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Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: The Wartime Strongman who Wants to run Sri Lanka

By Anbarasan EthirajanBBC

At a funeral for one of the victims of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings, a grief-stricken relative wailed and shouted: “We need Gota, We need Gota.”

She was referring to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the wartime defence chief who played a leading role in crushing Tamil rebels in a bloody civil war which ended 10 years ago. Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils loathe Mr Rajapaksa but he’s celebrated as a hero by many in the majority Sinhalese population, particularly hardliners.

Mr Rajapaksa served as defence secretary from 2005 to 2015, when his brother Mahinda was president. But his tenure was marred by allegations of crimes against humanity, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Amid the chaos and confusion that followed the suicide attacks in April this year, many Sri Lankans said a perceived strongman like Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could stamp out Islamist extremism in the country.

Mr Rajapaksa spoke to the BBC from his home in Colombo in the wake of the attacks. “During our time we gave top priority to national security,” he said. “This government did not do that. They have dismantled certain security measures we took during our time.”

Intelligence failures have been cited as one of the main reasons the Easter bombings – claimed by Islamic State militants – were not prevented.

Mr Rajapaksa said that during his tenure he set up a special military intelligence cell to monitor radicalisation, particularly on the internet. A military officer was also sent to the US for special training, he said, and Arabic-speaking agents were recruited to track jihadists.

He said that some of those units had been disbanded by the current government, but a spokesman for President Maithripala Sirisena denied Mr Rajapaksa’s assertion, suggesting they were only restructured and were still functioning.

I first met Mr Rajapaksa 10 years ago in Colombo during the final stages of the civil war. He was known for his volatile temper, and many journalists were too scared to ask him tough questions, especially questions about alleged rights abuses committed by Sri Lankan security forces.

But during our most recent meeting, Mr Rajapaksa sounded like a different man. Sitting in his study, surrounded by books, he answered difficult questions calmly – although he still dismissed all the allegations against him. His critics, say he must answer for crimes committed against thousands of people over many years.

His change in demeanour could be down to the fact that Sri Lanka is due to hold presidential elections in December. Mr Rajapaksa said he intends to stand. “I will be the candidate for the main opposition SLPP [Sri Lanka People’s Front]. We will also get the support of other parties and groups,” he said.

The SLPP has not officially declared its presidential candidate and there are still six months to go before the election is held. Mr Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda, cannot stand again because of a two-term limit.

Mr Rajapaksa said he was confident of victory but he had some hurdles to surmount. One is his health. Following our interview, he had open heart surgery and has been recuperating at a hospital in Singapore. Doctors have said he will need six weeks to recover.

Then there are issues to resolve over his dual nationality. He holds both Sri Lankan and American citizenship and, according to the constitution, cannot therefore run for president until he gives up the latter.

Mr Rajapaksa said he had submitted documents to the US embassy in Colombo that stated his desire to relinquish his US citizenship.

Another issue relates to cases against him in US courts. In the first, filed in April, he is accused of ordering the murder of a newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, in Sri Lanka a decade ago. A second case relates to the alleged torture of a Tamil detainee during the war.

Wickrematunge was the well-known editor of The Sunday Leader and a vocal critic of the Rajapaksas. He published a series of reports alleging corruption in arms deals by then-defence secretary Mr Rajapaksa.

Wickrematunge received death threats for his reports, and wrote an editorial before his death predicting that the government would kill him. In January 2009, he was shot and stabbed to death in broad daylight in Colombo by unidentified men. No one has been brought to trial for his murder – and few expect anyone ever will be.

The murder shook the nation, coming just days before the editor was to give evidence against Mr Rajapaksa. Mr Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa, is now seeking unspecified damages in the case filed in California. It accuses Mr Rajapaksa of instigating and authorising her father’s murder.

The second case relates to Roy Samathanam, a Tamil civilian with Canadian citizenship. He was arrested in Sri Lanka before the war ended over suspected links with the Tamil Tigers. He alleges he was tortured in custody and forced to sign a confession before he was released in 2010.

