Gotabaya Rajapaksa, once considered a “war hero” by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority for crushing the LTTE and ending the nearly 30-year civil war, is now detested by the same people who dramatically stormed his official residence over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis following which he fled the country in the middle of the night.
The 73-year-old politician and younger brother of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a former military officer who attended the counter-insurgency and jungle warfare school in Assam in 1980. He was the first person with a military background to be elected as Sri Lanka’s President in 2019 with a huge mandate.
His resignation comes days after thousands of protesters stormed his official residence, blaming him for the island nation’s unprecedented economic turmoil since its independence from Britain in 1948.
The economic crisis is caused in part by a lack of foreign currency, which has meant that the country cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices.
Under mounting pressure, President Rajapaksa first dropped his older brother Chamal and the eldest nephew Namal from the Cabinet in mid-April. Later, Prime Minister Mahinda also resigned after his supporters attacked anti-government protesters, triggering violence against the Rajapaksa family loyalists in many parts of the country.
President Rajapaksa tried to tackle the crisis for a few weeks along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe before he was forced to flee his official residence in the face of massive protests over the economic crisis that has brought Sri Lanka to its knees.
From an undisclosed location, President Rajapaksa informed Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena about his decision to step down late Saturday night.
He, however, fled to the Maldives without resigning from his office. From Maldives, he went to Singapore which “allowed” him to enter into the city-state on a “private visit”.
President Rajapaksa sent his resignation letter to the Speaker after reaching Singapore.
Rajapaksa, who served as the defence secretary during his elder brother Mahinda’s tenure as president from 2005 to 2014, was voted to presidency by Sri Lankans who became worried about Islamic extremism in the Buddhist-majority country following the Easter bombings on April 21, 2019 that killed more than 250 people.
Though dubbed as the “war hero”, the role of Rajapaksa in ending the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with the death of its supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2009 is quite divisive as he stands accused of violating human rights, a charge he vehemently denies.
Rajapaksa took oath as president at the sacred Buddhist temple Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura – an ancient temple built by Sinhalese King Dutugemenu who is best known for defeating an invading Tamil king.
His swearing-in ceremony indicated the president’s leaning towards Sinhalese Buddhist dominance in the island where Hindus and Muslims together constitute approximately 20 per cent of the total population.
Rajapaksa is accused of overseeing torturing and indiscriminate killings of both civilians and combatants, and later of political assassinations.
He and his brother Mahinda are also accused of condoning sexual violence and extrajudicial killings allegedly by Lankan security forces during the war.