomatic battle that countries such as Sri Lanka are not on a strong footing to fight. Still, Sri Lanka was not entirely alone or powerless.

We had powerful friends such as Russia and China. We also had strong evidence to dispute the allegations. Yet, the strong leadership needed from the Foreign Ministry at that time for ambassadors to fight back was sadly lacking. While we had few successes in Geneva, overall our performance was poor and with each year the accusations just piled up.

Domestically also the Rajapaksas could not control the accusations against them. In 2013-14, social media was a new platform for Sri Lanka. Therefore, the clever strategies that formulate opinions and influence thinking hit Sri Lankans like a bullet. This was the main reason for President Mahinda to lose the Presidential Elections in 2015.

Due to various reasons, votes quickly lost confidence in the succeeding Government. The call for Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa to return to the power seat grew steadily louder. It was not a surprise that Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power with an unusually high mandate and his Government got the rare two-third majority.

Yet, when things went sideways economically, it was with surprising ease people returned to the belief that the Rajapaksas were rogues. Just as during 2013-14, the accusations made in 2022 too were without factual evidence. At the very least, how much was stolen is not even estimated.

Today Gotabaya Rajapaksa is returning to villages he visited as President to clear his name, then it is a long overdue effort. For the foreseeable future, his home will be Sri Lanka. Whether he aspires to return to politics is beside the point. He should meet the people and explain what really took place that led to his resignation – especially as he left without a word.

Is GR really planning to return to politics?

However, whether such an effort is taking place by the former President is difficult to believe. According to this speculation, the party that Gotabaya is planning to re-enter politics is said to be owned by the media tycoon. This challenges the credibility of the whole speculation for two main reasons.

The tycoon played a pivotal role in Gotabaya’s Presidential campaign even before the campaign was launched. However, by 2021, he was deeply disenchanted by the then administration’s governance.

When the economy hit the crisis mode, the tycoon was not in speaking terms with President Gotabaya. As the call for President Gotabaya to resign grew in crescendo, the tycoon not only agreed but met him without an appointment and advised him to do so.

The tycoon is a man of principle. Therefore, for him to support now the very person he renounced seems quite unlikely.

The other reason that makes this speculation implausible is that the tycoon himself is hoping to come forth in the next Presidential Election. He is tired of investing in others who fail once in Office. Thus, he feels it is better if he can come to power and change the country for the better. In this endeavour, he had not been beating about the bush. He is quite vociferous about his own political ambitions.

After voicing his thoughts aloud, and justifying his aspirations, how he could rationalize stepping down to bring another person, especially the person whom he was extremely and bitterly critical, back to power would be confounding.

Damage Sinhala politicians inflict on Sinhala voters

Interestingly, there is also talk that the former Governor of the Eastern Province, Anuradha Yahampath too is considering coming forth as a Presidential candidate. Hence, before us, three possible candidates are said to be considering themselves to contest at the next Presidential Elections.

For argument’s sake, if we were to accept that these speculations are true, what would be the consequences is something that needs to be discussed. All three are considered as nationalists. As such, if all three come as candidates, it will divide the Sinhala Buddhist vote. None of them may get a sizable chunk of votes. This will only serve to embarrass the Sinhala Buddhist voters.

If by any chance one of them did win, it still does not mean that they can bring about the changes they want. President Gotabaya was a President who came to Office with one of the strongest mandates. Yet, when he lost support from the Parliament as he antagonized those who were loyal to him, his executive powers held little meaning.

Sinhala politicians, especially those who come from the platform of Sinhalese have been letting the Sinhala voter very badly. This can be traced back to the Sihala Urumaya days.

Before Sihala Urumaya, a small party by the name of Bhoomiputhra began to agitate for the rights of Sinhalese. At the time, the two main parties were unable to form their own Government without alliances from minority parties. This was a very unhealthy situation as the main parties became subjugated to the demands of the minority parties. It became a scenario of the tail wagging the dog.

Thus the formation of Bhoomiputhra was a timely one. However, this was cannibalized by the emergence of the more vibrant Sihala Urumaya. The conduct of the Sihala Urumaya after winning one single seat at the Parliament was atrocious and left the Sinhala Buddhist smarting with embarrassment. That same embarrassment was repeated when respected venerable monks were fielded as candidates. Discrediting Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as the untimely and unceremonious exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa all served to embarrass the Sinhala voters.

Therefore, any of these speculated candidates and any other who wants to contest in the name of the Sinhalese must be mindful of the damage already caused to the Sinhalese. If there is only one lesson to be learnt from the Gotabaya Rajapaksa tenure, then it is this – winning elections is only the first step. It takes a lot more than a mandate from the people to do right by our country.

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Shivanthi Ranasinghe

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