Gotabaya Rajapaksa: How Sri Lanka’s runaway President went from ‘war hero’ to fugitive

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Yet the final days of Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa dynasty tell a very different tale.

He had been expected to resign later that day, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t wait around to make it official. Instead, before dawn, he boarded a military plane leaving Colombo, the commercial capital of the crisis-hit country, and fled to the Maldives.

His departure is a historic moment for the island nation of 22 million, which the Rajapaksas had ruled with an iron fist for much of the past two decades before losing the faith of their once adoring citizens.

“The sight of Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing Sri lanka on an air force plane represents (the downfall) of this family,” said Ganeshan Wignaraja, senior research associate at the British think tank, ODI Global.

“Their legacy I don’t think is a positive one. But one hopes that Sri Lanka will move on in a new direction.”

With jubilant Sri Lankans still swimming in the presidential pool, singing in the presidential dining room and dancing around the opulent presidential grounds, it is clear many share that optimism — at least for now.

What happens during the next 24 hours will do much to determine the country’s future, with Rajapaksa’s long-term intentions remaining as yet unclear.

Protesters at Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on July 12.

The rise of the Rajapaksas

As the country takes its first steps in its brave new era, experts say it would do well to consider what went wrong with the last one — starting with the rise and fall of the Rajapaksas.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not the first member of the family to have been president. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who like Gotabaya was widely considered a “war hero” among the majority population, was elected President in 2005 and achieved near legendary status in 2009 when he declared victory in the 26-year civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels.
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, and his brother Basil Rajapaksa, right, during a campaign in the suburb of Kirillawala, Sri Lanka, on April 4, 2010.

That victory gave Mahinda Rajapaksa an almost inexhaustible well of political capital to draw on and he would go on to enjoy a 10-year grip on power during which he was venerated by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. He was popularly referred to as “appachchi” — the father of the nation — and people would often bow when he walked past and fear for him when he was unwell.

For much of his term, Mahinda Rajapaksa ran Sri Lanka like a family business, appointing his brothers to key positions; Gotabaya as Defense Secretary, Basil as Minister of Economic Development, and Chamal as the Speaker of Parliament.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, left,  with his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2019.

And while the good times were rolling, despite gripes about nepotism, the brothers remained popular. The country saw years of growth, fueled by the government’s vast borrowing from overseas to fund public services.

But the good times weren’t to last.

Brief hiatus and comeback

While the civil war did much to create Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legend, it also contained the first signs of his downfall.

According to a 2011 United Nations report, government troops were responsible for abuses including the intentional shelling of civilians, summary executions, rape, and blocking food and medicine from reaching affected communities. The UN report said “a number of credible sources have estimated there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has always vehemently denied such allegations.

However, its problems began to mount.

The human rights concerns went beyond the war. Political opponents accused Mahinda Rajapaksa of giving tacit approval to far-right Buddhist groups and Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil minorities feared a wider crackdown on their communities.

At the same time, anger at Mahinda’s perceived cronyism grew as signs of economic trouble emerged and it became clear that there would be a price to pay for the government’s earlier largesse.

By 2015, Sri Lanka owed China $8 billion, and Sri Lankan government officials predicted that accumulated foreign debt — both owed to China and other countries — would eat up 94% of the country’s GDP.
That year, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost a close presidential election to his one-time health minister.

“Sri Lanka is a democratic country and people were shocked at that extent of attempting cronyism,” Wignaraja said. “This combination of (nepotism) and mismanaging the economy… people were upset they elected these people.”

That might have been enough to finish off a lesser dynasty, but not the Rajapaksas.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa with his wife Ayoma, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2019.
In April 2019, Islamic militants killed at least 290 people in a string of bombings at churches and luxury hotels. A panicked country turned back to the one family they knew that had a proven record on national security.

In November of that year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the country’s new President. And like his brother, he saw governing as a family affair.

“People have once again imposed their full confidence in us,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections a year later.

“We will fulfill their aspirations and will always value the confidence they have placed in us.”

Gotabaya appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa shortly after.

‘Fall from grace’

Still, as had happened to his brother, cracks began to emerge in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency as questions over his government’s economic management continued to grow.

Experts say Sri Lanka’s economic problems were not entirely the government’s fault — but its woes were made worse by a series of bad decisions.

Murtaza Jafferjee, chair of Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute, said the vast borrowing spree Sri Lanka embarked on to fund its public service coincided with a series of hammer blows to the Sri Lankan economy, from natural disasters such as heavy monsoons, to man-made ones.

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister calls state of emergency as President flees to Maldives

Facing a massive deficit, Rajapaksa slashed taxes in a doomed attempt to stimulate the economy.

But the move backfired, instead hitting government revenue. Ratings agencies then downgraded Sri Lanka to near default levels, meaning the country lost access to overseas markets. Sri Lanka then had to use its foreign exchange reserves to pay off government debt. This affected imports of fuel and other essentials, which sent prices soaring.

On the streets, the Rajapaksa’s once adoring public found themselves unable to feed their families or fuel their vehicles. Now people must queue for hours for fuel, often clashing with police and military as they wait. Supermarkets shelves are barren. Medicine supplies are running dangerously low.

And it is the Rajapaksas they blame. For months, angry Sri Lankans have taken to the streets, accusing Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa of mismanaging the economy.

People throng President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence three days after it was stormed by anti government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 12.

Those protests began peacefully but turned violent in May, prompting Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign as Prime Minister. But his decision did little to quell frustrations — and his brother remained in power as the President.

For weeks Gotabaya clung on, apparently unwilling to let the dynasty fall. But ultimately he had no choice, as the lavish home he once used to entertain power brokers was taken over by crowds escaping the heat in his sparkling swimming pool and holding picnics on his sprawling lawn.

As Wignaraja pointed out, the imagery was a fitting end to an era.

“You have this idea that the ruling elite are living very lavishly, while being very corrupt, and the ordinary person is in grave difficulty,” Wignaraja said.

“To go from being perceived as heroes, to being chased out of your own home is unthinkable. It’s a complete fall from grace.”

CNN’s Iqbal Athas contributed to this report.

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