December 08, 2019
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    Gotabaya Rajapaksa: a new beginning

    November 18, 2019

    Gotabaya Rajapaksa: a new beginning

    Sri Lanka’s seventh Executive President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa hails from a proud political family that has already produced a two-term President – Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is indeed the first time that a brother of a former President has been elected as the President.

    Gotabaya Rajapaksa (70), popularly known as “Gota” was the candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), popularly known as the ‘Pohottuwa party’ (because of its Flower Bud ballot symbol), which originated as a breakaway faction of the SLFP led by Gotabaya’s elder brother former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gotabaya held the powerful Defence Ministry Secretary post in the two successive Mahinda Rajapaksa presidencies during 2005-2015. Defence Secretary Lt. Colonel (retd.) Rajapaksa made history with his tireless and determined coordination of the war effort that crushed the LTTE insurgency, done in close consultation with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also Defence Minister, and the Tri-Forces Commanders. This earned him a place in the hearts of Sri Lankans as a fearless, unflappable leader. His ascension to the Presidency also marks the first instance of a former military officer becoming the President of Sri Lanka.

    Born on June 20, 1949, in Palatuwa in the Matara District in the Ruhuna, Sri Lanka’s deep south, to parents of nine children, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the fifth child. He was brought up in Weerakatiya in the neighbouring rural district of Hambantota and obtained his primary and secondary education at Ananda College, Colombo, where brother Basil also received education. He is in fact the first President of Sri Lanka to have been educated at Ananda College, an elite boys’ public school. Previously, Ananda College has produced a Prime Minister – Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.

    Political family

    Hailing from a well-known political family in Sri Lanka, the need to serve one’s country was a belief that was instilled into all the Rajapaksa children at an early age. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s father, D. A. Rajapaksa, was not only a prominent politician in Sri Lanka but also an activist for independence from colonial rule. Rajapaksa senior went on to become a Member of Parliament, and served as the Deputy Speaker and Cabinet Minister of Agriculture and Land under Wijeyananda Dahanayake’s government. Along with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, he was one of the founder members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which gained a massive victory in 1956.

    This tradition of public service and interest in politics ran in the family as several of the Rajapaksa children followed in their father’s footsteps. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was first elected to Parliament as a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party at the age of 24 in 1970. He gradually rose through the party ranks to become the Leader of the Opposition in 2001, Prime Minister in 2004 and the President of Sri Lanka in 2005. Two of his other elder brothers, Chamal Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, also followed a political path having served as Members of Parliament.

    Gotabaya’s public service started at an early age with the decision to join the Sri Lanka Army. He joined the Sri Lanka Army as a Cadet Officer in 1971 and became a Second Lieutenant in 1972. Having initially served in the Sinha Regiment, he was transferred to the Gajaba Regiment upon its formation in 1983. In that year, he earned a Masters Degree in Defence Studies from the University of Chennai.

    In 1989, he was appointed commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Gajaba Regiment and served till 1990. During this time he attended the Advanced Infantry Officers Course at the United States Army Infantry School, Fort Benning, and was promoted to the rank of Lt. Col. upon his return. In 1991 he was appointed Deputy Commandant of the Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy and subsequently as the Commanding Officer of the famed Gajaba Regiment.

    Battlefront experience

    His time in the military included battlefront experience in some of the most hard-fought battles in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He participated in “Operation Liberation,” the offensive mounted to liberate Vadamarachchi from the LTTE in 1987, and also commanded the same battalion in “Operation Strike Hard” and “Operation Thrividha Balaya” in 1990. As a reward for gallantry and excellence in combat, he was awarded the Rana Wickrama Padakkama (RWP) and Rana Sura Padakkama (RSP) in 1991. He worked closely with some of the most well-known Army officers including Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Wijaya Wimalaratne.

    He retired from the army in 1992. In 1998, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family migrated to the United States of America where he worked as a Systems Administrator at Loyola Law School, California. There he was able to gain more experience in the operation of computer systems, particularly in the area of electronic communications. That experience further cemented his desire to work towards enhancing national security in Sri Lanka.

