Following parliamentary elections earlier this month, two brothers – Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa – hold the presidency and prime minister’s office respectively on the Indian Ocean island. Four family members hold ministerial positions and a younger brother of the president and prime minister is the ruling party theoretician.
Family dynasties are not new to populous South Asia. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas follow in the footsteps of the Bandaranaike family – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as president while her father and mother were former prime ministers.
In India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty saw Nehru Gandhi, his daughter Indira and son Rajiv serve as Prime Ministers, while in Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto served as both President and Prime Minister before his daughter Benazir became Prime Minister. Bangladesh offers similar examples.
Yet the influence of the Rajapaksas involves not only immediate family but also uncles, nephews and extended family.
Dynasty’s return to power is reminiscent of the civil war in Sri Lanka.
The return to power of the Rajapaksa clan – Mahinda was president and defense secretary of Gotabaya when the military brutally ended a bloody civil war in 2009 – has drawn criticism from human rights campaigners.
“President Rajapaksa is rapidly reversing the repression that prevailed under the previous Rajapaksa administration,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, accusing the government of “running a campaign of fear and intimidation against human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and others challenging government policy.
Already in June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern over the crackdown on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka during the COVID-19 crisis.
The centre-left Sri Lankan People’s Front party of the Rajapaksas and its allies won a comfortable two-thirds parliamentary majority in the August 5 vote, as they enjoyed a wave of ultra-nationalist support from the majority Sinhalese community. . Gotabaya Rajapaksa had already won the presidency last November.
Sri Lanka’s population of 21.5 million is made up of nearly 75% Sinhalese (mainly Buddhists), 11% Tamils, 9.3% Muslims and smaller ethnic groups.
Tamil Tiger rebels led a separatist revolt that erupted into a nearly 30-year ethnic conflict that was crushed by government troops in mid-2009 when the Rajapaksas were last in power. The rebels, backed by Tamils from neighboring southern India, have demanded autonomy in northeastern Sri Lanka, where Tamils are the majority.
Thousands of rebels, government soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict.
India and China have invested heavily in Sri Lanka.
When the two brothers were last in power between 2005 and 2015, international human rights groups accused the government of war crimes. Allegations of large-scale corruption during this period also dogged the brothers.
When Western powers including the United States, concerned about human rights abuses, refused to support the government’s tactics to quell the separatist uprising, the government turned to longtime partners, the India and China.
The two Asian powers have invested heavily in Sri Lanka, including in massive infrastructure projects, and granted numerous loans. The South Asian nation is particularly indebted to China, which bought a port on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes as part of its strategic Belt and Road initiative. Some fear that the port of Hambantota, south of the capital Colombo, could become a Chinese naval installation.
Japan is also a key partner and a major source of grants and loans.
“Dynasty will rule Sri Lanka with an iron fist.”
Rajapaksa’s regime has an authoritarian bent and relies on retired former military colleagues, many of whom have been appointed to key government positions, raising concerns about the military’s influence over the Sri Lankan politics. The president appointed the army commander to lead the task force to manage the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The family will rule with a heavy hand, just like ultra-nationalist regimes in the rest of the world,” said Dayan Jayatillake, a former ambassador and political analyst who has predicted the new government will pursue a policy of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy.
Although the civil war in Sri Lanka ended more than a decade ago, reconciliation between ethnic groups has been slow. Attacks on churches and hotels at Easter last year by extremist Muslim groups sparked a backlash against peaceful Muslims.
Jehan Perera, a political affairs commentator and newspaper columnist, said the Rajapaksas will be seen at home as tough nationalist leaders who defend national sovereignty and independence.
“From a western perspective, they would be seen differently, as authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning rulers although democratically elected, but not as bound by international conventions such as human rights and agreements as Sri Lanka has signed under international mechanisms,” Perera said.
Sri Lanka must balance the interests of India and China.
The new government faces daunting challenges: economic growth despite the coronavirus and reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minority. On the international scene, Sri Lanka seeks to balance the sometimes opposing interests of India and China while appeasing the United States, among the most virulent in matters of human rights.
For Washington, Sri Lanka has considerable strategic value because of its location in the Indian Ocean, not far from the southeastern tip of India. Sri Lanka sends a significant portion of its garment exports to the United States.
The new foreign minister, retired naval admiral Jayanath Colombage, said Sri Lanka would try to remain neutral.
“We are caught in this power game between India, China, Japan and the United States because of our geostrategic situation. We want to avoid that,” Colombage said last week. “That’s why the president is very clear that we want to maintain our neutrality and we don’t want to get caught up in the big power game.”
Perera said that while China is an important source of development aid, neighboring India is a crucial economic and security partner. “We are a security concern for India being on our doorstep,” Perera said. “Thus, the government must balance its interests between the two Asian superpowers,”