Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused by rights groups of war crimes during the final months of Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war a decade ago, has confirmed he plans to run for the presidency in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks that have shattered the country’s uneasy peace.
Rajapaksa, the brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, told Al Jazeera that he would stand as a candidate in elections due by late 2019.
“Definitely I’m contesting,” Rajapaksa said with a chuckle during an interview in the book-lined study of his home in the capital, Colombo, photos from his military career hanging from the walls.
“I have decided long time. Otherwise, there’s no need for me to renounce my US citizenship.”
There has long been speculation that Rajapaksa, a Sri Lanka-US dual citizen, will campaign for the presidency.
Rajapaksa has to renounce his US citizenship in order to run for president. His name does not appear on the most recent quarterly filing to the US registry on those who have lost their citizenship, which covers the three months until the end of March.
He insists he is not being an opportunist in revealing his plans in the wake of the attacks on churches and luxury hotels that killed more than 250 people and have fuelled a wave of mob violence against Muslim communities.
“I don’t consider it as an opportunity,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is not the elections, but it is our country and nation. Something I focused on is destroyed. I’m worried and saddened because of that.”
Investigative journalist Lasantha Ruhunage said Rajapaksa would have a “strongman” appeal given his role in defeating the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a conflict that came to a bloody end on a narrow strip of beach on the island’s northeast in 2009.
“There would be an appetite for him among the masses,” Ruhunage said. “But it’s not just him; it’s the ‘strongman’. People are moving towards military strongmen rather than the traditional politicians because of the record of the incumbent politicians.”
The Easter Sunday bombings exposed the depth of ill-feeling between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as each blamed the other for the government’s failure to act on detailed intelligence warnings that attacks were imminent.
Rajapaksa claims the government’s decision shortly after it came to power in 2015 to detain and investigate senior military officers amid allegations of wartime rights violations contributed to the failure.
But during the decade that he was defence secretary, the military was accused of a wide range of abuses – from torture to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings – creating a climate of fear among journalists, activists and government critics.
A United Nations panel found breaches of international law by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. It also said that some 40,000 civilians died in the army’s brutal final push against the Tamil Tigers.
Charu Lata Hogg, a researcher at Chatham House in London who has briefed the UN on Sri Lanka, said Rajapaksa’s return would be a “step backwards” for justice and accountability.
“The real significance is that someone who led an army that has been accused of perpetrating war crimes will not be held to account and will be in a position of political strength,” she said. “It’s also symbolic in the sense of being a slap in the face for Tamil justice and is not at all supportive of reconciliation.”
As defence secretary, Rajapaksa said he ran what he describes as a “sophisticated and well-trained” network of 5,000 military intelligence agents, and dismissed accusations of human rights abuses.
“Those are all baseless allegations,” he said. “You talk about human rights, you talk about freedom of individuals, you talk about reconciliation, but all these depend on national security. If you don’t have national security what happens … do you have freedom? Everything depends on national security.”
His voice becomes increasingly shrill.
“This is a military that defeated such a ruthless, dangerous, powerful terrorist organisation,” he said, referring to the Tamil Tigers. “I’m wondering whether all this was done by rogues. Murderers … Are we saying that our military…
“There can be individuals. But if you take the whole picture you are generalising. Even internationally, they are generalising this.”
Search for justice
The Sinhalese, who are Buddhist, make up around 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, but the island has significant numbers of mostly-Hindu ethnic Tamils, as well as Muslims and Christians and has struggled with rising communal tension since independence from the British in 1948.
After a series of measures that privileged the Sinhalese over the rest of the population, the Tamil Tigers began their violent campaign for a separate Tamil homeland in the island’s north and east in the 1970s.
Ten years after the fighting finally came to an end in 2009, there has been little attempt to address the lingering resentments that helped fuel the conflict – even though Sirisena came to power promising reconciliation and accountability. A 2015 pledge to investigate wartime atrocities is still to be met.
According to Amnesty International, Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances – as many as 100,000 over the past three decades.
Analysts say Rajapaksa, who remained in his post for five years after the war ended, also bears responsibility for the instability that continues to plague the country.
“Justice is an essential part of achieving a sustainable peace,” Anjali Manivannan, senior legal analyst at People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), told Al Jazeera.
“The cause of the conflict, the structural discrimination, the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and supremacist beliefs that place Sinhalese Buddhists at a higher level than other communities on the island … None of that has really changed. They defeated the LTTE and won an armed conflict, but there have been no steps to address why that conflict started.”
Rajapaksa himself has been accused of war crimes and extra-judicial killings.
In April, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, the daughter of murdered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, filed a lawsuit accusing Rajapaksa of instigating and authorising her father’s killing in 2009. He is also facing a case filed by a Tamil man who says he was tortured in 2007 after being detained by the police’s Terrorism Investigation Division, which came under Rajapaksa’s command.
Rajapaksa has denied the allegations.
Once the election is called, and Rajapaksa formally launches his campaign, many believe that the past will probably matter little to the majority of voters, while Rajapaksa will portray himself as the man who can restore stability to a troubled island.
“I don’t see him limiting his use of existing or new emergency laws just to focus on the problem of Islamist extremism,” said Darsha Jegatheeswaran, senior researcher at the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research in Jaffna.
“Over the last (few) years, there have been communities that have been critical of the government, of him, human rights people have gone public … My concern is that if he comes back to power and his focus is on a ‘threat to the nation’ in the past that has been anyone critical of the government.
“I think he would be quite heavy-handed.”