The Presidency Stakes: Assessing Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Rajeewa Jayaweera, in Sunday Island, 18 August 2019, where the title reads “The Gotabaya Rajapaksa quandary”

On August 11, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or Pohottuwa held its inaugural convention at the Sugathadasa Stadium. Former President and current Leader of Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), who minutes earlier had been declared leader of the SLPP formally announced its Presidential candidate. As expected, it was MR’s younger brother, a former soldier and onetime Defense Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR). Amidst thunderous applause and fireworks, GR declared, “I love my country, I am proud of my country.” Outlining his vision for the country, he pledged; “I will not allow anyone to interfere with the sovereignty of Sri Lanka” and “I will protect you and your children.”

National security was emphasized as the single biggest concern in the minds of the general populace since the Easter Sunday terror bombings. Round 1 goes to GR who has already commenced his roadshow of calling on the Mahanayakes to receive their blessings, solicit their support and visitations to places of religious worship.

The UNP is still divided and unable to decide on their candidate.

On the face value, it would appear, many belonging to the majority community support GR’s nomination in the overall. He is remembered to a great extent by his supporters and admirers for the role he played in defeating the LTTE menace. On the other hand, he is disliked by many in minority communities.

However, a sizable number of voters from Colombo and other metro centres, including those from the majority community have serious concerns. Memories of misdeeds of the Rajapaksa clan, especially during the 2010/14 period are etched in their minds. Media has a justifiable grouse against GR over abductions, torture, and deaths of journalists under the previous regime. Some self-exiled themselves fearing for their lives. Social media is agog with anti-Gotabaya sentiments, especially by the faceless and the nameless.

To the credit of the Yahapalana administration, no journalist has been threatened, abducted, nor killed during their watch.

The Positives

GR’s critics question his patriotism. They fault him for having migrated to the US and obtaining American citizenship while the armed forces battle with LTTE terrorists was still ongoing. What they fail to realize is the fact he spent two decades in an army uniform risking life and limb defending the nation and its people. His critics, on the other hand, did not lift even a broomstick in the war against LTTE terrorism. Neither did any of their children join the tri-forces. Politicians did not venture outside their abodes without being surrounded by soldiers. Some should rightfully have been in the armed forces alongside GR.

Known as a tough administrator with a no-nonsense do or die attitude, GR has a proven track record for delivering what is necessary. Critics may state, such a trait alone is not good enough to ascend to the Presidency which may or may not be the case. On the other hand, neither of the other two politicians currently in the fray seeking nomination as the UNP Presidential candidate can boast of a similar reputation.

The several ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings have revealed the inefficiency, incompetence, and lethargy found in the political leadership and security structure of the country. It resulted in over 250 deaths and over 500 injured, some maimed for life. Judging from GR’s track record in the capacity of Secretary Defence, he would never have permitted such an atrocity to take place. Even his critics will agree with this assertion. It is such a reputation which enables him to take the moral high ground on security issues in the ongoing contest for the presidency. His opponents have no such standing. In the minds of the people, the Prime Minister’s reputation on security matters is in tatters since April 21, compounded by his lame excuse of being left out of the Security Council after the bombings.

On non-military and non-security matters, GR once again comes ahead of his competitors and critics in government. The preceding week saw piles of stinking garbage all over the streets and households in Colombo. Meanwhile, the blame game was going on between the tall on rhetoric and short on delivery Minister for Megapolis and the Colombo Mayor whose current priority is bicycle riding. Workers and residents in Colombo were heard venting their anger against the government, megapolis minister and mayoress. They lamented such a pitiable situation would never have arisen when GR was Urban Development Secretary.

The Negatives

GR’s critics and even the likes of this writer who recognize both the positive and negative aspects face several significant concerns. The focus on national security resonates with the current safety and security fears of the general public. The war-winning GR has a proven track record towards allaying such worries. However, it is a thin line that separates national security from individual rights. The Rajapaksa’s are notorious for utilizing state security apparatuses to silence political opponents and the media with no regard for the rule of law.

An incident experienced firsthand by this writer during the Rajapaksa administration is a case in point. I cut across Havelock Road towards Havelock Town and was waved aside by an army vehicle. Telephone calls from Bambalapitiya Police Station to my residence landline directed me report to the OIC immediately. He informed me I had “cut across the Secretary’s (GR’) vehicle.” I claimed ignorance due to lack of the usual siren and military outriders to be told the Secretary did not use the siren on weekends and holidays! The OIC informed a bigwig from GR’s security detail, “E vedegath Mahathmayek, Lekam Thumata varadak karanna hitha karapu theyk nemei.” (it is a respectable gentleman and had no intention of harming the Secretary). He received instructions to; “kata uththereyak aragena, thraye awawada kare nidahas karanna.” (obtain a statement, warn and release him). I left after giving my statement. Locating my residence within a half-hour of the incident from my vehicle registration number, especially on a Saturday was impressive. I could not help but wonder what would have happened had I not looked a ‘vedegath Mahathmayek.’

