COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — He is a feared former defense official accused of condoning rape, torture and shadowy disappearances of critics, but to many Sri Lankans, the opposition’s presidential candidate is the best choice to protect the South Asian island nation after attacks that killed over 250 people this year.
The younger brother and powerful right hand of a former strongman, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen as a hero by supporters for bringing a bloody end to a decadeslong civil war in 2009 and has cast himself as Sri Lanka’s protector.
“I will accept responsibility for your safety, and the safety of your children and your loved ones,” Gotabaya said as he launched his campaign this month. “I will never allow extremist terrorism in this country.”
His message, met with thundering applause from supporters, resonates as the government faces blistering criticism for a high-level intelligence lapse that President Maithripala Sirisena has acknowledged allowed a group of radicalized Sri Lankans to carry out suicide bombings on Easter Sunday.
Gotabaya “is the most ideal leader the country needs at this time of crisis, and with this attack, his leadership has become more important,” said Sujeewa Manage, a government employee.
Despite allegations of bloodshed and war crimes that still haunt the country, Gotabaya’s hardened reputation and vow to ensure national security became a selling point after the attacks on three luxury hotels and three churches that left 263 dead and 500 wounded.
Having enjoyed 10 years of peace, the brazenness of the April 21 attacks jolted Sri Lanka, conjuring the days of bombs going off in the capital of Colombo when rebels fought for an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.
The Sri Lankan government came under fire for not acting on near-specific intelligence information from Indian security forces on plans to attack churches. Officials have acknowledged that some Sri Lankan intelligence units were aware of possible attacks weeks before the bombings.
Gotabaya, who has been plotting a return to power since his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost reelection in 2015, is seizing a key moment as voters grasp for a return to safety and a bitter divide roils the ruling coalition government.
Incumbent President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last October and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as his constitutional No. 2. The Supreme Court ruled against the move and reinstated Wickremesinghe.
Sirisena’s party is now divided, with the Rajapaksa brothers absorbing a big chunk of its supporters in a new party.
Wickremesinghe and Sirisena are both expected to seek the presidency, but the political upheaval and the attacks will hurt the incumbent’s chances in an election to be held between Nov. 8 and Dec. 8.
Meanwhile, Gotabaya says the ruling government has made national security weaker and he can fill the void.
“After the attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name came high on this list of possible strong leaders,” political analyst Jehan Perera said.
The former defense secretary is a hero to many of the nation’s majority Sinhalese Buddhists, but his candidacy is a fearsome prospect to others.
Gotabaya was suspected of ordering kidnappings through so-called white van squads that whisked away rebel suspects, journalists and other government critics. Some victims were tortured and then released, while others disappeared.
Victims who say the military and police forces under Gotabaya’s watch repeatedly tortured and raped political opponents have sued the former defense official, who’s also a U.S. citizen, in federal court in Los Angeles. They brought their case under a statute that allows U.S. lawsuits over acts of torture and killings committed in foreign countries.
The daughter of a top journalist killed in 2009 also has sued Gotabaya in Los Angeles and is seeking damages.
Gotabaya has denied the allegations and says he’s started the process of renouncing his American citizenship because Sri Lankan law doesn’t permit dual citizens to hold office.
Gotabaya also has been implicated in the killing of rebels and civilians who tried to surrender with white flags under a prearranged deal in the final days of the 26-year civil war. Some 45,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last months of the war alone, according to a U.N. report.
In the final years of his brother’s regime, Gotabaya has been accused of promoting hard-line Buddhist groups that carried out anti-Muslim hate campaigns and attacks on their businesses. He has denied the allegations.
He also faces a corruption case accusing him of misappropriating $191,000 in state funds for the construction of a memorial for his parents. There are other police investigations into allegations of corruption and other misdeeds involving his close relatives.
Dharmasiri Lankapeli, a trade union and media rights activist, said national security is just a political slogan used by Gotabaya and his team to capture power.
“People knew and understood what happened in the country when he was the defense ministry secretary and how hard it was for the people,” Lankapeli said. “If he comes to power, the democratic space for dissent and for alternative opinion that the people enjoyed during the past four years will be threatened.”
Under the ruling government, more than a dozen soldiers, including intelligence officials, have been arrested on suspicion of several killings and attacks of political opponents and journalists during the Rajapaksa era. Some have been indicted.
“If he (Gotabaya) comes to power, the investigations on alleged misdeeds that occurred during Rajapaksa period will be swept under the carpet,” Lankapeli said.
But Ajith Kumara, a rickshaw driver in Colombo, said Sri Lanka needs a strong leader like Gotabaya.
“He will be tough, but the country needs such a person to discipline and develop the country,” Kumara said. “If he was there, the attack would not have happened.”
To win, Gotabaya needs to convince more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s 15.9 million voters.
“If Gotabaya is to generate votes he must know that people vote for a candidate out of the love for him, not because they fear him,” columnist Ravi Nagahawatte wrote in the Daily Mirror newspaper.