Gotabaya Rajapaksa spearheaded the military operation that ended his country's years-long insurgency but alienated minorities along the way.
For some, he’s a hero, others see him as a ruthless man who bombs hospitals. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s new president, won the November 16 election race on the back of growing mistrust between the island state’s different communities.
The Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up more than 70 percent of the country’s 22 million people, overwhelmingly voted for him, ignoring accusations that he is responsible for the murder of civilians during the war with ethnic Tamil fighters.
Since emerging as a presidential candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party earlier this year, he tried hard to cultivate the Sinhalese vote bank, promising them security and economic progress. Most Sinhalese are Buddhists.
Disillusionment over the failure of the outgoing government of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to stop terrorist attacks that killed more than 200 people in April is a crucial factor behind Gotabaya’s success, experts say.
“That Easter bombing assured his victory,” says Dr Ajit Singh, a South Asia expert at the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management. “It wouldn’t even have been possible if not for those attacks.”
Those attacks which involved suicide bombers targetting churches were traced to the radical National Thowheed Jamath.
A former army officer, Gotabaya, 70, openly brandished his Sinhalese credentials and ominously castigated the minority Muslim and Tamil communities for siding with his opponents.
“We knew right from the beginning that the Sinhala Buddhists of this country will be behind my victory. Although I knew I would be voted in by the Sinhala Buddhists, I expected the Tamils and Muslims to also be part of my victory. But my expectations were not met,” he said in his victory speech.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority has reason to fear the new president.
Gotabaya has been associated with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extremist Buddhist group that surfaced in 2012 and has since attacked Muslim stores and homes.
“Muslims have come to be seen by Sinhalese as a threat to the Buddhist character of Sri Lanka and these anti-Muslim groups emerged when Gotabaya was the head of police,” says Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s senior Sri Lanka analyst.
But in a country still struggling to heal from the effects of a war fought along ethnic lines, the majority feels it owes a chance to its hero.
‘Hero’ of a bloody war
Gotabaya, or Gota as he is known to many locals, is credited for spearheading the military operation that crushed a 26-year-long insurgency by ethnic Tamils, who are the country’s largest minority and practice Hinduism.
But he’s also accused of allowing his soldiers to bomb hospitals in rebel-held areas, ordering attacks on civilian areas and silencing critics who opposed him.
Between 2005 and 2015, he was the powerful Defence Secretary during the reign of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president and SLPP’s leader. On Thursday, Gotabaya swore in Mahinda as the new prime minister.
“He meticulously planned and defeated a very ruthless terrorist group the Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE), something which leaders before him weren’t able to do,” says Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at RSIS, a Singapore-based school of international affairs.
“He defeated a 30-year terrorist campaign in three years.”
Gunaratna is among the analysts support the Rajapaksa brothers' campaign that eliminated the Tamil guerrillas in 2009.
“The Tamil Tigers organisation had a state of the art propaganda machinery which painted Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a different light,” says Gunaratna.
“And certainly all conflict zones produce civilian casualties just like it did in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The LTTE was a brutal guerrilla force that conscripted children and pioneered the use of suicide bombings. It killed thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers, civilians and politicians including the former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and moderate Tamil leaders.
But Gotabaya and his commanders stand accused of using disproportionate force and the extra-judicial execution of prisoners.
As part of his strategy to subdue Tamil fighters, Gotabaya evicted the International Committee of the Red Cross and other relief groups from the Tamil-populated north and eastern regions. He blocked journalists from reporting on civilian casualties, and those who dared were harassed.
A panel of UN experts found that senior LTTE leaders and their family members were killed despite assurances that they won’t be harmed if they surrender.
Some estimates suggest that around 40,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the last months of conflict in 2009. Gotabaya has rebuffed criticism of his tactics as western propaganda. And war crime cases in international courts haven’t deterred his political ambitions.
But the end of the war hasn’t healed Sri Lanka’s deep ethnic schism.
Sri Lankan Tamils have long faced discrimination. Since its independence from British rule in 1948, the country has enacted laws and amended the constitution to make Sinhalese the national language and Buddhism as its state religion.
Such changes were one of the reasons that prompted young Tamils to join the LTTE-led civil war, which broke out in 1983.
Gotabaya had first-hand experience of the war.
‘You sh*t sh*t dirty f------ journalist’
Gotabaya, who hails from a rural landowning family, served in the Sri Lankan army for 20 years before he retired as a lieutenant colonel in the early 1990s.
He then moved to the United States, obtained US citizenship and returned a few years later when his brother Mahinda was a rising politician.
Even though he didn’t get involved with politics until recently, he joined the government as defence secretary when Mahinda became president in 2005.
Mahinda’s tenure was marred by nepotism. Besides Gotabaya and their two other brothers, dozens of family members were given lucrative government jobs.
“He (Gotabaya) is considered as an action-oriented leader who does not hesitate to bend the rules to achieve results, with a record of achievements,” says R Hariharan, a retired Indian military intelligence officer and a regular commentator on Sri Lankan affairs.
And rules were bent.
In 2007, Gotabaya was reportedly linked to a deal to buy used MiG 27 jets that involved payments to a private company in which one of his cousins had a stake.
The respected journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, who broke the story, was served a defamation suit by Gotabya’s lawyers.
Two years later, Wickrematunge was stabbed to death in the street in Colombo, just days before he was supposed to present evidence of the MiG-deal scam in a court.
In a letter released posthumously, Wickrematunge blamed the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa for his murder.
“In the wake of my death I know you (Mahinda) will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name.”
Wickrematunge’s daughter, along with the Center for Justice and Accountability, is pushing US courts to prosecute Gotabaya for the journalist’s murder.
A bespectacled man, who used to keep sharks in his home, Gotabaya has been accused of misusing state funds and bullying journalists who have tried to highlight alleged misuse of authority.
In 2012, Frederica Jansz, who followed Wickrematunge to become The Sunday Leader’s executive editor, published a story with a headline ‘Gota Goes Berserk’.
“I received threats. But they were all from anonymous sources,” Jansz tells TRT World.
Sri Lanka’s tragedy, she says, has been deep racial divisions.
“This is perhaps his chance to bring these communities together, and I hope he addresses the issue of racism.”
Jansz had called Gotabaya seeking his comments on reports that Sri Lankan Airlines had replaced an aircraft only so a particular pilot can fly to Zurich and bring puppies for his wife.
“You pig that eats sh*t!!! You sh*t sh*t dirty f…..g journalist!!!” he yelled down the phone. (The entire conversation can be read here.) “People will kill you!!!”
Soon after the conversation, Jansz migrated to the US.