Impunity Island: Sri Lanka's "predator emeritus" on rebound

By Johan Mikaelsson

Part 1: Impunity Island - Sri Lanka's haunting legacy of war on media

Many local journalists feel discomfort when they hear the name Gotabaya Rajapaksa[1]. He is seen as a ruthless person, who was behind the murder wave that took the lives of their colleagues. They see it as unthinkable to contact him and ask critical questions. The few foreign journalists who tried to put some pressure on him when he held his powerful position 2005–2015 were met with anger. After 2015, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been almost invisible in international media.

‘Gota’, the nick-name under which he is usually known, is now often surrounded by a glow, a shimmering luster. Many want to see more of ‘Gota’, they regard him as a wonder maker. Most editors avoid challenging him. A few journalists in the domestic English-language press have asked difficult questions, but ‘Gota’ appears to be ready to move on, possibly as a candidate in the presidential election in 2020.

After several fruitless attempts in recent years, the positive response to my request for an interview a few weeks earlier came unexpectedly. Interviewing ‘Gota’ suddenly transformed from a vague idea to reality. When I arrived at Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s house in Nugegoda, in Colombo’s southern outskirts, the former Defense Secretary had just returned from a wedding reception. His bodyguards smiled. Gotabaya Rajapaksa seemed relaxed and welcomed me into his home.

In his combined workroom and library, we sat down in two armchairs next to each other. I explained the brief intentions with the interview – that it was very important to meet and interview him, as he has a central role in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The goal was to increase understanding for him and how he viewed the past, the present and the future.

Gotabaya listened and nodded.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was as expected critical of the Yahapalanya government (Sinhala for ‘Government for good governance’) which came to power in 2015. He believed the administration had lost its grip on all levels and that this has resulted in lost confidence. He also explained that if he was appointed by his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, he would accept being a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections, most likely to be held in 2020.

“After the war, we gave a fresh start. This government came to power without those challenges. They only had to take care of the economy, which we had taken to a new level. Unfortunately, they did not manage to do that. That’s why people are so frustrated,” Gotabaya Rajapaksa summarized.

Questions about tactics in combating a ‘terrorist-labelled guerilla organization with an international network’, were willingly answered with a calm and soft voice.

“This was a war on terrorism and it meant difficulties for the government to fight an irregular war. It is no walk through a rose garden or like lying in a bed of roses. It’s no easy thing, it’s a very difficult task. And that’s not, how should I say?”, he asked with a short and low laughter: “War is never a beautiful sight.”

UN lacking credibility

He was of the opinion that UN investigations into war crimes lack credibility. He saw the criticism of the government’s military offensive, as based on false information. His theory was that the writers of reports needed to keep the wheels spinning simply to secure an income. “They do not know how it works on a battlefield,” he said.

The interview lasted over two and a half  hours. Only an extract can fit into the this article. Eventually, I came to the questions about journalism in the war and the attacks against those who tried to report and investigate.[2] Before 2015, Gotabaya Rajapaksa verbally attacked journalists who annoyed him. Ahead of the interview, I was informed that he could conclude interviews if he doesn’t like the questions or the person asking them. An interview situation is about trying to build confidence, in order to being able to ask the trickier and critical questions at a later stage.

“If you do not report correctly and think about the country’s best, problems arise. Therefore, the government-imposed restrictions. But I do not agree to attacks on journalists or to kill journalists,” Rajapaksa said and continued: “However, a number of incidents occurred, not many, but some and they were due to the person. As for killing, I would say that there was only one. Then there were two to three attacks. It was not hundreds, or two hundred, maybe four to five.”

Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not mention the name of ‘the journalist that was killed’. He was obviously thinking of Lasantha Wickrematunge.[3] The ongoing murder investigation has led to the arrest of military intelligence officers and police officers. They, in turn, have pointed out that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been giving the orders.

