Marcos’ tale a key lesson for Gotabaya and clan
Posted on December 28th, 2022

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti Courtesy New Indian Ecpress

Irrespective of where he makes his next home, Rajapaksa will have the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, eluding a retreat from the prying eyes of the public.

The year 2022 proved tumultuous for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s eighth executive president. Here’s a man who was swept into power with an unprecedented mandate to protect sovereignty and the interests of the majority, only to be unceremoniously ousted in less than two years by the same people who elevated him to high office.

The populist leader offered a ‘system reset’—a heady concoction of allegations like international conspiracies, islamophobia, and minority hatred were the ingredients of his political campaign. Gotabaya epitomised identity politics and had people eating out of his palm for a while. His popularity even surpassed that of his brother, Mahinda, considered the most popular leader in present-day mainstream politics.

His misplaced trust, poor judgement and hasty decision-making may be history now, but there are unresolved issues even a fleeing president cannot avoid. He appears to have made a complete U-turn to return to his adopted home, the United States, after the controversial relinquishing of his American citizenship to stand for presidency in 2019.

On Boxing Day 2022, Rajapaksa and his wife left for the US via Dubai. Sources close to Rajapaksa said the 73-year-old ex-president wishes to spend his premature retirement with his son. The turn of events, barring some differences, may resonate with other dictators and their eventual fall from grace.

In another era, another dictator and kleptocrat (known for brutality and corruption) who branded his rule as ‘constitutional authoritarianism’ had to use his powerful connections at the US State Department to make a home in Hawaii. He too undertook massive infrastructure projects that increased the nation’s foreign debt, drove high inflation and triggered a crushing debt crisis that brought people to the streets. He too was known as anti-communist, anti- Muslim, and anti-citizen.

Gotabaya and the entire Rajapaksa clan have several lessons to learn from the dark legacy of the Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his lavish wife, joint holders of the Guinness World Record for the largest-ever theft of government resources. The recent legacy of the Rajapaksas drives comparisons with the infamous Marcos’ of the Philippines—including how they made nations bleed and sought refuge elsewhere.

Irrespective of where he makes his next home, Rajapaksa will have the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, eluding peaceful retirement or a retreat from the prying eyes of the public. Relinquishing public office is only a partial response to the call for accountability. Rajapaksa owes the nation answers on multiple counts, ranging from human rights abuses during the final phase of the war, journalists’ murders, systemic corruption, and the complete collapse of the economy due to gross mismanagement.

An authoritarian leader who brooked no opposition until he was driven out, Gotabaya infamously engineered anti-democratic Constitutional amendments to enable his brothers to control the political destiny of the Sri Lankan people. The 20th Amendment removed the two-term restriction on executive presidency and enabled dual citizens to hold political office. Gotabaya will be (dis)credited for elevating the family power project to Asia’s largest nepotism initiative, completing state capture by brothers, sons and nephews. Through this, democratic gains made through the 19th Amendment that depoliticised key public institutions were reversed without remorse.

Gotabaya returned home in 2005 after his brother Mahinda was elected president, to serve as the powerful and hand-picked defence secretary. He renounced his American citizenship under a cloud of doubt, to run for presidency in November 2019.

Sixteen years later, he is on his way back to the US, where his wife Ioma is a permanent resident. Angry citizens have driven him from home and presidency while the world has watched the grand spectacle of an unwelcome president flitting from country to country.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa may now want to repair the relationship with his former home which had repeatedly faulted him for lack of accountability, governance and transparency.

The return of the prodigal may also inspire reactions similar to those experienced by Ferdinand Marcos, who was welcomed with a surfeit of lawsuits. On the other hand, it could be a quiet return home, which will depend on the understandings reached on his behalf by the Sri Lankan government. But to most Sri Lankans, he represents a festering cancer of family rule that had made Sri Lanka bleed.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa may be eager to put his past behind and move on. Unfortunately, the people of Sri Lanka cannot do so with ease. Their lives have been turned topsy-turvy and beyond recognition with no hope of a better morrow. The people may be too tired to protest. But this silence is one pregnant with suffering and seething anger, for they know what became of those who dared to protest: violent attacks and flimsy litigation. There had been no public explanation or a plan of action that included the recovery of any stolen assets.

When Marcos fled Manila with his wife and entourage, he was given a safe passage and lived in the lap of luxury in Hawaii, spending his ill-gotten wealth. Yet, he was greeted with a series of lawsuits. His wealth could not even secure him a burial in the Philippines’ soil until years after his death.

What works in the Rajapaksas’ collective favour is the incumbent president who has ensured not just their safety and well-being but also their return to mainstream politics, excluding Gotabaya. Instead, he is supported to make a new home elsewhere, while others have a fresh political playground to mess with the future of 22 million people. There is no doubt that Sri Lankans here and abroad will keep a keen eye on what becomes of Gotabaya in his new life in the United States and whether the US’ system of justice may have its wheels turned now that he is no longer a serving president. People are bound to also watch how President Wickemesinghe may further facilitate the Rajapaksa clan to avoid being answerable to the people for grand corruption, kleptocracy and rights violations.

Should we also watch the United States carefully? We should. A country that has consistently questioned the regimes of Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa should now demonstrate its own commitment to fighting kleptocracy, economic crimes and rights abuses. The proof is in the pudding.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Executive Director of the Colombo-based Center for Investigative Reporting and a lawyer by training

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