This week marks the first anniversary of the momentous events of July 2022, when then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country like a thief in the night in the wake of island-wide protests against his rule.
One year since those events, the hope of a systemic change in governance, accountability for corruption and other crimes, including human rights violations, and a new page in Sri Lanka’s story have faded away. Gotabaya Rajapaksa after failing to secure a safe passage to the United States where his family resides and having spent several months hopping from one country to another returned to Sri Lanka in September 2022. Since then, he has not faced a single accountability process, either for his economic crimes that shattered the country’s economy or for his previous crimes, including accusations of war crimes, killing of journalists and graft in procuring weapons for the military.
In addition to the suffering he caused due to his incompetence in handling the economy, the Gotabaya administration caused enormous personal and individual harm to numerous people. Criminal Investigations Department the former director Shani Abeysekera was incarcerated for 11 months over false charges which the Court of Appeal later called a “concocted story.”
Abeysekera, Sri Lanka’s best known super-sleuth contracted COVID-19 and experienced a life-threatening cardiac event while imprisoned. His lawyers, activists and foreign governments had to lobby for basic healthcare to be provided. This was a deliberate attempt to kill the policeman who had uncovered numerous crimes, including several that incriminated Rajapaksa. Hundreds of other policemen attached to the CID were transferred, harassed, and discriminated against for the sole crime of doing their jobs diligently. Lawyers, activists, poets, journalists, diplomats, civil servants, and numerous others were victims of the Rajapaksa wrath that was unleashed in those couple of years.
It is not only in the context of the civil war against the LTTE that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is accused of committing heinous crimes. Evidence has been mounting of his role in mass executions during the 1987-89 Southern insurgency by Sinhala youth. A recent report by international media unveiled how Rajapaksa as President had hampered investigations into mass graves discovered in an area where he was a military officer at the height of a bloody rebellion in 1989. A mass grave from Mathale corresponds to the period Gotabaya was in charge of the army in the region and was carrying out numerous counter-insurgency operations. To this date, no action has been taken to identify the victims and return their remains to their families.
Despite any of the above, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is today a free man living at the expense of the State. He has been granted political protection by the current political dispensation, and it has been made abundantly clear that justice will not be delivered to Rajapaksa’s victims by the Sri Lankan judicial system. In this reality, the very least that can be hoped for is that the Sri Lankan electorate will not repeat the same mistakes that propelled a manifestly unsuitable individual to the highest office in the land.
As the memory of the Aragalaya fails, the aspirations of that struggle are forgotten and the same individuals who brought about so much misery and destruction to this Island remain in positions of power, we can only remind ourselves of that fleeting moment when there was such hope for a new beginning for Sri Lanka.