Editorial | Sunday Observer


Abducting the Podujana Peramuna

Within hours of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s historic defeat at the 2015 Presidential Election, our President of nine years bowed his head, vacated Temple Trees and gracefully departed for Medamulane Wallauwa to lick his wounds and plan for the future. Within months, he attempted a hasty comeback contesting the 2015 Parliamentary elections on a mandate of returning as Prime Minister. Twice in just eight months, the man who would be king was rebuffed by the electorate.

Rajapaksa became the de-facto leader of the so-called ‘Joint Opposition’, a loosely organised cabal of forty-something UPFA parliamentarians united in agitation against the National Government formed between the UNP and their own party. The unwritten manifesto of this group, and their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna was simple: put Mahinda Rajapaksa back in the saddle.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, stalwarts of the former President, from G.L. Peiris, Hemakumara Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena and Kumar Welgama, worked with Basil Rajapaksa and others to build a nationwide grassroots political machine in an ambitious attempt to take on the UNP and SLFP at the February 2018 Local Government elections.

An auspicious absentee from this camaraderie was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the only Rajapaksa sibling charting his own course. Absent from the ‘Pohottuwa’ stages, the former defence honcho occupied himself with building his own organisations, the ‘Viyath Maga’ professionals’ group, and the somehow different ‘Eliya’ public policy advocacy group – both poorly camouflaged political campaign platforms.

This task, the younger Rajapaksa attended to, whenever he was not preoccupied with handling investigations concerning him by the CID, FCID and Bribery Commission. It would be misleading to characterise the bespectacled Rajapaksa as alone among his kin under criminal investigation. After all, his brother Basil is currently facing two trials for financial crime, as is his nephew Namal. Yoshitha Rajapaksa was also arrested over three years ago but has not been indicted for any crime. Two factors set Gotabaya apart from the rest of his family when it comes to criminal cases.

First, he is the only member of his family known to be under investigation for violent crimes. He has been questioned extensively on his alleged involvement in the abduction of Keith Noyahr and the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and at least two witnesses have spilled the beans on his purported role in the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda.

For all the scandal surrounding the death of Wasim Thajudeen, it is a fact that the CID have not questioned or produced material to implicate a single member of the Rajapaksa family in the murder of the ruggerite.

Second, Basil Rajapaksa was in the United States when he was summoned by the FCID for the first time in April 2015. He promptly flew back to Sri Lanka to face arrest. For Basil, Namal and Yoshitha, all of whom have endured multiple arrests and stints in remand, the priority has been to face their charges and arrest head on, have their day in court, and seek acquittal by judge or jury.

The self-proclaimed war hero has been the only Rajapaksa to resort to the courts to shield himself from arrest and to avoid trials against him from commencing. In May 2015, he extracted an order from the Supreme Court preventing his arrest by the CID, FCID and Bribery Commission in connection with several cases including the Avante Garde scandal and the MiG Deal. Come November 2017, the Court of Appeal gave him an ex-parte order preventing his arrest on the D.A. Rajapaksa mausoleum scam. Last July, that same court halted another Rs. 11 billion corruption trial he faces from commencing.

Indeed, it was in December 2017, as the Local Government election campaign was under way, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa decamped towards the cooler climes of Los Angeles in his motherland. He returned no sooner the Podujana Peramuna declared victory at the February 2018 elections. Cameras from friendly television stations knew where to find him as he left the airport and giggled about a hypothetical presidential candidacy to the disgust of those ‘Pohottuwa’ stalwarts who had built their movement from nothing.

The pattern of ‘decamp and return when the coast is clear’ is no stranger to the former Defence Secretary. As an Army Lieutenant Colonel when the LTTE broke a tentative truce in 1990 and restarted a full-scale war, Rajapaksa appealed to President Ranasinghe Premadasa for immediate discharge from the Army over the written objections of his Army Commander. His reason? To migrate to the United States on a Green Card that would otherwise expire.

Having received his discharge, Rajapaksa was in no hurry to depart. He worked in the local private sector for years before finally decamping to the United States, where he acquired citizenship and lived his American Dream, returning only to cling to his brother’s coattails at the 2005 Presidential Election.

Those who built the Podujana Peramuna from the grassroots did so out of a conviction, right or wrong, that Mahinda Rajapaksa should once again rule Sri Lanka. For the past several years their common refrain has been that their presidential candidate is immaterial, as the role of the candidate would be to preside over returning the former President to power.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced this week that he, not his brother, is the only person qualified to grapple with the challenges of the nation. The media is rife with speculation about how his American citizenship impacts his candidacy.

Whenever probed on whether his dual-citizenship would disqualify his candidacy, the former Defence Secretary feints and shares a smirk usually reserved for his public statements about the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

The stark reality for those in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s orbit is that their political movement has been usurped by a self-proclaimed presidential candidate whose own political ambitions may leave them and the former President high and dry.