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Get Gota: holding a war criminal accountable

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 21 July 2022

The fall and ignominious retreat of Sri Lanka's Gotabaya Rajapaksa has enlivened one distinct possibility. Having formally resigned as Sri Lankan President, a point made via email from Singapore, those wishing to see him account for war crimes may get their wish.

There have been various efforts in train regarding a man who ruthlessly concluded his country's civil war in an orgy of mass killing. The war itself, waged between the forces of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and the minority Tamils seeking independence, was the rotten fruit of discrimination, exclusion and ethnocratic politics heralded by the passage of the Sinhala Only Act in 1956. That legislative instrument, implemented by Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, made Sinhalese the country's official language while banishing Tamils from important positions of employment.

Gotabaya's entry into Sri Lankan politics was a fraternal affair. His brother Mahinda, on becoming president in 2005, picked him as defence secretary. Prior to that, "Gota" worked as a computer systems administrator at Loyola School in Los Angeles, during which time he became a US citizen.


The appointment made him overseer of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). "My job," Gota stated in an interview posted on the Sri Lankan Defence Minister website, "was to understand the priorities, rationally organise those priorities in terms of what was really required for victory and flush out needs and requirements that had zero relevance to our objectives."

In seeing the 26 year conflict to its conclusion in 2009, an estimate by the United Nations put the death toll of Tamil civilians at 40,000. (The number may well be as high as 70,000). The formal line taken by government forces was that the Tamils only had themselves to blame, being used as human shields by the guerrilla forces.

Such killings took place even as US President Barack Obama urged a cessation in "the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals." Hoping for some balance, Obama also urged "the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go. Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable."

The unabashed statement of command responsibility by the former defence secretary is also supported by the view of US Ambassador Patricia Butenis, whose frank assessment is available via a WikiLeaks cable. According to Butenis, "responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa and his brothers."

There is also abundant prima facie evidence that Gotabaya is responsible for the execution of a number of political leaders and their families upon surrender, was responsible for bombing civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, and insisted that the would target and kill innocent civilians, if necessary, to defeat the LTTE.

His return to public life as president took place on a populist platform denigrating his opponents for not giving "priority to national security. They were talking about ethnic reconciliation, then they were talking about human rights issues, they were talking about individual freedoms." These remarks to Reuters assumed force in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by Islamist militants that caused over 250 deaths.


Over the years, Gotabaya's resume has been weighed down with blood. His actions did not begin and end as defence minister. A May report by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) focused on the ex-President's role in a number of atrocities committed in 1989. The account focuses on the role Gotabaya played as District Military Coordinating Officer of Matale District, an area that saw brutal engagements between government forces and those of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Between May 1989 and January 1990, Gotabaya oversaw a rule of forced disappearances (the report accounts for 1,042 victims), torture, and killing. A number of Sri Lankan government commissions took note of over 700 forced disappearances.

His role in the disappearances was also noted by the lengthily titled Presidential Commission into Involuntary Removals or Disappearances of Persons (Central Zone) List of Persons Whose Names Transpired as Responsible for Disappearances – Central Province – Matale District. (In a list of 24 alleged perpetrators, Gotabaya pops up at 16.) The tenure was also characterised by an absence of interest in preventing the commission of such crimes or investigating them, "despite complaints being made to him directly by family members of the victims".

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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