National security notwithstanding, no one wants to revert to such times and practices.

There are several Rajapaksa cronies facing corruption and criminal charges in court. Several are fugitives from the law. At the recent seminar held in Dubai by GR’s Eliya movement, former Ambassador to Russia and now fugitive Udayanga Weeratunga was [said to be in] attendance. What would happen with such people? Would their prosecutions continue, or will they return completely exonerated and assume positions in the GR administration? Similarly, would court cases on the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Ruggerite Tajudeen, etc. be permitted to continue or closed on some pretext?

Despite the criticism leveled against the Yahapalana regime, GR, during MR’s administration signed the Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the US without reference to Parliament in 2007 before or after signing the agreement.

The Yahapalana administration renewed the agreement in 2017 after which President Sirisena claimed ignorance.

GR has managed to revoke his US citizenship against all the odds despite at least one case against him in a US court of law. Some wonder if an understanding has been reached to arrange the signing of the much-criticized and now stalled Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and Millennium Challenge Corporation Agreement through some underhand method in the event of a GR presidency. MR recently received US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz at his residence and once again with visiting Principal Deputy Asst. Secretary Alice Wells a few days ago. Ambassador Wells also met Prime Minister Wickremesinghe but ignored President Sirisena. More clarity of his plans for SOFA and MCC is necessary.

What would happen with the UNHRC Resolution 30/1? Would it continue in its current form as co-sponsored by the Yahapalana administration? If not, would a revision be negotiated using the Paranagama Commission Report and Lord Naseby’s revelations?

What of the nation’s unmanageable external debt and what action would be taken to reduce the debt burden while also reducing the growth of borrowings in the coming decade?

MR, during the SLPP inaugural convention, stated, “When I took office, there were 700,000 public workers. But when I gave over the country to the current government, we had about 1.5 million public workers in our workforce. We always believed graduates should be provided with jobs.” Is that GR’s vision for this country?

Only in a communist state is the state a full-time employment provider for both graduates and non-graduates. In all other countries, the state employs only those of the essential services. The role of the state is to create the necessary framework and environment for the private sector and foreign investors to invest and create job opportunities in the process. Vital for such an endeavor is to reform the laws governing industrial relations (labor law) from its current non-productive state. What does GR hope to do?

GR has undertaken to take responsibility for the security of all citizens. It is a known fact he is accused of having prevented the prosecution of Bodu Bala Sena thugs who rampaged Dharga Town during the anti-Muslim riots in 2014. Will he undertake to take responsibility for the security of the Muslim community while single-mindedly pursuing the terrorist elements in the country? It will take more than mere promises to convince the Muslims.

These are some of the many factors troubling those who have not forgotten the evils of the 2010/14 Rajapaksa administration.

The quandary

A day earlier, MR, in an interview with Virakesari, the Tamil newspaper had stated, the 19th Amendment gave more executive powers to the Prime Minister. He further declared; he would be the SLPP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Was it a gentle reminder to ‘Malli’ who the boss would be in a GR presidency, sans any ministerial powers and an SLPP controlled parliament?

GR needs to understand, “Lessons will be learned from past mistakes” are mere words. A much stronger commitment not to repeat past mistakes will be required to convince those opposed to his election as President. Also important is to make voters understand, he will be his own man and not his elder brother’s shadow or hatched man.

An open and transparent approach would be the best method to allay the fears of those reluctant to vote for him. Two one-hour TV sessions with a neutral moderator and GR providing answers is one option. The last half hour could be allocated to the public to call in random questions.R

It would go a long way in resolving the Gotabaya Rajapaksa quandary and convincing voters he deserves their vote.

PS

As this column goes to Press, latest reports state GR’s name does not appear in the list of US citizens renouncing citizenship up to 30 June. Correcting past mistakes could begin by putting this matter to rest with irrefutable proof.

****  ****

ALSO NOTE

* Tisaranee Gunasekera: “Gota-land?” in Sunday Island, 19 August 2019, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=209165

* MR Badhrakumar: “A Populist Strongman in the Wings in Sri Lanka,” 16 August 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/a-populist-strongman-in-the-wings-in-sri-lanka/

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Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, Bodu Bala Sena, chauvinism, communal relations, constitutional amendments, democratic measures, economic processes, foreign policy, governance, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, Islamic fundamentalism, island economy, legal issues, life stories, Muslims in Lanka, politIcal discourse, power politics, Presidential elections, Rajapaksa regime, sri lankan society, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

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