A Rajapaksa eyes the presidency

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa greets his supporters after his return from the U.S., in Katunayake, Sri Lanka, on April 12. Photo: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, may be preparing to contest the presidential election.

GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA, former Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka, who ran the Sri Lankan war machine that caused the death of thousands of Tamils in the North, is clearing the decks to take a shot at the country’s presidency.

The rumour that he planned to run for the presidency has been in the air since early March, when he reportedly filed to renounce his United States citizenship. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has dual citizenship of the U.S. and Sri Lanka. According to the Sri Lankan Constitution, only a citizen of Sri Lanka can contest the presidential election, which is due towards the end of the year.

According to sources watching the development, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has actively sought out U.S. officials and has made a series of promises to them. They include looking at ways and means to counter the omnipresent Chinese influence in the island nation. One political observer who did not want to be named interpreted this as an offer for a U.S. base in South Asia, an idea that India had vehemently opposed in the 1970s and 1980s.

After returning from a trip to the U.S. on April 12, Gotabaya Rajapaksa told reporters in Colombo that he had launched legal procedures to renounce his U.S. citizenship. “I went to the U.S. to initiate the legal process to renounce my U.S. citizenship. I have done it successfully,” he said.

But the process of renouncing U.S. citizenship is not easy. He has to conform to several laws. The most problematic for him is this (from the State Department’s website): “The act of renouncing U.S. citizenship does not allow persons to avoid possible prosecution for crimes which they may have committed or may commit in the future which violate United States law, or escape the repayment of financial obligations, including child support payments, previously incurred in the United States or incurred as United States citizens abroad.” Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man behind the Sri Lankan campaign during the Eelam War from 2006, cannot escape responsibility for the killings of thousands of unarmed civilians and famished militants. Already, two cases have been filed in the U.S. to bring him to justice and prevent him from renouncing his citizenship. Reuters reported that the South Africa-based International Truth and Justice Project, in partnership with the U.S. law firm Hausfeld, has filed a civil case in California against him on behalf of a Tamil torture survivor.

Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the murdered editor of Island newspaper, filed a complaint for damages against Gotabaya Rajpaksa on April 4 in the same U.S. District Court in California for allegedly instigating and authorising the extrajudicial killing of her father.

These cases may not be Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s biggest obstacle in renouncing his U.S. citizenship. The more important issue will be how he manages to placate India, which sees him as the point person who altered the balance of power in the region by bringing in China and created a new flashpoint between the two Asian giants. In India, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Ministry of External Affairs and the Research and Analysis Wing have not often seen eye to eye on many issues, but all three concur on their reading of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The PMO has minimal interest in Sri Lanka, while the other two organisations have been on the job to contain the ever-expanding Chinese footprint in the country. No party had made the slow devouring of Sri Lanka a campaign issue in any election so far because of the manner in which China deals with political parties.

The reason Gotabaya Rajapaksa is making his presidential bid now is because his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest because of an amendment to the Constitution that bars more than two terms for a President, and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son Namal Rajapaksa, who is an MP, is not old enough to contest for the post. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s other two brothers, Basil Rajapaksa and Chamal Rajapaksa, are not in the race for different reasons. This leaves the field wide for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take a shot at contesting for the post of President.

One political observer who was part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa group when he was President said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature could be a red herring. He reasoned that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would lose all the minority votes, and this could be detrimental to the comeback plan of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Instead, there could be an understanding between President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The arrangement could be that Sirisena would contest the presidency while Mahinda Rajapaksa would be elected Prime Minister, because both the elections—one to elect a President and another to Parliament—are likely to be held almost simultaneously.

Sirisena, though not a darling of the minorities, will not drive out all minority votes to the opposition. The arrangement could work well because Sirisena is keen on another term as President, even if with reduced powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa will be happy to wield power as the executive Prime Minister.

There are also some countermoves from the side of the United National Party (UNP), but these are yet to take a firm shape. Part of the strategy is to project the current Parliament Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, who emerged unscathed from the recent political circus which saw two Prime Ministers in-charge in Sri Lanka at the same time, as a candidate for the presidency. The UNP strategy is still taking shape, and it is too early to say if Mahinda Rajapaksa will be outmanoeuvred a second time.

The UNP’s choice stems from the fact that its leader and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been at the helm of the party for far too long and has not been an inspiring leader. Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the other hand, still remains the most popular leader in the Sinhala-majority country. He, despite two terms as President, is seen as a person who can understand the problems of the people, is able to relate to them and talk to them in a way that most other politicians in Sri Lanka are unable to.

Hard choices

Just like the UNP, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main alliance of the Tamil parties, faces hard choices. Boycotting the election is not an option because past experience has been disastrous. It was because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) enforced a boycott ahead of the 2005 presidential election that hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to win for the first time. He later went on to wage a decisive and final war against the Tigers, obliterating them. But the problem for the TNA is to make the right choice. The contestants—Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sirisena on one side and Karu Jayasuriya or Ranil Wickremesinghe on the other—do not offer much hope for the Tamil people.

While the UNP has been a little more accommodating of the demands of the minorities, there has been no progress on any substantive issue since the strange combination of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe assumed office about five years ago. If anything, the TNA only lost its position as Leader of the Opposition—soon after the tussle for Prime Ministership in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa was placated by being made Leader of the Opposition, a post occupied until then by the TNA leader R. Sampanthan. No explanation was given for this move; and it appeared that when it came to a Sinhala issue, a Sinhala political leader was accommodated at the expense of a Tamil leader.

Muslim political parties too are at a crossroads and face the same hard choices as the TNA. While the Tamil-speaking minorities (Muslims speak Tamil in Sri Lanka) have put their bitter and acrimonious past behind them, there is still a long way to go before the two groups assimilate the world view of each other.

Realising the divisions within the minorities, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has often made an appeal that is reminiscent of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s. Addressing a minority group on March 9, he said: “Whether you are Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, the right policies must be in place to eradicate poverty, so that one can live with dignity.” The other theme is one of all politicians being corrupt and that he would bring them all to book. He said in an interview on March 7: “People are tired of mainstream politicians who only think of votes and care little for the genuine development and progress of the people.”

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s reach-out does not cut much ice with the minorities, if their leaders are to be believed. But the inherent contradictions within minority groups and their refusal to work in tandem will only ensure that all the gains made so far will vanish in no time.