    Gotabaya Rajapaksa completed his Master’s Degree in Defence Studies at the University of Chennai in 1983. In addition, he also completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Information Technology at the University of Colombo in 1992, and was awarded an Honours Doctor of Letters by the University of Colombo in 2009.

    In 2005, with the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential Election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was appointed the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence where he played a key role in ending the three-decade-long war through an expertly-conceived and skillfully-coordinated military strategy. He then turned his focus to swiftly restoring normality to the country whilst taking steps to further consolidate national security. This included a series of initiatives, including capacity building within State agencies and departments under the Ministry of Defence such as the Department of Immigration and Emigration, the Registration of Persons Department, and the Coast Guard.

    assassination attempt

    Gotabaya Rajapaksa survived an LTTE assassination attempt at the Piththala Junction in Colombo in December 2006 while he was on his way to a defence briefing at Temple Trees presided over by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His security was tightened following this incident and even the subsequent UNF Government (led by the opposition United National Party) provided him with tight security, recognizing his role in ending of the war.

    He oversaw the military involvement in de-mining, reconstruction and resettlement in the war torn North and the East, and in the rehabilitation and re-integration into society of over 12,000 former LTTE cadres, a social healing process that has been recognised as successful post-war rehabilitation exercise. He was also instrumental in uplifting the General Sir John Kothalawala Defence Academy to a fully-fledged Defence university. His leadership and strong commitment to achieving goals helped end the war that had been a major impediment to Sri Lanka’s further development for decades.

    In fact, when several emissaries sent by major world powers visited Colombo at the height of the conflict in 2009, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa remained firm, declaring that no amount of foreign pressure will make them stop the military operations. While logisitical support came from several friendly powers, Gotabaya, along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Tri Forces Commanders, Police/STF Chiefs and CDF Chief, is credited with ending the long-running separatist insurgency.

    In 2010, following the second-term victory of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official responsibilities were expanded to include both Defence and Urban Development. Within a short span of four years, in coordination with other Ministries, he made a beginning in the modernisation of metropolitan Colombo and several other cities. He focussed on improving the quality of life for many citizens by fostering a sustainable and attractive urban environment. He initiated the renovation of many old colonial buildings and structures in Colombo, including the colonial Race Course area, Dutch Hospital precinct and Independence Arcade, near the Independence Hall. In the greater Colombo region, he built recreational areas in Battaramulla, Madiwela, Kaduwela, Bellanwila and Nawala. Such projects are likely to continue under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. He has gained a reputation as a forthright administrator who does not take “no” for an answer.

    Gotabaya also spearheaded the Viyath Maga and Eliya organisations, a collective of intellectuals, artistes and academics whose primary objective is to rebuild a stronger economy in Sri Lanka within an equal and more democratic society in a more secure nation. This organisation has held seminars throughout the country. Viyath Maga is seen by many as a precursor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political career, though he has admitted that he had no intention of entering politics when he began the initiative. Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that he was ready to face the challenge of becoming the SLPP presidential candidate in April 2019, which was confirmed by his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa a couple of months later at a special convention of the SLPP, which had recorded a remarkable victory in 2018 at the Local Government Polls.

    Gotabaya Rajapaksa renounced his US citizenship to contest the election here. Several attempts by his political opponents to turn it into an electoral issue however failed to gain much traction with voters. A separate lawsuit filed on his citizenship status in Sri Lanka was also dismissed by the Court of Appeal. His manifesto for the 2019 Presidential Election was titled “Vistas of Prosperity” and includes a comprehensive overhaul of the economy, national security, infrastructure development, social welfare, education, health and several other aspects of a rapidly modernising country. He has indicated a tough stance on corruption at all levels.

    A biography of Gotabaya Rajapaksa authored by Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Kamal Gooneratne and published in September in both Sinhala and English has become a best-selling non-fiction book in Sri Lanka. It is expected to be translated into Tamil soon.

    Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife, Ioma, are parents to their son Manoj Rajapaksa.

     

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