“What about the killed... He was a famous journalist. So, it gave rise to much propaganda and all that. However, I do not agree with anything under any circumstances. But imposing restrictions on the media was necessary to get people to support the government’s war effort, which was a necessity.” More people had to be recruited to the forces, according to Rajapaksa. Thus, a positive feeling among the population was needed. Otherwise, the same situation as in the 1990’s and early 2000’s could have recurred, when the troops’ moral dropped, the lines thinned out significantly as thousands of soldiers deserted. After 2005, people were to be convinced that the war was winnable, that there was a plan under the supervision of good leadership and that it would lead to a final victory.

“The most important thing was to get people to join the military. Number two was to support our policy and to provide moral support to the forces,” Rajapaksa explained.

He further underlined that he had good relations with the media, journalists and editors on the island. Ahead of my trip, Sri Lankan editors living in exile had said the very same. They were wondering how on earth most editors in Sri Lanka now support the one who earlier fought a war on critical media on the island.

“In some of the investigations involving murders and attacks on journalists, where progress has been made, the suspects have a connection with the armed forces. What is your comment on that?”

“Whether the right people are in detention,” Rajapaksa said, laughing, “I cannot comment. I do not know. It is up to the CID and how they interpret different things. It is very difficult to investigate certain things and to know exactly what happened. Therefore, they must be very careful so that they do not punish the innocent when they try to investigate. They must do the right thing. It is obvious that the investigation tries to distinguish some elements from the armed forces. Because, eh, it’s possible that they are involved”, Gotabaya Rajapaksa explained, again laughing, before continuing: “So, maybe some are connected to the armed forces, but I cannot be sure, 100 percent. There may be others. As I said, it is very difficult. Because, I must say genuinely, that all evidence was collected during my time in that position, not under the current government. But we had some difficulties getting beyond a certain point. It is probably the same problem they have now. But my fear is that, under no circumstances, because of political pressure, they should interpret various things for political gain or blame the innocent or punish those who are innocent. So, they must be very careful in these investigations.”

After 11:30 pm the interview came to an end. Before the interview, I didn’t know what to expect. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been kind. He had calmly answered my questions. May be they were too soft? At least it opened up for a possible follow-up interview.

What about Tamil journalists?

A few weeks later, with the first interview transcribed, I emailed Gotabaya Rajapaksa with a request for an interview over the phone, which he accepted. I asked about what he had said, that in fact, “only one journalist was murdered”. Had he not taken to account, all the Tamil journalists that were killed? A moment of silence followed, before he spoke:

“I don’t think any Tamil journalists were killed during that time,” he said and began talking about the areas controlled by the government and the areas held by the LTTE.

“Yes, but a number of journalists were killed in areas controlled by the government, in Colombo, Batticaloa and ...”


“In Trincomalee, Jaffna ...”

“No. No. They were perhaps killed by LTTE, who opposed some of the Tamil journalists. But otherwise I can not see that any Tamil journalists were killed during that period.”

“But there were actually several!”

“No, it’s incorrect information.”

“Tamil journalists were kidnapped and ...”

“If you want to take my word on it: This is incorrect information. Not a single Tamil politician or journalist was murdered during that period in Colombo or Batticaloa. But LTTE tried to kill some. I do not remember the details, because it has been a long time since. I am sure no Tamil journalists were assassinated or disappeared. I am 100 percent sure.”

The former Defense Secretary’s statement was jaw-dropping. The cases of murdered and ‘disappeared’ journalists are well documented. After another question, Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked me to send details about the cases. He insinuated that the sources were not credible. But if he was given information about name, date and place, he could ask intelligence officers who served under him at the time to take a look at it.

War crimes

The Rajapaksa brothers have accused former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka [4] as being responsible for journalist killings. Fonseka has denied and in turn accused Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not only for journalist murders, but also of having ordered army field commanders to execute Tamil prisoners of war, a war crime under the Geneva Convention.[5]

According to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka could not be held responsible for crimes against journalists due to political pressure within the country and internationally after the end of the war.

