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Gotabaya Rajapaksa: Widely Feared Vegetarian Strongman

THE ECONOMIST | from the print edition

THE president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, may well feel pleased with himself. On the face of it, more than six years after his first election, his prospects are still remarkably rosy.

In reverence: Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members paying obeisance at Sai Baba temple in Shirdi on Sunday, February 5, 2012. Photo: PTI – courtesy: The Hindu

The economy clips along at about 7% a year. Mr Rajapaksa’s coalition controls over two-thirds of parliament, and opposition parties are so weak that a senior minister chuckles about not being held to account.

There, says an MP who has visited him, he wears short trousers and passes his days in a cell known as the “Scouting Room”, complete with a portrait of Baden-Powell.

Confidence lay behind the heavy hint dropped on February 8th by Basil Rajapaksa, the economy minister, that Mr Fonseka, a classmate chum, might soon leave prison and even return to politics.

Basil is one of several Rajapaksa brothers, the one reckoned to be the brains of the ruling family.

Possibly he thinks that Mr Fonseka may make a fool of himself at large, while enjoying martyr status behind bars.

On independence day, February 4th, the president chided his countrymen, urging them to be more grateful.

It is true that since a bitter end in 2009 to a long, wretched ethnic civil war, the lot of many Sri Lankans has steadily improved.

The state of emergency is gone, even if other draconian laws remain.

Many of the tens of thousands of Tamils detained in the north at the war’s end have been released. New roads, ports, railways and power stations are spreading.

In Colombo, the capital, various swanky structures are rising and the ground has been cleared for a lotus-shaped tower intended to be South Asia’s tallest.

How, then, to explain a persistent grouchiness among Sri Lankans? The past months have brought strikes, riots and protests by students, railwaymen, prisoners and public workers.

The opposition Tamil National Alliance swept local elections in the north, leaving the president’s party in the dust.

Ranil Wickremasinghe, the main Sinhalese opposition leader, no ball of energy himself, claims to see wide “protests and agitation against unfulfilled promises”.

Hushed café talk about a “Colombo spring” overstates things, but Mr Rajapaksa may remember how such grumbles and protests helped his own rise to power. Most outsiders focus on his headaches abroad.

In March the United Nations will consider a resolution on Sri Lanka over suspected killings of thousands of Tamil civilians and rebel prisoners in the last days of the war.

Last month Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said America would vote against Sri Lanka. A retired senior official frets about an “adversarial lock” closing on his country.

Yet matters at home may be more troubling. Furious recriminations followed the murder in October of a senior politician, an old friend of the president, in a shoot-out with a fellow MP.

Rumours of graft in infrastructure deals persist. A big investor calls the government “extremely corrupt and arrogant”. In the past this businessman went along with kickbacks of a “few million dollars: this is a developing country, after all”; but he balked once demands rose to tens of millions of dollars to win tenders for projects funded with Chinese loans.

The bribes, he suggests, are split between Chinese state-owned partners and members of the ruling clique.

Morals aside, he says this makes it impossible to turn a profit. He has been threatened, including with violence, for speaking out.

In the capital, commentators, activists and business types—who all demand anonymity on the topic of the Rajapaksas—warn of a family rule that has become more centralised, heavy-handed and authoritarian.

Here, the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is most often mentioned. Whereas the president has an earthy charm that appeals to rural Sinhalese, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wields power more bluntly.

He presides over both army and police, 300,000 armed men in all—just what a good democracy needs, he says. This year the defence budget will top $2 billion, a fifth of all public spending—an alarming share for a country now at peace.

The army’s role in business is also growing. An economist and opposition figure, Harsha de Silva, says the army is getting into hotels, farming, construction, golf courses, sports stadiums and even running roadside tea stalls.

The vegetarian strongman

The defence secretary, curiously, also oversees urban development, giving Gotabaya wide powers of patronage. His brother, Basil, calls him “fully vegetarian…the nicest, kindest person in the family”, yet he is widely feared.

A Tamil leader says the army oversees “oppressive, insulting, humiliating” rule in the north, with tales of land grabs, murders and rape.

My brothers’ keepers: In Sri Lanka the grip of the Rajapaksas only tightens - courtesy: The Economist

In Colombo political observers worry about the militarisation of politics. And though Gotabaya rejects the natural comparison with Pakistan, he enthuses about his recent expansion of what he calls his “huge” intelligence agencies.

