The Sri Lanka presidential election on November 16 marks the potential return of the Rajapaksa regime with the presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the SLPP. As Leader of the SLPP, it is likely that Mahinda Rajapaksa will become Prime Minister if Gotabaya succeeds. According to another brother Basil Rajapaksa, a former Minister of Economic Development and a chief strategist for Gotabaya’s presidential campaign, this would enable Mahinda to assume his rightful position as the ‘spiritual leader’ of the troubled island nation (cited in Srinivasan 2019). Notably, during his ten year tenure as President (2005–2015), Mahinda would present himself as a larger than life figure presiding over the island nation, like a mythical Kandyan king.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, was ousted during Sri Lanka’s last presidential election in 8 January 2015, by a coalition of rival parties, United Democratic Front (UDF), led by his former Minister of Health, Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa, who had been President for ten years (2005–2015) with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ran for Prime Minister with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) during the parliamentary elections held on 17 August 2015. The UPFA and its main opposition, a coalition led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) comprised largely of United National Party (UNP) members, failed to secure a majority. Wickremesinghe eventually succeeded as Prime Minister, forming a national government with the support of UPFA members loyal to the new President Sirisena. Rajapaksa was elected as a Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala District.
In 2016, Rajapaksa loyalists created the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka Peoples Party, SLPP). Although Rajapaksa was not their leader, its inaugural meeting was held in his office and his brothers Gotabaya and Basil became members. It was considered by many to be a proxy party for Mahinda. In February 2018, the SLPP won 40 percent of votes in Sri Lanka’s largest local authority elections, securing 239 of 340 local Government bodies, destabilising the authority of the national unity government.
It was the largest election in Sri Lankan history, with 15.7 million eligible voters. This was also the first election under the mixed electoral system where 60% of members were elected using first-past-the-post voting and the remaining 40% through closed list proportional representation.
On 26 October 2018, President Sirisena shocked Parliament by dismissing the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge following the withdrawal of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) from the national unity government. He sought to replace him with his former rival Mahinda Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe refused to resign from the United National Party (UNP) declaring the appointment of a new Prime Minister as unconstitutional and illegal, prompting the tag ‘#FakePM’ on social media. After proroguing Parliament, Sirisena failed to secure its confidence to form a new cabinet with Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. His attempt to dissolve Parliament on 9 November and call a snap election was challenged by the UNP in the Supreme Court (Sirisena 2018, November 9) and was eventually judged invalid. Rajapaksa stepped down from office on 15 December and Wickremesinghe was reinstated the following day (Uyangoda 2018).
In its 2019 report on Sri Lanka, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights stated:
The heated political confrontation has polarized the political spectrum in ways that could further hamper immediate progress in constitutional reform.’ (OHCHR 2019, p. 7)
Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Parliament as of Leader of the Opposition with the UPFA in December 2018, replacing R. Sampanthan of the TNA.
On (Easter) Sunday 21 April 2019, terrorist attacks on churches and luxury hotels occurred in Colombo, Negombo, Batticaloa and other parts of Sri Lanka. On Friday 26 April 2019, Gotabaya announced he would run as a candidate for the SLPP in the November Presidential Elections, to ‘stop the spread of Islamist extremism by rebuilding the intelligence service and surveilling citizens’ (Miglani and Aneez 2019)
Gotabaya was officially announced as the SLPP’s Presidential candidate at it’s inaugural National Conventions on 11 August 2019, the same day Mahinda was announced as the party’s leader (Rajasingham 2019).
Coordinated suicide bombings on 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, at three churches and luxury hotels in Colombo and other sites in Sri Lanka, resulted in the death of 277 people, including 8 suicide bombers. The attacks targeted Christians during morning worship services across the island nation, and tourists and guests breakfasting at luxurious beachfront hotels in the capital. All six of the first set of blasts were carried out by suicide bombers. Zahran Hashim, former leader of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (National Monotheism Organisation, NTJ), a global jihadist group formed in Kattankudy, is the main suspect for orchestrating these attacks.
The attacks occurred at:
08.25: Shrine of St. Anthony, a historic Catholic church in Colombo 13
08.45: St Sebastian’s Church, Negombo (a majority Christian suburb close to the international airport) — claiming approx 115 lives
09.05: Zion Church, Batticaloa. Taking 30 lives, including several children from the adjoining Sunday School.
Three 5-star hotels, Shangri-La Hotel, Cinnamon Grand Hotel and The Kingsbury, in central Colombo were simultaneously bombed.
The majority of those killed were Sri Lankans, at least 45 were foreigners and at least 45 were children. A state of emergency was declared between 22 April and 25 August 2019.
The terrorist attacks provoked incidents of anti-Muslim violence in May 2019. Many were anxious about a repeat of the widespread anti-Muslim communal violence which left two dead in March 2018, which prompted a nationwide state of emergency and block on social media (Mashal and Bastians 2018).