The cases have been filed in US courts because of Mr Rajapaksa’s American citizenship. “Both cases are baseless because I did not do these things,” he told me. He listed various actions taken during his tenure to bring Mr Wickrematunge’s killers to justice.

Since I interviewed him, the number of cases Mr Rajapaksa is facing has risen. On 26 June, 10 more plaintiffs filed papers in Californian courts seeking damages from him. They allege that they were tortured and, in some cases, raped and sexually assaulted by security forces under his command.

All the allegations against him are “politically motivated”, Mr Rajapaksa said. “I have been visiting the US for so many years, Why [are they raising it] at this time?”

Mr Rajapaksa and his supporters may be right about the timing – his opponents would like to stop him running for president because they fear he has a real chance of winning. With cases against him under way in the US courts he may find it harder to renounce his US citizenship. And that would stop him standing for election.

The Easter Sunday bombings happened just a month before the country observed the 10th anniversary of the end of the war with the Tamil Tigers. The conflict lasted almost three decades and it is estimated at least 100,000 people were killed. Many thousands are still missing. The UN and other agencies estimate that at least 40,000 people were killed in the last stages when the Sri Lankan military launched its final assault.

Tens of thousands of civilians, and the rebels themselves, were eventually trapped in a small sliver of coastal land in the north-east. The military pounded the area with artillery while the rebels also shot civilians trying to escape. A UN official in Colombo at the time said their warnings of a bloodbath had become a reality.

The Tamil Tigers were eventually routed and thousands surrendered to the Sri Lankan army. But hundreds of families of rebels who surrendered say they have still not heard from them.

Detailed video footage and eyewitness accounts emerged after the war showing what are alleged to be widescale extra-judicial killings of Tamils by the military in the final stages of the conflict.

Based on that evidence, the UN and other rights groups have called on the Sri Lankan government to establish a war crimes tribunal to investigate the allegations of crimes against humanity, both by the military and the Tamil militants.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted attempts to establish an international inquiry, saying it is a domestic issue and the allegations should be looked into internally. But virtually nothing been done to pursue justice after the war.

During a visit to northern Sri Lanka last year, I met a group of Tamil women and men protesting in the Tamil-dominated town of Kilinochchi. They were demanding to know the whereabouts of their sons, brothers, and daughters who had surrendered to the military.

Mr Rajapaksa vehemently denied that those who surrendered were killed in cold blood. “No I don’t believe that,” he told me. “Anybody who surrendered to the army was registered. Everything happened in a rush, everything happened in a chaotic situation,” he said.

He said that about 13,000 Tamil rebels who were either captured or surrendered had been rehabilitated since the end of the war. He dismissed suggestions that some Tamil Tigers were being kept in secret prisons.

“No we did not run any secret prisons. It is not easy in this country to have secret places,” he said.

His many critics would disagree. After the war, army camps were out of bounds to journalists, human rights officials, and relatives of the missing. There is still no independent confirmation of what happened to those who disappeared.

Minority Tamils and rights activists rejoiced when Mahinda Rajapaksa unexpectedly lost the election in 2015. They hoped that normal life would resume in the country and freedom of speech and media rights would be protected.

There has been peace in the years since the war ended, allowing some of scars to begin to heal. But the Easter bombings shattered that process – the attacks, along with a recent political crisis, have changed people’s opinions.

Many Sri Lankans now say they are disappointed with government infighting and a blame game over the bombings between the current president and the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. In Sri Lanka, and around the world, people were shocked by the image of bungling incompetency the government projected.

That goes some way to explaining why many Sri Lankans are calling for a strong leader at a time of national crisis. Mr Rajapaksa believes he is the right man for the job. But human rights activists warn that the desire for a strong leader should not supersede civil liberties and media freedom.

Mr Rajapaksa will be a tough man to beat for the top job, if he gets to run.