Former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse formally launched his bid for Sri Lanka’s presidency Sunday, vowing to battle “extremist terrorism” in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide attacks.
The 70-year-old — and his ex-president brother, Mahinda — have been critical of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s handling of the bombings, which were blamed on a local Islamist jihadi group in the Buddhist-majority nation.
The attacks targeting three churches and three hotels claimed the lives of at least 258 people and left nearly 500 wounded. Since then, the country has been under a state of emergency.
Gotabhaya Rajapakse will stand for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, which was formed recently by his older brother, who ruled for a decade from 2005.
The SLPP is a breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is nominally led by current President Maithripala Sirisena.
Highlighting frequent schisms in the country’s politics, the SLFP in turn broke away from a coalition with premier Wickremesinghe’s right-wing United National Party (UNP) earlier this year.
“I will not allow extremist terrorism under my presidency,” Gotabhaya Rajapakse said at the launch of his campaign for presidential elections, which are due later this year.
He was in charge of the defence ministry as its top bureaucrat when security forces crushed Tamil rebels and ended a 37-year separatist war in May 2009.
The no-holds-barred military campaign also triggered allegations of grave human rights abuses, including the killing of up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.
Gothabhaya Rajapakse is currently on bail facing prosecution for allegedly siphoning off millions of rupees of state cash to build a monument for his parents when his brother was president.
He also faces a civil suit in the United States for allegedly causing the death of a prominent anti-establishment newspaper editor in Sri Lanka in January 2009.
Wickremesinghe has indicated he too wants to run for president, but his party is yet to nominate an official candidate amid major internal clashes over his leadership.
Incumbent Sirisena also plans to run again.