Gotabaya Rajapaksa: The making and unmaking of a President

Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned after the May 9 violence in Colombo, but his replacement, Ranil Wickremesinghe, looks more like part of the problem than a solution, as Sri Lanka faces its worst economic crisis and continues with a President the people don’t want.

Published : May 15, 2022 06:00 IST

Government supporters and police confront each other outside the President’s office in Colombo on May 9.

Government supporters and police confront each other outside the President’s office in Colombo on May 9.

The Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would not have got the top job if his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, believed a little more in himself than in what the astrologers who surrounded him said.

In Sri Lanka, astrologers are more powerful than most politicians and officials. A senior politician told this correspondent in 2011, at a time when Mahinda looked unassailable: “I am with Mahinda. It means that I have tied my stars with his stars. If he grows, I grow. And right now, it is his time to grow!”

In late 2014, when Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to call for a fresh presidential election, a full two years ahead of schedule, he laid his faith in his astrological charts rather than in his own understanding or intuition. At that point, he had everything going for him. Mahinda, as Executive President, had abolished the two-term limit (six years each) for the President, usurped all powers to appoint the Chief Justice and heads of independent commissions, and converted the 225-member parliament into a rubber stamp. And the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), headed by the newly sworn in Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was a joke—its leaders spent more time fighting among themselves than in countering Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Nonetheless, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election because of some deft manoeuvring by the opposition, aided by the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). He had angered India with his ‘China-first-India-last’ approach. This led to India working closely with the opposition combine to counter him. But once the opposition combine was in power, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe fought over everything and barely discussed issues of state, leading to a near-total collapse of governance.

Also read: Roots of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

But the new government did the one thing that India reportedly wanted: it brought back the two-term limit on presidency. Mahinda knew he would not be able to run in the next presidential election, and someone else would have to be found to contest for the post from his party.

In early 2018, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after considering his options for over a year, decided that he should run for presidency. The socially awkward Gotabaya, who could barely indulge in small talk or tolerate politicians holding forth on issues that they barely knew about, showed that he could keep his cool for long enough and stay in the race.

‘You guys want him too’

In late May 2019, when this correspondent met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at his Bauddhaloka Mawatha residence, there was a new spring in his step. The April bomb blasts across the island had left the people shaken and the government unsure and, by all calculations, the Rajapaksas were coming back. The Rajapaksas had a new narrative: one of safety and security of the people. They had a new ethnic minority group to target—the Muslims (Sri Lankan Muslims, who speak Tamil, claim that they are a distinct ethnic group). And they had a new party as their vehicle for capturing power—the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

The only problem was the presidential candidate. Even when the election was barely a few months away, and even after his brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had all endorsements, Mahinda was not sure that he was the person for the job. Asked about Gotabaya’s decision to contest at that time, he was initially evasive. The formal exchange, which was recorded, went like this ( Frontline, dated July 5, 2019):

“Question: Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been talking about contesting…

Answer: Yes. He has been talking about it. There are a lot of people who want to be the candidate.

Question: There is also this talk of a non-political candidate for the post of the President.

Answer: Yes. You take Gotabaya. He is a non-politician. But anybody who is a non-politician, when he contests, he becomes a politician. So once he contests, he can’t say ‘I am not a politician’.”

Also read: The siege within

Once the interview was over and this correspondent had turned off the recorder, Mahinda spoke again, unasked, about his brother’s candidature: “He is a very fine man. Very straight. He gets angry if something is wrong or somebody does wrong…. Even you guys want him, no.”

The ‘no’ in Sri Lankan English is an assertion, not a question. By “you guys” Mahinda meant India. This correspondent said that might not be the case. To which Mahinda repeated the sentence. “You guys want him.”

Mahinda was referring to a meeting between Gotabaya and Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri La dialogue in 2018. A source who confirmed the meeting said that Doval was convinced by the arguments advanced by Gotabaya and had made up his mind to back him although he was not the favoured candidate in South Block.

Mahinda’s problem with the endorsement was that he was not confident of his brother at that point. Yet he had to support him because Gotabaya had already laid the groundwork with India first, and later with China.

Mahinda could not have been more right about his brother, as events that unfolded since February 2022 have showed.

The gathering storm

Beginning with the COVID-induced lockdown of 2020, the Sri Lankan economy started shrinking. By August 2021, the government had to invoke emergency provisions under the Public Safety Ordinance to ensure supply of essentials. Earnings from tourism were down, worker remittances from aboard had fallen, food inflation had risen alarmingly, the Sri Lankan rupee had depreciated, and export earnings had nose-dived.

