Gotabaya Rajapaksa: how the fugitive president of Sri Lanka turned from a “war hero” into a fugitive

However, the final days of the Rajapaksa dynasty in Sri Lanka tell a very different story.

He was expected to retire later that day, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not wait to make it official. Instead, before dawn, he boarded a military plane from Colombo, the commercial capital of crisis hit countryand fled to the Maldives.

His departure is a historic moment for the island nation of 22 million, which the Rajapaks have ruled with an iron fist for much of the past two decades before losing the faith of their once-adoring citizens.

“The sight of Gotabai Rajapaksa fleeing Sri Lanka on an air force plane represents the (fall) of this family,” said Ganeshan Vignaraja, senior fellow at UK think tank ODI Global.

“I don’t think their legacy is positive. But there is hope that Sri Lanka will move in a new direction.”

As jubilant Sri Lankans still swim in the presidential pool, sing in the presidential dining room and dance around the lavish presidential grounds, it’s clear that many share that optimism – at least for now.

What happens over the next 24 hours will largely determine the future of the country, and Rajapaksa’s long-term intentions are still unclear.

Protesters outside the official residence of Sri Lankan President Gotabai Rajapaksa in Colombo on July 12.

Rise of the Rajapaks

As the country takes its first steps into a new and exciting period, experts say it’s good to reflect on what went wrong the last time since the rise and fall of Rajapaksa.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not the first member of the family to become president. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksawho, like Gotabaya, was widely regarded as a “war hero” by the majority of the population, was elected president in 2005 and achieved almost legendary status in 2009 when he declared victory in a 26-year civil war against the Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers insurgency.
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) and his brother Basil Rajapaksa (right) during an election campaign in the suburbs of Kirillawala, Sri Lanka, April 4, 2010.

This victory gave Mahinda Rajapaksa an almost inexhaustible source of political capital to draw upon, and he continued to enjoy 10 years of power during which he was respected by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. People called him “appacci” – the father of the nation – and people often bowed when he passed, and feared for him when he was unwell.

For most of his term, Mahinda Rajapaksa ran Sri Lanka like a family business, appointing his brothers to key positions; Gotabaya as Minister of Defense, Basil as Minister of Economic Development and Chamal as Speaker of Parliament.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) with her brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019.

And while the good times went on, despite criticisms of nepotism, the brothers remained popular. The country has experienced years of growth, fueled by huge government borrowing from abroad to fund public services.

But the good times didn’t last long.

Short break and return

While the civil war did much to create the legend of Mahinda Rajapaksa, it also contained the first signs of his downfall.

According to a 2011 UN report, government forces are responsible for abuses including deliberate targeting of civilians, summary executions, rape, and blocking access to food and medicine from affected communities. The UN report states that “A number of credible sources estimate that up to 40,000 civilians have died.”

The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has always vehemently denied such accusations.

However, his problems began to grow.

Human rights issues have gone beyond war. Political opponents accused Mahinda Rajapaksa of tacit approval far-right Buddhist groups, and Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil minorities feared wider reprisals against their communities.

At the same time, anger over Mahinda’s alleged nepotism grew as signs of economic trouble emerged, and it became clear that there would be a price to pay for the government’s earlier largesse.

By 2015 Sri Lanka owed China $8 billion, and Sri Lankan government officials predicted that the accumulated foreign debt – both to China and to other countries – would eat up 94% of the country’s GDP.
In the same year, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost close presidential elections to his former Minister of Health.

“Sri Lanka is a democratic country and people were shocked by such attempts at nepotism,” Wignaraja said. “It’s a combination of (nepotism) and economic mismanagement… people were upset that they chose these people.”

This might have been enough to finish off the lesser dynasty, but not the Rajapaksa.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa with his wife Ayoma on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019.
In April 2019 Islamic militants at least 290 killed a man in a string of bombings in churches and luxury hotels. The panicked nation turned to the only family they knew had a proven track record in national security.

In November of the same year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the country’s new president. And, like his brother, he viewed management as a family affair.

“People once again expressed their full confidence in us,” said Mahinda Rajapaksa after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections a year later.

“We will fulfill their aspirations and will always appreciate the trust placed in us.”

Soon after, Gotabaya appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa.

‘Sin’

However, as with his brother, cracks began to appear in Gotabai Rajapaksa’s presidency as questions about his government’s economic management continued to rise.

Experts say Sri Lanka’s economic problems were not only the fault of the government, but their woes were getting worse a string of bad decisions.

Murtaza Jafferji, chairman of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute, said the massive increase in borrowing that Sri Lanka has begun to fund its public service has coincided with a series of hammer blows on Sri Lanka’s economy, from natural disasters such as strong monsoons, up to a person. -made.

Sri Lankan PM declares state of emergency as president flees to Maldives

Faced with huge deficits, Rajapaksa cut taxes in a doomed attempt to stimulate the economy.

But the move backfired, hitting government revenue instead. The rating agencies then downgraded Sri Lanka to near default, meaning the country lost access to foreign markets. Sri Lanka then had to use its foreign exchange reserves to pay off the public debt. This affected the import of fuel and other necessities, causing prices to skyrocket.

On the streets, the once-adoring Rajapaksa public found themselves unable to feed their families or fill up their cars. Now people must queue for hours for fuel, often clashing with the police and military. The supermarket shelves are empty. Medicine supplies are running out.

And they blame it on the Rajapakas. For months now, angry Sri Lankans have taken to the streets, accusing Gotabay and Mahinda Rajapaksa of mismanaging the economy.

People crowd into the official residence of President Gotabai Rajapaksa three days after it was stormed by anti-government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 12.

These protests began peacefully but turned violent in May, causing Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down as prime minister. But his decision did little to quell the disappointment, and his brother remained in power as president.

For several weeks, Gotabaya clung, apparently unwilling to see the dynasty fall. But in the end, he had no choice, as the palatial home he once used to entertain the powerful was overrun by crowds fleeing the heat in its sparkling pool and picnicking on its sprawling lawn.

As Vignaraia noted, these images have become a worthy end to an era.

“You have the idea that the ruling elite are very wealthy and very corrupt, and the common man is in a very difficult position,” Vinyaraja said.

“Going from being seen as heroes to being driven out of your own home is unthinkable. This is a complete fall.”

Iqbal Athas of CNN contributed to this report.