“It would have looked like a political vendetta, because he stood up as a presidential candidate. That is why I say that the CID [Criminal Investigation Department] has to prove and put beyond any doubt what happened and how it happened”, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said.

Soon after the presidential election in 2010, Fonseka was detained and sentenced to three years in prison for corruption charges. In an interview with the BBC, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that Fonseka might be executed for treason if he spoke about the war. Thanks to the assistance of international diplomats, Fonseka was released after two years. After the change of governments in 2015, Fonseka was freed from all suspicions and since early 2016, he has held ministerial posts and elevated to the post of Field Marshal.

During the final phase of the long-lasting civil-war, the whole society was on alert. According to Gotabaya Rajapaksa it “would have meant disaster” to question intelligence officers.

“Should everything be left in the past or should people continue to ...”

There is no time to finish the sentence with, ‘seek truth and justice’.

“You know, there is no end to complaints. But how about the people? Thousands of people can testify about the brutality of LTTE and how they killed civilians. If you take all incidents over 30 years. How can it be justified? You can continue and continue ... on both sides. Any incident taken up will push people further apart. We have to leave the past behind. Now we have to look forward.”

He returned to what he saw as an obstacle to the country’s development.

“A problem with this government is that it is bent by all these unnecessary things. People in the country are frustrated. Talk to anyone in the country!”

I had spoken to people. Many were frustrated, mainly over the economy. An equally common opinion was that they appreciated the feelings of freedom.

After having left the island, I emailed a compilation with the names of the journalists and media workers who were murdered, ‘disappeared’ or killed from 2004 to 2010.

I waited a few weeks for an answer and made several attempts to contact Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

There were no answers.☐


Swedish freelance journalist Johan Mikaelsson has been covering Sri Lanka since his first visit to the island, in 1997. His non-fiction book, 'När de dödar journalister' was released in 2015. An English edition of the book, 'When They Killed Journalists – A personal story about Sri Lanka' with additional chapters will be released in 2019.


1. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was born in 1949 in the Matara district in southern Sri Lanka. His father D.A. Rajapaksa was a M.P. and played a leading role in the early years of the SLFP. Joined the Army in 1971 and retired after 20 years, as a Lieutenant Colonel. Emigrated to the United States in 1992, where he worked with IT, and still holds dual citizenship. Defense Secretary, and responsible for urban development in Colombo 2005–2015. After 2015, occupied with handling charges of corruption, and a possible presidential candidate. One of three main figures in the war-victory over the LTTE in 2009, alongside President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. Two of his brothers are MPs; Mahinda Rajapaksa (now appointed as the Prime Minister) and Chamal Rajapaksa, former Speaker of the Parliament. The third one, Basil Rajapaksa, who was a former Minister for Economic Development, currently holds the position of National Organiser in the new coalition, Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP).

2. A couple of investigations involving murders, attacks, beatings, threats, harassment, torture and kidnappings of journalists and editors under the Rajapaksa, have been opened. Of 44 killed journalists and media workers in Sri Lanka between 2004 and 2010, the main press freedom organizations, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has counted to over ten targeted journalist murders. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were listed by RSF as “Predators of Press Freedom”.

3. Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of Sunday Leader, was murdered January 9, 2009. Eight men on four motorcycles stopped Wickrematunge, who was driving his car to work. The CID (Criminal Investigation Department), which took over the murder investigation in 2015, has found that the murder was carried out by members of an Army intelligence unit. To cover up, four persons have been sacrificed by police and the TID (the Terrorist Investigation Department).

4. Gotabaya Rajapaksa have accused the former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, for the murder as well as other attacks on journalists. Fonseka has stated that Gotabaya Rajapaksa ruled over a separate armed unit which performed this murder and others.

5. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has tabled a resolution and Sri Lanka has accepted to investigate suspected war crimes with international assistance. In March 2019, Sri Lanka must report about the progress at the UNHRC session.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.