Even as the economy showed sure signs of tanking, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, then Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, sought to allay fears and claimed that all was well. On February 14, speaking at Sri Lanka’s National Defence College on “Economic Security as an integral part of National Security,” he spoke about the key factors guiding economic performance and how Sri Lanka’s national security was linked to its economic independence. “He spoke so much sense,” said a top Sri Lankan official, “If he had followed his own prescription, we would have been better off. It appears that someone had written that speech for him.”

Also read: Sri Lanka's downward spiral into full-blown crisis

In less than a fortnight, Sri Lanka began facing food, fuel and energy shortages, and it was very clear that the President was clueless. “No one in the system could even comprehend the enormity of the crisis that was about to hit us,” said an official who had had conversations with the Finance Secretary and other officials. “The President went by what was being told to him. He did not seek information from sources that would tell him the ugly truth,” he added.

Fertilizer ban as trigger

There is anecdotal evidence of what can be called Gotabaya’s one-sided style of governance. The ban on chemical fertilizers, announced after a Cabinet meeting on April 29, 2021, was typically a decision taken in haste, without adequate consultations, and one that had the President putting complete trust in one set of officials. Though international experts, including a prominent face from India, were among Gotabaya’s advisers on the subject, it was a meeting that Gotabaya had with various department officials that sealed the decision.

One of the attendees, who did not want to be identified, narrated how one part of the meeting went:

“A senior official from the agriculture department said that they were not able to sell organic fertilizers that they were producing because there was no demand. This led to a piling up of all production because farmers were using only chemical fertilizers. At this point, Gotabaya asked if the factory was capable of meeting the demand of all of Sri Lanka. Another official from the same department, quoting statistics, said that they would be able to. They also pointed out, at least twice, that Sri Lanka would be able to save foreign exchange of about $400 million if chemical fertilizers were not used.” [Sri Lanka imports almost all of its requirement of chemical fertilizers.]

Also read: Inherited problems that led to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

He added: “That was it. There was no attempt at examination of this assertion by the Ministry of Agriculture by a sub-committee or a panel of officers. He decided that he was banning chemical fertilizers. I was petrified when I heard of the April 29 decision because I was aware of what this would lead to.” No one, including the person who narrated the incident, spoke up at the meeting.

The ban took effect, Sri Lankan farmers bore the burnt, and protested vehemently. Realising that the decision was counter-productive, the Sri Lankan government allowed import of chemical fertilizers on August 3, 2021, but maintained that there was no reversal in policy.

A month plus of protests

Frustration over the multiple failures on all levels of government led to the setting up of an audacious protest site on April 9 near the presidential Secretariat on Galle Face, the priciest real estate in Sri Lanka. The protesters named it “Gota Go Gama” [literally, Gota, Go Village, meaning Gotabaya resign]. Similar protest sites sprung up across Colombo and in other parts of Sri Lanka, demanding that the Rajapaksa clan leave office because they had caused the aggravation of the problem in the first place.

Just over a month into the protests, Gotabaya declared a state of emergency in the interest of “public security” for a second time in five weeks, late on the night of May 5, giving security forces sweeping powers. This appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to the massive protests in front of parliament the same day.

On May 9, ruling party thugs, who had come to Colombo to show their support to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and insist that he stay in office, attacked protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s residence, Temple Trees, and at Galle Face, opposite the Presidential Secretariat. Pitched battles were fought on the streets of Colombo as protesters were tear-gassed and protest sites destroyed. The Galle Face protest site is about two kilometres from Temple Trees. The police watched as SLPP thugs walked the distance, pulled down the makeshift structures, and attacked protesters.

Also read: Sri Lanka crisis not over despite PM Mahinda Rajapaksa's exit

Images of the attack went viral on social media. For a while people vented on social media, then they joined the ‘action’—attacks on ruling party MPs. This had a domino effect and people began targeting ruling party members and property. By the end of the day, as many as 10 people had been killed and about 300 injured.

After the violence, Mahinda was forced to resign. In his resignation letter, Mahinda revealed that President Gotabaya had demanded his resignation on May 6, three days before the May 9 mayhem. “Effective immediately, I have tendered my resignation as Prime Minister to the President,” he announced in a tweet at 5.02 p.m. on May 9.

Most of Sri Lanka, including Colombo, was calm but tense on May 10. Ruling party politicians hid in various parts of the country, ironically, fearing the people who had voted them into office. Despite a curfew and Army patrols on the streets, people made it a point to come out in multiple peaceful protests. “The only time there was violence during the protest was when ruling party thugs tried to hijack the agenda,” said a protester who did not want to be named. “There was violence near the President’s house on March 31, and then on May 9. Otherwise, this has been a peaceful protest.”

