With the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president of Sri Lanka, people of one more country are getting back to the list of victims of authoritarianism. For Gotabaya is the former defence secretary and hero of the anti-LTTE offensive. He comes to power with a convincing victory of 52.25 per cent votes. The immediately trailing rival could win only 41.99 per cent votes. It is not only the support of Sinhalese and Buddhist communities that form 74 of the population that brought Gotabaya to the president's chair. The huge defeat of the 2015 alliance, that people had hailed with high hopes, also did play a role in it.
The anti-incumbency feeling was strong in the election. To put it in brief, it was not any hope of a better rule that elected Gotabaya. No one except the ultra-racists of Sinhalese majority had any hopes in him. He was not acceptable to minorities, Tamils and Muslims. While his rule jointly with his brother Mahindra Rajapaksa was a prop for majority racism, it was hell for minorities.
The plus factor of Gotabaya was the victory against LTTE. And that was what introduced the racist in him to the world. What happened against 'Tamil tigers' during 2006-09 was genocide, which included several atrocities that constituted war crimes. UN Human Rights Commission had at that time asked Sri Lanka to enquire into the rights violations during that period. Multiple charges including abduction, torture and murder were recorded in the name of Gotabaya. He was also said to be the man behind the 'White Van Gangs' reported to have been formed to kidnap critical journalists and activists. Although some so abducted returned after torture, many others went 'missing'.
The question that may arise is how such a leader, viewed as an incarnation of hatred and authoritarianism, has been able to come back to power stronger. The answer to that lies in the 'democratic model' that applies equally to several other countries. The secret of this success is not the aspirations of good governance, but the neo-democratic strategy of rule by intimidation. When minorities including Tamils and Muslilms generally voted for Premdasa, the majority communities threw their weight behind Gotabaya.
Gotabaya achieved this by raising a bogey about the days of 'Tamil extremism' and mistrust of minorities. The Easter terror attacks of April this year that took 269 lives made matters easy for Gotabaya's party. That was a moment which exposed the inefficiency of the government too. Despite receiving warnings about a possible attack, it could not take effective preventive action. When the fall of the coalition cobbled by Sirisena and Vickramasinghe and the terror attacks combined, 'democracy' lost its relevance, and a sentiment crystallised that it was enough If an effifient leader was some how elected to rule.
For, it has by now become a feature of neo-democracy not to choose the better, but instead to reject the worse. Even if the force of racism was not present in Sri Lanka, we can rationally presume that the lot of this negative democracy would have fallen in favour of Gotabaya. As the new president, he has appealed for the support of Tamil-Muslim communities. But the key concern, over and above his appeal, is whether he can command the confidence of those sections. He has been resisting the moves to probe his earlier war crimes and human rights vioilations.
He has been shirking probe probably because the records of the crimes committed by Sri Lankan military under him – murder, torture, rape, bombing hospitals and evicting people from their homes – lie recorded with evidence. And it is as a part of that attempt to thwart probe that he recently relinquished his US citizenship. Like many other ruthless leaders, Gotabaya has not shown willingness to atone for his wrongs. That being so, there is not much to hope from his words of moderation.