A suggestion that spooks can undermine democracy is dismissed as merely “hypothetical”.

Yet some local journalists are warned by editors never to write about him. Asked if he frightens people, he says: “If they don’t criticise me, it is because there is nothing to criticise.”

Some think that growing army clout could be the defence secretary’s personal route to power. It presumes potential discord among the brothers, of which there is no sign yet.

Gotabaya disavows any interest in politics: he is an army man, he says. A human-rights lawyer, whose home was once attacked by assailants with grenades, raises a greater fear. If the ruling family feels it can rely on the army, it may worry less about appealing to voters; one day, it may even refuse to “go home”.

Unsurprisingly, the Rajapaksas see it otherwise. “We brothers are a very successful family, maybe because we grew up close,” says Gotabaya. The brothers’ rule looks assured for a while yet. courtesy: The Economist


  1. Rasu says:

    Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Shri.Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited Shirdi along with his family members on 5th Feb`2012, and paid obeisance at Sai Baba’s Samadhi Mandir.

    Later, the Shirdi Sai Baba Sansthan facilitated them with a Idol of Sai Baba, vastra and prasad.

    Talking to reporters about his visit later, Rajapaksa said that:

    He is a devotee of Sai Baba and comes to Shirdi two times a year to offer his prayers.

    He also makes it a point to read one chapter of ”Shri Saisatcharitra” (Sai Baba”s life story) every day. and that Sai Baba”s secular teachings have found a number of devotees in Sri Lanka.

  2. Dexter says:

    Great cartoon by Michael Morgenstern./ The Economist.

    Tiny detail is fantastic. Brother # 2 is with a rifle, # 3 with a bag to hoard the loot.

  3. Ravi Perera says:

    ” If the ruling family feels it can rely on the army, it may worry less about appealing to voters; one day, it may even refuse to “go home”.

    The truth is the ruling family is very popular with the ordinary people in the country (Sinhalese people and a great number of Muslims). Their strngths lies in the popularity with people. Prior to the them the country was ruled by westernise elite who did not connect up with the masses. The ruling family has a lot oif love for the country and so was Fonseka. Unfortunately Foseka has gone astray.

    As Lord Buddha says there is nothing constant every thing keeps changing. One day the rule of the current rulers will come to end. Until then they will be loved and accepted by a large majority

  4. Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan says:

    In colorful and biting language The Economist has few peers. Is the information in this piece Sarath Fonseka may be released “an inspired leak?” The Writer was not entirely wrong in assuming Fonseka will make a fool of himself outside than being made a martyr being held inside.

    The army’s steady encroachment into business areas is reminiscent of Pakistan and Thailand – where the army eventually did not stop there. They went for political plums as well.

    So the world knows the media critical of Gothabaya asks for trouble – and still we claim to be free and democratic. Although he has few to openly take him in the media here, he seems to be having a plateful from Lankan journos in exile in safer climes.

    It may not be an early Colombo Spring but imminent power-cuts, stiff increases in petrol (even without a war in Iran) further hikes in essential foodstuffs cannot be prevented. The Rupee cannot be defended from taking its actual place any longer. The “World’s best performing Stock Market” has now become the 2nd worst – once its real strength was discovered. Senior Ministers may have been reduced to wearing shorts and kept out of power – now almost entirely with Brothers Four. But these me, who still have their power bases, will be doing some thinking themselves. And, there a quite a few Senior Ministers – including a former garrulous PM.

    Selected Colombo businessmen who played ball with the Brothers now become frightened at the quantum of “palm oil” demanded. This is more because if push comes to shove in terms of exposure, it is the businessmen who will have to hold the baby in their hands like what happened to that poor Burgher boy (de Hoedt?) who worked in that spurious outfit that got many juicy Defence Contracts – owned by Sarath Fonseka’s son-in-law, now at large.

    As the Filipino (Marcos) Indonesian (Suharto) family ruling rackets proved there is always a time when these crooked regimes fall. In such times, the combined Army/Police strength of 300,000 which the Economist sarcastically describes as “just what democracy needs” may not hold – certainly not in a small country like Sri Lanka where eve the best kept secret is known to everybody in town in no time.


  5. Lankawick says:

    Finally the Economist…admits that Sri Lanka is doing good…
    no subtle hints of a “failed’ state…
    althu a few attemps are made as usual to “back stab” Sri Lanka…

    Economist needs to be reminded that the Sri Lanka Head of State…President Rajapaksa…
    and his 2 Brothers…Son…Neice…
    was duly elected in free Democratic elections…
    by a gratefull Sri Lankan nation for eradicating the LTTE cancer from the Island..