It was reported late in the election campaign the Rajapaksas adopted a ‘better to be with us than against us’ stance to subtly signal to Lanka’s Muslim community that they will be worse off if they overwhelmingly vote against Gotabaya but he comes into power anyway (Petersen 2019).
In the days following the Easter Tragedy the Sri Lankan Government acknowledged that an Indian intelligence agency had warned its security officials ten days before the attacks about a possible threat to churches by National Thowheeth Jama’ath. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was on holidaying in Singapore when the bombngs occurred, said that this information was not shared with him and that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should take responsibility. Wickremesinghe claimed that he and other top government officials had not been informed either. Gotabaya said the attacks could have been prevented if the current government had not dismantled the intelligence network and extensive surveillance capabilities that he built up during Sri Lanka’s civil war (Bradsher and Garcia 2019; Miglani and Aneez, 2019).
‘Coincidently or not so coincidentally’
In May 2019 the Parliament of Sri Lanka appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to look into the circumstances surrounding the attacks and the failure of the State to prevent or mitigate them. The nine-member PSC published its findings on 23 October 2019. The report indicated that members of the government had been aware of developing extremism for years and that limited steps were taken to prevent or mitigate attacks.
It confirms earlier reports that intelligence had received by the Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) as early as 4 April 2019, but that no action had been taken. The PSC also noted the failure of the SIS to act following an explosion at Kattankudy on 16 April and declare that the Director of SIS bears the greatest responsibility. The report notes that:
since 8th April 2018, a full one year before the incident, he had in writing to the IGP [Inspector General of Police] requested for the shutting down of investigations by others into Zahran, which resulted in the SIS becoming the sole investigator into Zahran (PSC 2019, p. 2).
The PSC also observes that further investigations will be needed to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos, instil fear and uncertainty and strengthen calls for a change of regime. According to the report: ‘Coincidently or not so coincidentally, the security situation and fear would be unleashed months away from the Presidential Election’ (PSC 2019, p. 3).
The report confirms Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense was first alerted in writing to foreign intelligence warnings of the attack on 8 April 2019. It also claims that head of Security Intelligence Services had placed a phone call to President Sirisena, who had denied knowledge of prior warnings .
According to the human rights activist and academic Rajan Hoole (2019) in an excerpt from his recent book, Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State Gets Out of its Depth, published prior to the PSC report:
The origin of the Easter bombing was the perception that a free Muslim vote would impede the return to power of the Rajapaksas. Its purpose, as the unfolding drama suggested, was to use the anger of Christian communities affected to leverage a wider retaliation against Muslims. If so, it suggests the involvement of a section of the Deep State, something many politicians knowingly tolerated. To overcome a free Muslim vote, required creating conditions where most Muslims would not vote (like the Northerners in 2005) or would vote under an overhanging threat.
… the Easter Tragedy, although not necessarily a conspiracy, was enabled to happen because from the time of independence, the law has been treated as dispensable when it comes to partisan interests of narrow nationalist ideology. It enabled sections of the powerful to form shifting alliances to further particular goals of Sinhalisation.
As President, Mahinda also held the position of the Minister of Defence and Urban Development, appointing Gotabaya as Secretary of Defence. As the chief military strategist overseeing the end of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war in May 2009, which claimed the lives of between 40 000 and 100 000 civilians in its final stages, many believe that Gotabaya should be held accountable for alleged war crimes, tortures and extrajudicial killings that occurred (Francis 2019).
The US Professor of Law Ryan Goodman commented in 2015 that the US Government could prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a naturalised US citizen under its War Crimes Act of 1996 (Goodman 2015). It is also worth noting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in it’s 2019 report on Sri Lanka also:
encourages Member States to prosecute Sri Lankans suspected of crimes against humanity, war crimes or other gross violations of human rights, in accordance with universal jurisdiction principles (OHCHR 2019, p. 10).
Indeed, Gotabaya’s presidential campaign has been marked by significant civil action. In the U.S., just weeks before the Easter attacks, Gotabaya was issued court summons in a Los Angeles parking lot by private investigators working on behalf of the Center for Justice and Accountability.
One case was filed in the Federal Court of the Central District of California by Roy Samthanam under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act (1991) (Van Schaack 2019a). Samthanam, now a Canadian citizen, claims to have been detained and tortured between 2007 and 2010 by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka police. Yasmin Sooka, the executive director of the International Truth and Justice Project who are bringing the Samathanam case, commented that ‘this was probably the last chance for a long time to begin to hold him accountable’ (cited in Safi 2019). In September, the court granted Gotabaya’s motion to place a stay on the court procedures on the basis that ‘it would preserve judicial resources, impose no identifiable harm on Plaintiffs, and would avoid unnecessary burdens on Defendant’, moving a September scheduling conference until after the elections on 30 December 2019. Gotabaya may be entitled to head of state immunity should he become president (Van Schaack 2019b).