Violence adds urgency

The May 9 violence lent a sense of urgency to find a political solution to the volatile situation. Soon after Mahinda resigned, Gotabaya talked to Sajith Premadasa, Leader of the Opposition in the Sri Lankan Parliament and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader, in a bid to make him Prime Minister.

He initially refused to be part of an arrangement where Gotabaya continued as President. Later, he backed down and imposed four conditions in a letter to the President. One of the conditions was that the President should step down within a short period of time. Between the initial public posturing and the delayed acquiescence through the letter, Sajith, an assassinated President’s son, lost out to the wily machinations of Colombo’s elite political class. Sajith wrote that letter after he realised that his foremost enemy, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was also a candidate for the Prime Minister’s job. Gotabaya, who now had a chance to put Sajith down and possibly destroy his political career, did just that. He wrote back to Sajith: “After discussions with leaders of other parties, I have appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe and it cannot be changed.” If Sajith wanted to include any SJB member in Cabinet, Gotabaya said he was open to such a request. One of Sajith’s supporters said: “Sajith could not have agreed to be a part of an arrangement where Gotabaya was still President. The people would have seen this as a betrayal.”

Also read: Ranil Wickremesinghe sworn in as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the sixth time

At 6.30 pm on May 12, Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73, the lone member of his party in parliament, was sworn in as Prime Minister for the sixth time. The irony was not lost on anyone. Ranil had lost his Colombo seat in the 2020 parliamentary election. His party had been routed, garnering just enough votes to nominate a single person to parliament. Ranil nominated himself.

A few minutes after the swearing-in, the United States welcomed the move. The U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, tweeted: “Look forward to working w/ @RW_UNP. His appointment as PM, and the quick formation of an inclusive government, are first steps to addressing the crisis & promoting stability. We encourage meaningful progress at the IMF & long-term solutions that meet the needs of all Sri Lankans.”

India welcomed it with a dose of caution: “High Commission of India hopes for political stability and looks forward to working with the Government of Sri Lanka formed in accordance with democratic processes pursuant to the swearing in of Hon’ble @RW_UNP as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. India’s commitment to the people of Sri Lanka will continue.” At the time of going to press, the Chinese Embassy was yet to put out a statement.

Maldivian Speaker Mohamed Nasheed was more hopeful about the new appointment than most Sri Lankans. “Throughout my political life, I’ve always listened to Ranil’s advice & it has never been found wanting. Sri Lanka is in trouble, but I’ve no doubt the PM will do his best to bring back prosperity,” he tweeted.

Mano Ganesan, leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance, welcomed the development. “Tamil Progressive Alliance sends heartiest congratulations to former & current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Long live Sri Lanka,” he tweeted. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress and many more political outfits in Sri Lanka welcomed the appointment.

Also read: Sri Lankans running out of food, fuel and medicine

Sivajiligam, Sri Lankan Tamil leader who contested the 2010 and 2019 presidential election as an independent candidate, said that this move was akin to “changing pillows because one has a headache…. India considers Ranil as a friend. But remember, this is the person who has done so much to align Sri Lanka with China. He is worse for India than the Rajapaksas.”

The leaders of the Tamil National Alliance were of the opinion that Ranil did not have the people’s mandate to lead. TNA leader M.A. Sumanthiran told The Hindu that the “President has completely lost legitimacy, people want him to go home and the parliament will soon vote on a motion expressing displeasure over him. Mr. Wickremesinghe had no legitimacy in the current parliament right from the beginning. He did not even win his constituency.”

Protesters unimpressed

The protesters are not impressed. Addressing the press, Kavindya Thennakoon, speaking on behalf of the protesters, insisted that Gotabaya should resign. The second demand is the formation of an interim government with 15 ministers, which will be in office for 18 months. This interim government should abolish the executive presidency via a 21st amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. A social security net for the most vulnerable communities, a forensic audit of finances of all elected officials, and a transparent investigation into all crimes, financial and otherwise, are among the other demands.

Also read: ‘They kept denying that there was a crisis’

Ranil has a daunting task ahead. Even before he took charge, leaders from Buddhist and Christian religious groups had asked the President to not appoint him Prime Minister since he did not have the people’s mandate. Some protesters and politicians think he is in charge only to protect the Rajapaksa clan. “Last night, I heard people at Gota Go Gama saying he’s Ranil Rajapaksa,” said Rajitha Seneratne, a former Minister. “Ranil is enabling the political goals of the Rajapaksas.”

Ranil has to negotiate a very tough deal with the International Monetary Fund, deliver on the people’s demand for abolishing the executive presidency, make a commitment on prosecuting the Rajapaksas, and inspire confidence in the people.

For a leader whose party has no other member in parliament, and who is in power because no one else jumped at the offer without conditions, this is a tall order.

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