Colombo, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned after Flucht to Singapore via MaldivesThe rule of the powerful is overthrown by. Rajapaksa clanA country in deepest poverty for over 20 years. Political and economic crises.
Rajapaksa (a retired military officer aged 73 years) was the eighth president of Sri Lanka.
He is the younger brother to the family patriarch, former President Mahindarajapaksa. He ruled Sri Lanka for 2 terms and served as prime minister until his resignation earlier in the year.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nearly three-year rule was criticised as the worst in post-independence Sri Lanka for his failure to contain the worst economic meltdown the island has seen in decades.
The explosion in living costs and the severe shortage of fuel and other essential goods has triggered a massive increase in prices. Protests unprecedentedIn the country of 22million people earlier this year, forcing his departure and resignation.
Rajapaksa is also faulted for reversing the country’s democratic gains by changing the constitution and giving himself sweeping powers after winning the presidency in 2019.
Rajapaksa, a war hero and a leader of a ruthless military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels seeking a separate state in Northern Sri Lanka, was hailed until recently.
In 2009, the civil war that lasted for decades ended with thousands of civilians, soldiers, and rebels dying. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the leader of the offensive, with Gotabaya as his defense secretary.
Rajapaksa, a political novice who had been a victim to the Easter Sunday bombings in churches, was elected president. His platform of national security included a campaign against anti-Muslim sentiments within the Buddhist-majority country.
Akram Ashroff, a 22-year-old IT undergraduate and resident of the eastern district of Batticaloa, said he was a consistent visitor to the anti-government protest venue in the heart of Colombo, dubbed “GotaGoGama”.
“He (Rajapaksa) made people feel insecure, especially the ethnic and religious minorities. He was politically arrogant and divided communities. He will be remembered as the most ineffective president who in a short time drove his country to bankruptcy, an unparalleled legacy,” Ashroff told Al Jazeera.
“Besides, he drove religious hatred and targeted Tamils and Muslims from time to time. According to his own words, he was the president for the Sinhala Buddhist majority. But these Sinhalese Buddhists have now driven him out of office,” he said.
He (Rajapaksa), especially for ethnic and religious minorities, made people feel insecure.
Rajapaksa has left a country in chaos and without the affection that he once received.
“His refusal to accept advice and political immaturity contributed to his downfall. He wanted to run the country as a military leader but unlike the military, he lacked both strategy and pragmatism,” a close Rajapaksa aide told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“The constitutional amendment to undo democratic reforms showed his lack of respect for democratic institutions. His populist politics at the end could not contain a popular uprising against him.”
Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka with the International Crisis Group, says Rajapaksa has left behind “a shattered and much poorer country facing an economic collapse that threatens lives and has no easy or quick remedy”.
“But his failed leadership has also helped generate a citizenry newly energised and unexpectedly united in their resistance to exploitative and authoritarian rule,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The racism and militarism and visions of a return to pre-colonial glories that won Gotabaya – and his brother Mahinda before him – so much support from Sinhala voters have proven unable to rescue the millions now struggling to find fuel and medicine or afford their next meal.”
With the Rajapaksas gone, Keenan hoped the Sri Lankans would learn “lasting lessons about the dead-ends of authoritarian nationalism”, find “new political vehicles to carry forward the democratisation project begun by the people’s struggle” and “hold to account – or push aside – Sri Lanka’s established political class”.
“History does not offer many grounds for optimism but it does bring surprises, like the implosion of a ruling dynasty that looked invincible less than two years ago,” he told Al Jazeera.
Shanthi Jesudasan 41, a mother to three school-going children from northern Vavuniya said that she joined protesters for two reasons.
“As a Tamil, I have only witnessed violence and discrimination targeting the community. My relatives living in the north have lost family members and have been looking for the missing since 2009,” she told Al Jazeera.
“He is the president who denied us our yesteryears and had no interest in steering this country towards peace. In the past few months, he also robbed the future of the next generation and crippled the entire country,” she said.
His (Rajapaksa’s) ouster displays a resurgence within Sri Lanka of democratic forces and public anger against nepotism.
Dharmanath Dissanayake is a Kurunegala-based retired school teacher who swears by the Rajapaksas. This is because Mahinda and Gotabaya were capable of ending civil war.
“There was peace finally and people could move about freely without fear. But he had no plan beyond that and that is why Sri Lanka has now been declared bankrupt,” he told Al Jazeera.
“He lacked foresight and vision. There are also allegations of corruption. He has failed the entire country, including the Sinhalese he pledged to serve, and finally it is the Sinhalese who brought his regime to an end,” he said.
After independence, Sri Lanka was ruled by just a few families. Gotabaya Rajapaksa belonged to one such family.
Manjula Gajanayake, the executive director of the Colombo-based Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), says Gotabaya was not elected to the presidency “due to some unique ability or service rendered” but because it was a “family project”.
“The Rajapaksa stranglehold on Sri Lankan politics was also the country’s largest nepotism project,” Gajanayake told Al Jazeera.
“He rode to office having whipped up communalism and drew support from those who did not believe in democracy or democratic governance. Part of his legacy is the crushing of democratic voices and spaces to improve on his nepotistic project,” he said.
“But his ouster shows the resurgence of democratic forces within Sri Lanka and the public anger against nepotism, undemocratic practices and political arrogance.”
Rohan Perthiyagoda is a prominent scientist in Sri Lanka and has been awarded the Linnean Medal for Zoology in 2022. He is also a public policy advocate.
Summing up Rajapaksa’s legacy, he said: “His presidency was defined by ignorance, obstinacy and an inability to communicate effectively with his people. Two million farmers were left in poverty by him when he banned modern agriculture. He printed trillions and trillions of rupees but denied any causal link between money supply inflation. He obstinately refused to yield to expert advice that these ‘innovations’ would destroy the economy.
“And for 31 months of his presidency, he didn’t hold a single press conference, relying instead on delivering poorly scripted speeches to a teleprompter. All this, haunted by the ghosts of journalists murdered on his watch,” Pethiyagoda told Al Jazeera.
According to media watchdogs, 13 journalists were killed in Sri Lanka between 2005 and 2015. Lasantha Wickrematunge (government critic, founding editor of The Sunday Leader), was among those assassinated. It was believed that Gotabaya was involved in her assassination.
A trial is ongoing in the People’s Tribunal at the Hague where incriminating evidence has been given to implicate him.
Bhavani Fonseka is a researcher and human rights lawyer who told Al Jazeera that the Sri Lankan leader faces serious allegations for rights violations during and after civil war.
“These are documented widely and some of these cases have been filed both locally and internationally. This shows that he was involved in these violations. These cases could not process partly due to his immunity and partly due to the weaknesses in the justice system in Sri Lanka,” she said.
Fonseka claimed that the leader will be forever linked to serious violations of citizens’ rights in the country and that he would never be able escape that legacy.
“He has fled and is expected to resign, but the citizens must remember his role in all these transgressions, demand accountability and explore options both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The resignation will result in the loss of immunity and this will make it somewhat easier to hold him accountable,” she said.