SL New Prez Gotabaya Rajapaksa
A war hero or a polarising figure?
COLOMBO, Nov 17: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, set to be Sri Lanka's new president, was the de facto military chief who crushed Tamil guerrillas a decade ago, making him a revered figure among the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy.
Under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency from 2005-15, as defence secretary "Gota" is accused of allowing death squads that bumped off critics, rivals, journalists and others. According to press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in the "dark decade" of the Rajapaksas' previous time in office, at least 14 journalists "were murdered in connection with their work".
The brothers oversaw the military operation which ended the Tamil separatist conflict in 2009. It had lasted more than 25 years and is estimated to have claimed some 100,000 lives. The end of the war was a moment to celebrate for most Sri Lankans, but questions remain to this day.
During its final stages, thousands of people disappeared - many are said to have been tortured or killed. The enforced disappearances continued into the years after the war ended, when businessmen, journalists and activists seen as opponents of the Rajapaksas were rounded up and never seen again.
While the grey-haired president-elect has no experience in politics, he made up for it by campaigning with the more charismatic Mahinda, who is now set to become prime minister.
But there are also others who wonder whether it is truly Rajapaksa who will steer this island nation for the next five years. Rajapaksa is part of one of Sri Lanka's most powerful families: his father was an MP and cabinet minister, while his elder brother Mahinda was Sri Lanka's president twice, and another two brothers have held high-ranking positions in previous administrations.
The fifth of nine children, he was born in 1949, and belongs to Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community. He joined the army in 1971, training at the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA). For the next 20 years, he worked his way up the ranks, receiving a number of awards for gallantry, before leaving to work in IT.
Then, in 1998, Rajapaska and his family moved to the US - returning in 2005, the year his brother Mahinda became president. Under his brother's presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was appointed the defence secretary in 2005 and again in 2010 - a role which would see him play a key part in Sri Lanka's history.
But behind the celebrations, many are worried about what Gotabaya Rajapaska's election will mean for Sri Lanka. "The Rajapaksas have already used the Islamist bombings [on Easter Sunday] to fan the flame of Sinhalese nationalism…. The prospect of an alleged war criminal still wedded to extrajudicial methods becoming president rightly terrifies minority groups, the media and civil-liberties advocates," writer and analyst Brahma Chellaney said.
Others have warned "the Rajapaksa political playbook is based on mining ethnic fault lines". Author Ana Pararajasingham, writing in The Diplomat, warned that a victory for Rajapaksa was "bound to have consequences for democracy in Sri Lanka".
Some media outlets also sounded the alarm bell. State-owned Sunday Observer newspaper published a front-page editorial on 10 November titled "We fear Gotabaya", highlighting grave potential consequences to media freedom if he was elected. -AFP