    But the Economist supports the UK Head of State…
    and her family…who for generations…were NEVER elected by the British people…
    most of this highly paid / low educated family members…
    are paid enomous amounts of money….to live in luxury…

    Economist also opposes the Sri Lanka Defence Budget….
    But has not opposesd the huge defence budgets / expenditure of…
    so-called neutral nations of Switzerland – Sweden – Singapore…

    nor oppose the huge defence – Dollars $$$ – of…
    Canada – Australia – New Zealand – Norway etc…
    nations which have no violent / brutal seperatist movements…
    nor any external threats…
    Guess the secret is to buy British Arms…

    Economist always condemns Sri Lanka politics…
    but has never asked the Sri Lanka Tamil minority of 12 %…
    to join the Majority Political Party’s or to join a coalition…
    to achieve political power…

    President Barak Obama…a member of the 12 % Minority Afro-Americans…
    was voted in as the President of the USA in a landslide…
    as the nominee of the Democratic Party…
    would he ever have been voted in as President…
    as a leader / member of a seperatist party…???

    In various nations world wide…
    Minority Ethnics have risen to be Head of State – powerfull Ministers – Armed Forces Generals…
    by joining the Majority political party’s…
    eg in Canada – Australia – New Zealand – Singapore – Malaysia – Peru – etc etc…

    about time…the Economist …opened its eyes on Sri Lanka…

  6. The anonymous says:

    Brothers Karmasove!!!!

    The Anonymous

  7. sbarrkum says:

    Not the brothers Brothers Karamazov.

    I think its more like the Brothers Kennedy, sons of Patrick.

    I think the Rajapakses are in the process of emulating Camelot of the Kennedy’s.
    They just happen to be older (and hopefully wiser).

  8. Dagobert says:

    LankaWick………… Are you on their payroll??? Where do you get 12% Tamils in Sri Lanka ???
    They are today a Minority of the Minority.

  9. Kusul says:

    He is demolising Hindu Temples in Srilanka and killing innocent Tamil People because they are diffrent race and praying Sai Baba. If you belive Buddism, you don’t need to change the religion.

  10. anbu says:

    Hitler was a vergetarian too.

    Might draw some paralales from ……

  11. Rana says:

    Dear ISS, Your unbiased critics no more visible now in what you’re writing. I’m regret to say your writings now very similar to PRO-LTTE Diaspora’s view’s.

    Marcos in Phillipine a person who fought against trade mafia of chinese minority in Phillipine, which is like in SL the trade controlled by tamils and muslim minorities. Because of his wife and sons greediness ruined his reputation. Even today my Phillipino friends remember Marcos rule was the best period for real Phillipinoes.

    MR and his brother’s doing a commendable job for every citizen of this country. Their wives,sons are not greedy. So comparing MR and his family to Marcos or Suhartho is baseless. There is no best keep secrets. So long as MR and his family work for the common people,People keep them in power. If you want to change the regime, come forward and introduce better policies to the people of SL and if people think your proposals are better than MR’s they vote for you.

    Vellala clans within tamil community hurt when government trying to uplift their lives. Vellala’s hurt when common tamil people’s sons and daughter’s getting good education,and better living conditions. Because then these vellala’s knew that they are loosing the ground. When younger generation knew about these Pro-LTTE Vellala politicians hidden agendas they abandon them and new political culture erupt pretty soon.

  12. Daniel says:

    Only those who feel guilty of wrong doing to fellow human beings visit shrines of all kinds in sri lanka and abroad to seek divine protection against punishment.
    Gotabaya is doing same at the Shirdi Sai Baba shrine.