Simultaneously, Gotabaya was being pursued in the U.S. courts by Ahimsa Wickrematunge, the daughter of journalist Lasanthe Wickramatunge who was assassinated in January 2009. On 21 October the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted Gotabaya’s motion to dismiss Wickrematunge’s lawsuit against him, rather than granting a stay for a later ruling. The U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner argued that Gotabaya is entitled to common law foreign official immunity for alleged acts of torture, extrajudicial killing, and crimes against humanity, as these acts were committed in his official capacity as Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defence. It should be noted was Gotabaya was not in this role an elected member of the Government of Sri Lanka or an accredited diplomat (Van Schaack 2019c).
Wickrematunge and her legal team filed an appeal on 13 November 2019 to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, stating in a press release that:
The court erroneously awarded Rajapaksa immunity even though Sri Lanka did not request it, and incorrectly found that Rajapaksa’s actions were committed within his official capacity as Sri Lanka’s secretary of defense, despite the fact that Lasantha’s assassination was neither authorized nor ratified by the Sri Lankan government (CJA 2019).
A third legal case in Lanka was being pursued by the renown artist Professor Chandragupta Thenuwara and civil rights activist Gamini Viyangoda questioning the validity of the presidential candidate as a dual citizen at the time of his nomination. Their petition was dismissed by Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal on 4 October 2019 (Ranawana 2019). Thenuwara, who developed a form of artistic protest named ‘Barrelism’ which foregrounds barrels sourced from police and military checkpoints as a protest against Sri Lanka’s militarisation, has received death threats from SLPP supporters.
Just days before the November 16 elections, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) highlighted several anomalies with the affidavit submitted by Gotabaya on 7 October 2019 to confirm he had renounced his US citizenship and a subsequent and different affidavit shown by his counsel, Mr. Ali Sabry PC. A third affidavit, which did not bear Gotabaya’s signature, was shared by Sabry on social media. The confusion surrounding these documents cast more doubt about Gotabaya’s legibility as a Presidential candidate according to Articles 91 and 92 of the Sri Lankan Constitution (CPA 2019).
In August Colombo Telegraph reported that Sri Lanka’s current Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, assisted Gotabaya to obtain a new passport via the intervention of his Internal Affairs Minister Wajira Abeywardena (Bambaradeniya 2019). Abeywardena, whose ministry includes the Registrar of Persons and Immigration Department, intervened to ensure Rajapaksa obtained a new National ID and passport promptly after he received his certificate of citizenship renunciation from the US Embassy in Colombo. The newspaper claims Gotabaya’s passport was issued without him having to be present at the Department of Immigration and that his documents were accepted after its counters were closed.
Colombo Telegraph journalist T.B. Bambaradeniya alleges that the Prime Minister had struck a deal with the presidential candidate to ensure his political survival after the election; to keep control of the UNP and take the role of Opposition Leader if Gotabaya should succeed to the Presidency. Furthermore the newspaper reports that Wickrematunge’s niece Ishini Wickremesinghe, a consultant for the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, had assured Gotabaya that her uncle would ensure Sri Lankan officials would not cooperate with the US civil suit accusing the former Secretary of Defence of murdering Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Another alarming revelation came in October from a testimony into the execution of 27 prisoners at Welikada prison on 9 November 2012 by Special Task Force and Army personnel. Former Assistant Superintendent P.W. Kudabandara, a prosecution witness, told the court that on that day two Army officers arrived at the prison brandishing a list of inmates’ names which they referred to as ‘Gota’s List’, implicating the presidential candidate in these killings (Perera 2019).
When Gota announced his intention to run for the presidency after the Easter attacks he promised to take a hardline on extremism, to rebuild security and surveillance networks (Miglani and Azeen 2019). Soon after he was described as a ‘Terminator’ who would eradicate fraud and corruption and ensure security by his brother and presidential campaign strategist, Basil (Pothmulla 2019). Gota responds to demands from the Sinhala majority electorate for a ‘strong man’ who will revive the economy after the attacks and the instability of the unitary government. According to Rajesh Venugopal a Professor of International Development at the London School of Economics and Politics:
Gotabya fits the bill perfectly. He’s a nationalist and an authoritarian who brought the war against the Tamil Tigers to an end with a no-nonsense approach. But he has blood on his hands and when it comes to war crimes, the buck stops with him. Sadly, this has not damaged his credentials with many Sinhalese Sri Lankans but actually helped him.
Thanks world for all your help in destroying Tamil groups that fought for freedom. Special thanks to India China US and UK and Australia for deporting Tamils back to these realities. https://t.co/3q37mg94Lo
— M.I.A (@MIAuniverse) November 15, 2019
The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), 2019. ‘Daughter of slain Sri Lankan journalist appeals decision in U.S. extrajudicial killing case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’, Press Release, 13 November.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 2019. ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’, Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, 8 February.
Select Committee of the Eighth Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (PSC), 2019. Parliament Report of the Select Committee of Parliament to look into and report to Parliament on the Terrorist Attacks that took place in different places in Sri Lanka on 21st April 2019, Parliamentary Series No. 183, 23 October.