Meet Sri Lanka’s new ‘Strongman’ President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka People’s Front candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapakse, is all set to take over the Sri Lankan presidency. A retired Lieutenant Colonel, who presided over the country’s defence ministry for a decade during his brother’s tenure (2005-2014), Gotabaya swept the polls in the Sinhala majority districts while his main opponent Ranasinghe Premadasa garnered most of the votes from the Tamil-dominated North and East of the country.

Gotabaya’s victory would mean the return of the powerful Rajapaksa family, as he is expected to appoint his brother Mahinda as Prime Minister. The new Sri Lankan president, known as ‘terminator’ for his role in the wiping out of the LTTE a decade ago, has faced lawsuits in Sri Lanka and in the United States over allegations of staged killings of Tamil separatists, critics and journalists during the war.

In a fascinating interview with this journalist in 2014, Gotabaya revealed many things including how they finished off the LTTE. Giving a graphic description of what happened in the last days of the LTTE War 1V, he pointed out that the biggest advantage he had was that his brother had full trust in him and the then Army chief Sarat Fonseka. Mahinda had a political will to finish the LTTE off. Secondly, the leadership agreed with the defence assessment that a large- scale expansion was needed within a very short period. “We briefed the President. It was not an easy thing. You need to recruit people, train them and also equip them but we did it,” he said.

Revealing the details, Gotabaya noted that the president also created a troika to cut down red tape. “From our side Basil Rajapakse, Veeratunga, who was President’s secretary and myself and from the Indian side their national security adviser M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and V.J. Singh who was the Defence Secretary were involved. We coordinated everything. We went to India and they came to Sri Lanka. And we discussed everything: even the operational plan and intelligence input.”

Gotabaya also exposed the double face of the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, who put tremendous pressure on the Manmohan Singh government to stop the war even as the ruling DMK adopted a strategy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.

Shiv Shankar Menon in his book Choices: Inside the making of India’s Foreign Policy confirms that New Delhi was in “intense” and “constant” touch with Colombo. “I vividly remember the atmosphere of the crisis that built up during that period and repeated visits from and to Colombo in the first five months of 2009,” Menon notes, adding that by mid-January 2009, the Sri Lankan Army and leadership were convinced that they had the measure of the LTTE and that victory would be theirs.

As for the last phase of Eelam War 1V, Gotabaya noted that even at the last minute Prabhakaran broke from the line and went into the small island with his bodyguards. “K Pathmaabha (KP), the LTTE financier, spoke to Prabhakaran in January 2009 over the phone asking him to escape. We intercepted the conversation. Prabhakaran refused. Two weeks before the war ended KP spoke to him again and asked him to escape. The LTTE Tiger again refused.”

Gotabaya asked a pointed question: “Do you think that such a person will come out holding his hands up and surrender?”

The then Sri Lankan Army chief Sarat Fonseka, in an interview to this journalist, also observed that the strategy was to take on the LTTE in the jungle.  By 17 May 2009, the troops cornered the LTTE within a 400/400 square meter area. That night when they tried to escape they were prevented in all the three defence points. On 18 May night, the topmost LTTE leadership divided itself into three groups. They attacked the army’s forward defence line along the Nandikkadal lagoon and did manage to break through. Jeyam, Pottu Amman and Soosai led these three groups. Prabhakran and his closest guards thought they would manage to escape, but in reality all these LTTE fighters (around 250) had got trapped between the army’s first and second line of defence. After fierce fighting that night almost all the top leadership of the LTTE got killed in that area. “We discovered Prabhakaran’s body on May 19th morning. I got the news of his death around 11 AM. I got a phone call from the commander who gave me the information. I was confidant. I said I would finish the LTTE in three years. I did it in two years and nine months”, Fonseka recalled.

Those were different times but today it is a time for peace. As President, how will Gotabaya deal with the Tamil Minorities in Sri Lanka? The fact that the Tamils did not vote for him demonstrates their strong apprehensions.

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