Colombo, Sri Lanka – Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused by rights groups of war crimes during the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war a decade ago, has confirmed he plans to run for the presidency in the aftermath of this Easter Sunday attacks that have shattered the country’s uneasy peace.

Rajapaksa, the brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, told Al Jazeera that he’d remain as a candidate in elections caused by late 2019.

“Surely I am unashamedly,” Rajapaksa said with a chuckle through an interview in the book-lined analysis of his house in the capital, Colombo, photographs from his military career dangling from the walls.

“I have decided long time. Otherwise there is no need for me to renounce my US citizenship.”

There has long been speculation which Rajapaksa, a Sri Lanka-US dual citizen, will campaign for the presidency. 

Rajapaksa must renounce his US citizenship to be able to run for president. His name does not appear on people who have lost on the latest quarterly filing into the US registry.

He insists he’s not having an opportunist in revealing his strategies in the aftermath of the attacks on churches and luxurious hotels that killed more than 250 individuals and have cultivated a wave of mob violence from Muslim communities.

“I do not consider it as a chance,” he told Al Jazeera. “It isn’t the elections, but it’s our nation and country. Something I focused on is destroyed. I’m worried and saddened due to that.”

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‘Strongman’s allure’

Investigative journalist Lasantha Ruhunage stated Rajapaksa would possess a”strongman” appeal given his role in defeating the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a conflict which came to a bloody end onto a narrow strip of beach on the island’s northeastern in 2009.

“There would be an appetite for him one of the legends,” Ruhunage said. “However, it’s not only him; it’s the’strongman’. People are going towards military strongmen as opposed to the standard politicians because of the listing of the politicians”

The Easter Sunday bombings subjected the thickness of ill-feeling between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as each blamed the other to its government’s failure to act on detailed intelligence warnings that attacks were imminent.

Rajapaksa asserts the government’s decision shortly after it came to power 2015 to arrest and investigate senior army officials amid allegations of Deadly rights violations led to the collapse.

But through the decade he was Treasury secretary, the army was convicted of a vast range of abuses – from torture to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings – creating a climate of fear of journalists, activists and government critics. 

A United Nations panel saw breaches of worldwide law by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Additionally, it stated that some 40,000 civilians perished in the military’s brutal final push against the Tamil Tigers. 

Charu Lata Hogg, a researcher at Chatham House in London who has briefed the UN on Sri Lanka, stated Rajapaksa’s return could be a”step backwards” for justice and responsibility.

“The real importance is that someone who headed an army that has been accused of committing war crimes will not be held to account and will be in a situation of political strength,” she explained. “It’s also symbolic in the sense of being a smack in the head for Tamil justice and is not in any respect supportive of reconciliation.”

A Tamil girl holds up a photo of a family member who vanished during the war in a vigil to mark the international day of this disappeared [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

As defence secretary, Rajapaksa said that he ran exactly what he refers to as a”sophisticated and well-trained” community of 500 army intelligence agents, and also dismissed accusations of human rights abuses.

“People are baseless allegations,” he explained. “You talk about human rights, you talk about liberty of individuals, you talk about reconciliation, but all them depend on national security. If you don’t have national security what happens… do you have independence? Everything depends on national security.”

His voice becomes increasingly shrill.

“That is a military that conquered such a callous, dangerous, strong terrorist business,” he explained, referring to the Tamil Tigers. “I’m wondering if this was completed by rogues. Murderers… Are we saying that our army…

“There could be people. But if you take the entire picture you’re generalising. Even globally, they’re generalising this”

Look for justice

The Sinhalese, who are Buddhist, make up around 75 percentage of Sri Lanka’s 22 million individuals, but the island includes significant numbers of mostly-Hindu cultural Tamils, along with Muslims and Christians and has struggled with rising communal tension since independence from the British in 1948.

Following a series of steps that privileged the Sinhalese over the rest of the Populace, the Tamil Tigers began their violent campaign for a separate Tamil homeland in the island’s north and west at the 1970s.

Ten years after the fighting finally came to an end in 2009, there’s been little effort to address the lingering resentments that helped fuel the battle – even though Sirisena came to power promising reconciliation and accountability. A 2015 vow to research wartime atrocities has still to be met.

Based on Amnesty International, Sri Lanka has among the world’s highest number of disappearances – as many 100,000 within the past 3 decades.

Analysts say Rajapaksa, who stayed in his article for five years after the war finished, also bears liability because of its uncertainty that continues to plague the country.

This picture was published by Sri Lanka’s army on the day that the government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels. Rajapaksa is Regarded as the architect of the success [Reuters]

“Justice is a vital part of achieving a sustainable peace,” Anjali Manivannan, senior legal adviser People for Equality and Relief at Lanka (PEARL), told Al Jazeera.

“The reason for the battle, the structural structures, the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and supremacist beliefs which set Sinhalese Buddhists in a greater level compared to other communities on the island… None of that has changed. They defeated the LTTE and won armed battle, but there have been no actions to address why that conflict started.”

Rajapaksa himself has been accused of war crimes and extra-judicial killings. 

In April, Ahimsa Wickrematunga, the girl of murdered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, filed a suit accusing Rajapaksa of instigating and authorising her dad’s killing in 2009. He’s also confronting a case registered by a Tamil person who says he was detained 2007 after being detained by the authorities’s Terrorism Investigation Division, that came under Rajapaksa’s command.

Rajapaksa has denied the allegations.

After the election is known, and Rajapaksa officially launches his campaign, many believe that the last will most likely matter little to most voters, while Rajapaksa will portray himself as the man who can restore stability to a troubled island.

“I don’t see him limiting his use of existing or new emergency laws simply to focus on the problem of Islamist extremism,” explained Darsha Jegatheeswaran, senior researcher in the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research in Jaffna.

“Over the last (few) years, there were communities which have been critical of this authorities, of him, human rights people have gone people… My issue is that if he return to his focus is really on a’danger to the nation’ in the past that’s been anybody critical of the authorities.

“I believe he’d be very heavy-handed.”


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