  13. Ganapathy Moorthy says:

    All these Western media, as well as the local media controlled by opposition parties, love to make adverse comments on the GOSL, and the Rajapaksa family. They always bring up the issue of family rule and the power of family. In Sri Lanka it had happened before, after DS Senanayake, it was his son Dudley ( unfortunately he was not so arrogant and did not have the will power a politician must have had) and then one of his relative , and after that all the Bandaranayekes except one of the family members, ruled the country. Where else,but in Sri Lanka, the husband, wife and daughter have been rulers of the country? Then again after J.R.Jeyawardane, his nephew, Ranil Wickramasinghe. The media did not utter negative comments that much on those leaders as they all happened to be from the Colombo elites. These western and pro-western media cannot deny the fact that the ethnic problems started in Sri Lanka during the time of those previous rulers of the country and not after time the Rajapakses came to power. Likewise, in India After Nehru, his daughter Indra and then her son Rajiv, then his wife Sonia, though not in power in name, the virtual ruler of the country. Even in the U.S. all the Kennedy’s from their maternal and fraternal sides, were involved in politics and held high offices at the same time. When Kennedy was president, his brother was the attorney general of US., while other brother subsequently became senator of the same constituency and continued to be elected for about 50 years. At least 2 of President Kennedy’s nephews became either senator or congressman just because of the family name. After senior Bush, it was his son junior Bush while another Bush was a Governor. Then after Bill Clinton, his wife Hilary tried her best to come to power, but unfortunately (but fortunately for the country) she couldn’t make it. However she enjoys some powers now as secretary of state. Take the Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and some other countries in the middle east, the Kings and their heirs without any election process come to power. The western media do not utter a single comment on it because they faithfully follow the western lines. See what happened to those countries that failed to follow their lines!. Most of the times those regimes would be branded as evil by these western media and the media would go on a full fledged propaganda campaign spreading negative ideas on those regimes. We have seen what happened to them in recent years. This is the same thing these western media want to happen now in Sri Lanka just because President Rajapakse keep refusing to follow their lines. If it is some one like Ranil, a pro western elite from Colombo, it would be easy for them to manipulate him!. Please, try to understand that anyone from the elite circle having grown up without knowing the plight of the rural folks cannot become a people’s leader. Dudley Senanayake was a little different though he was born into an affluent family that he understood the needs of the farming society and tried to develop agricultural activities when he was in power from 1965 to 1970.( I still remember the times he used to visit the model agricultural village in Miriuuvil in Jaffna with just 4 police men as guards. No other leaders of the country did it like him) I think the Rajapakse regime should be around in power for at least another 5 -10 years, provided they are elected by the people. Sri Lanka need a true patriot, not someone who is prepared to follow the western lines in order to come to power.

  14. Sam Richards says:

    Adolf Hitler too was a vegetarian. (And a teetotaler as well).

    Sam Richards

  15. Anonymous says:

    If he is a vegetarian, I wonder what good dharma he hopes to achieve after ordering the butchering of countless humans. A lifetime of vegetarianism won’t make up for all the civilians who needlessly died under his watch.

  16. Rohan says:

    A website strongly makes a claim that Rajapakse clan became Govigama within last 70 – 80 years. The first ‘known’ ancestor was an informant, who tipped the British Government of an uprising in Hambantota Saltern. To show appreciation, the Raj granted the man 600 acres of land, a new name (Rajapakse) and a title Arachchi. Most of the land was sold off to fund the extragavent life of Rajapaksas, and onlt Medhamulana was left.

    It all all right about the ‘successful’ family. Mahinda, not long ago, wanted to reward Chamal with the PM post. It was to show his gratitude to take up a police job to feed the family. Gota had to work in a 7-Eleven to survive. Basil was hopping between parties to keep himself afloat. But, Rajapaksas seem to have estates and houses in US in other countries around the world. According to rumours, they own the best prices realestate in and around Colombo and other major cities in Sri Lanka. How did they earn the money? Salaries……?

  17. Kalu Albert says:

    The first part of the article is petty much spot on, although a few notches have been shaved off from the growth rate.

    Second part however, is just unsubstantiated allegations sourced from unidentified individuals in Business and Politics.

    These allegations are similar to the Winter and Summer Palaces of the President and the acqusition of Intercontinental and the Apollo Hospital to the Defence Minister’s Investment Portfolio.which were widely reported in the media, leading up to last the Prez election. .

    The Economist which claims to aim exclusively at the highly intelligent end of the spectrum, at least has given them a true account of the current state of the inhabitants in the post LTTE, Terror free Economy.

  18. Kalu Albert says:

    “Since the bitter end in 09,the lot of the Srilankan inhabitants has steadily improved. Even the Emergency is gone”—-The Economist.

    Is it a sign of desperation that people like Mr Sengutuan try to contradict the contents of their favourite “Rags”like the Economist?

    Do they now go for the contents of the intellectual publications in the West, edited by our own ex Srilankan journalists?.

    Mr Fonseka has offered his heavy hitter MP mate, the ex Cricketer, to the President in exchange for a pardon.

