(By Jon Lee Anderson ,January 9, 2011/ NewYoker)
Gotabaya Rajapaksa received James Clad and me in a sitting room of hishouse, a British-era villa in a large garden compound in Colombo. The room was impersonally furnished with fifties-style blue settees and abstract geometric paintings, all government-issue. The Defense Minister was casually attired in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and flip-flops. He coughed in a compulsive way, as if he had a nervous tic. It was a little before the dinner hour, so he called for an orderly to bring in the liquor trolley. He didn’t drink, he said, and didn’t know what he had in the house. He knew only that he had a bottle of “Fonseka.” Would we like a drink of that? He grinned. On the trolley was a bottle of Fonseca Bin No. 27, a brand of port. He laughed delightedly at his joke. He had a high-pitched giggle, which broke out at odd moments throughout the evening.
That was the day that Sri Lanka’s papers had carried the news that a military court had convicted Fonseka of involvement in politics while in service and stripped him of his rank and military honors. (He was later sentenced to thirty months in prison.) I suggested that the timing of Fonseka’s arrest—only hours after he had accused Gotabaya of war crimes—made it look like a personal vendetta. Gotabaya coughed and giggled and waved his hands dismissively. “No, no. He made those same accusations during the campaign, many times. I could have arrested him then if it was about that. In fact, I should have arrested him earlier.”
Gotabaya evinced a grudging admiration for Prabhakaran, for his “ruthless dedication to his cause,” but acknowledged that he had felt “very happy” when he was told of his death. As for Sri Lanka’s national reconciliation, Gotabaya said that he believed his brother’s proposals, to win the peace through economic development, showed the right way forward. The average Tamil, like the average Sinhalese, he said, just wanted to get on with his life. Referring to the Tamils’ long-standing wish for secession, he said, “All that business about separation is something only politicians care about.” When I asked about the suspicions that the government was attempting to change the demographics of the Tamil lands by swamping them with Sinhalese soldiers, he said, with a laugh, “We should do that, but it’s difficult.”
“The entrance to my cubicle is three feet away. Please respect my partition.”
Clad gently lobbied Gotabaya to renew the country’s relationship with the International Committee of the Red Cross. In the last days of the war, the I.C.R.C. had been restricted to removing wounded civilians from Mullaittivu by sea, and ever since it had been grounded at its headquarters in Colombo. In the final months of the war, the Army had repeatedly bombed the I.C.R.C.’s emergency hospital facilities, killing three employees and scores of patients. Gotabaya had blamed the Tigers. In a report prepared by the International Crisis Group, “War Crimes in Sri Lanka,” the hospital attacks feature strongly in the case against Gotabaya.
Gotabaya warily said that he was willing to have the Red Cross stay on if the organization would agree to a new understanding of its activities on the island. “We must forget the past and look to the future,” he said. Lowering his voice confidentially, he added, “The problem is the I.C.R.C.—some of their people had been here for a long time, and became friendly with the L.T.T.E.” He suggested that the Red Cross and other international relief agencies were long-time accomplices of the Tigers. In December, 2006, he had nearly been assassinated by a Black Tiger driving a rickshaw rigged with explosives; he pointed out that the bomber had been a Tamil employee of the relief organization care. He said, “So I say to the I.C.R.C., ‘Bring new people and let’s have a fresh start.’ ”
After dinner, Gotabaya led us outside. Across his lawn, by the garden’s high security wall, was a huge, illuminated outdoor aquarium. Inside, several large, unmistakable shapes moved relentlessly back and forth.
“Are those sharks?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “Do you want to see them?”
We crossed the lawn and stood in front of the tank, which was eight feet tall and twenty feet wide. There were four sharks, each about four feet long, swimming among smaller fish.
I told Gotabaya that they looked like black-tipped reef sharks. He shrugged. “They’re my wife’s,” he said. She knew everything about them, he explained, but she was away on a visit to the States. All he knew was that the tank needed to be changed with fresh seawater every two weeks. “They bring it in special tanker trucks,” he said, watching the sharks. He giggled softly.
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