    Will the President agree to give MP Ranatunga the Sports ministry with a direct dial exchange to the Prez’s Monbile, in addition to cutting loose MP Fonseka?.

    Only fools will think that there is sarcasm in the statement that Srilanka needs a strong Army.

    Srilanka needs a strong Navy and an Airforce too, in addtion to the current Army Strength , to safe guard the Freedom and the Economic Progress that the great majority are enjoying,

    Lack of a proper Defence Force and a strong Intelligence Organization was the root cause of the pathetic performances of the regimes that allowed the country into the pre 2009 state, since Independance.

    The great majority inhabitants therfore are 100 percent behind this Regime ,because they do not want any inside or outside interference to push them back to the pre 2009.

  19. bana nathan says:

    Is Kalu Albert a more upfront version of Dayan Jeyatilake? Kalu may be worshipping Gota as he whips the Tamil minority by constantly harping about the Pro-LTTE lobby and enriching his pockets.
    The sad fact is that the Sinhalese poor would be encouraged to launch another 1983 to get what they deserve instead of aiming for the likes of Gota who are the real drainers of the countries wealth earned on the backs of poor Tamil plantation workers and garment factory workers.

  20. Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan says:

    When “vegetarian” and “practising Buddhist” have near-divine status in our society
    how is that businessman Ramasamy Prabakaran of Wellawatte – illegally incarcerated more than once and severely assaulted several times by the army/Polce, was unlawfully abducted AGAIN from his home this week despite the pleas and the cries raised by his Sinhala wife. She naturally had no change against a gun-carrying vigilante group of 8 frightful goons. Is this to cream some big money from him once again – that he had to part with paying the Police just to release him. Are his crimes he is a Tamil, carries the name Prabakaran or was friendly with an army officer from his Bandarawala days – the latter now in the bad books of the Govt?

    Don’t blame the Economist and the world media to compare ours to a Police-Fascist State where the ubiquitous White Van still shows up at any Tamil home in
    modern Cbo and illegally take one away – sometimes never to be seen again.
    What has the Vegetarian-Practising Buddhist Defence Secy say to this?


  21. Native Vedda says:

    Ravi Perera says:

    “The truth is the ruling family is very popular with the ordinary people in the country”

    For killing innocent Tamil civilians?

  22. Native Vedda says:

    Rohan says:

    “Gota had to work in a 7-Eleven to survive”

    as security guard armed with magnum?

  23. Native Vedda says:

    bana nathan says:

    “Kalu may be worshipping Gota as he whips the Tamil minority by constantly harping about the Pro-LTTE lobby and enriching his pockets.”

    It is an excuse to check future Sinhala uprising.

  24. sarath says:

    Ganapathy says “I think the Rajapakse regime should be around in power for at least another 5 -10 years,
    provided they are elected by the people”.
    But how did this regime come to power?
    MR bribed Velu throgh Basil preventing Tamil votes.
    Having come to power with a narrow margin, he destroyed Velu and with this victory the masses voted him again
    with more votes.
    Now his family rules with intimidation of anyone trying to tell the truth, resorting to abductions, killing and raping.

  25. I says:

    To the learned Kalu Albert the Economist Weekly published for the past 167 years in the UK is a “rag” It boasts a stunning 2.5 million copies at a price certainly is not cheap. It contnues to be “must” reading to the English-speaking financial world and the academic community all over the world. Here in Sri Lanka
    it is widely read by the more initiated in both disciplines. This naturally does not include the Chintana crowd – probably dear Kalu himself. Try Cal’s Cartoons there and you will see a different world out there.


  26. Kalu Albert says:

    Wonder whether Dr Harsha de Silva, Mr Ravi Karunanayaka, and the Leader ,himself who are the Politicians of and for the Colombo Elite like Mr Sengutuan, and of course a few Sinhala Buddhists, subscribe to this Elite Journal the Economist.

    Because the garbage these Elite politicians dish out to their client base do not reflect the modern Economic issues, that the Economist articulates and are dear to the Western Economies which are in a spot of bother at present.

    Some of these are Economic Growth, Public Investments in Infrastructure for boosting job opportunities,FX revenue generating Investments,.and myriad of other small business investment programs.that will lift the living standards without just living off borrowings.

  27. venki says:

    They should pay for innocent life’s of thousands tamil people .Shri saibaba his living god his place was sinned by this people stepping there . definitely sai will raise the unsupported tamil and finish the barbarians

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