Following parliamentary elections earlier this month, two brothers – Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa – respectively hold the presidency and prime minister’s office 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 theorist.
Family dynasties are not new to populous South Asia. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas are following in the footsteps of the Bandaranaike family – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was president while her father and mother were former prime ministers.
In India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty saw Nehru Gandhi, his daughter Indira and his 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 Rajapaksa involves not only the immediate family, but also uncles, nephews and extended family.
Dynasty’s return to power is reminiscent of the Sri Lankan civil war.
The return to power of the Rajapaksa clan – Mahinda was president and defense secretary of Gotabaya when the military abruptly ended a bloody civil war in 2009 – has drawn criticism from human rights defenders.
“President Rajapaksa is rapidly reverting to the repression that prevailed under the previous Rajapaksa administration,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch director for South Asia, accusing the government of “carrying out 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, was alarmed by the crackdown on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka during the COVID-19 crisis.
The center-left Sri Lankan Popular Front of the Rajapaksas and its allies won a comfortable two-thirds parliamentary majority in the August 5 vote, enjoying a wave of ultra-nationalist support from the Sinhala majority community. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had already won the presidency last November.
Sri Lanka’s population of 21.5 million is made up of almost 75% Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists), 11% Tamils, 9.3% Muslims and smaller ethnic groups.
Tamil Tiger rebels led a separatist revolt that erupted into an almost 30-year ethnic conflict that was crushed by government troops in mid-2009, when the Rajapaksas were the last in power. The rebels, supported by certain Tamil ethnicities in neighboring southern India, demanded autonomy in northeastern Sri Lanka, where Tamils are in 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 harassed 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 revolt, the government turned to longtime partners India and China.
The two Asian powers have invested heavily in Sri Lanka, especially in massive infrastructure projects, and granted numerous loans. The South Asian nation is particularly indebted to China, which has bought a port on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes as part of its Belt and Road strategic 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.
“The dynasty will rule Sri Lanka with an iron fist. “
The Rajapaksa regime has an authoritarian lean and enjoys the backing of retired former military colleagues, many of whom have been appointed to key government positions, raising concerns about the military’s influence in Sri Lanka politics. Lankan. The president has appointed the army commander to head the task force responsible for managing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The family will rule with a heavy hand, as will ultra-nationalist regimes in the rest of the world,” said Dayan Jayatillake, a former ambassador and political analyst who predicted that the new government would pursue a policy of Sinhala 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 over Easter last year by extremist Muslim groups sparked a backlash against peaceful Muslims.
Jehan Perera, 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 point of view, they would be seen differently, as authoritarian or authoritarian-inclined leaders although democratically elected, but not as bound by international conventions like human rights and the agreements that Sri Lanka has signed. through international mechanisms, ”Perera said.
Sri Lanka must balance the interests of India and China.
The new government faces significant challenges: economic growth despite the coronavirus and reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minority. On the international stage, Sri Lanka seeks to balance the sometimes competing interests of India and China while appeasing the United States, among the most vocal on human rights.
For Washington, Sri Lanka holds considerable strategic value because of its location in the Indian Ocean, not far from the south-eastern tip of India. Sri Lanka sends a significant portion of its clothing exports to the United States.
The new Foreign Minister, retired Navy Admiral Jayanath Colombage, has said Sri Lanka will try to stay neutral.
“We are caught in this power game between India, China, Japan and the United States because of our geostrategic location. We want to avoid that, ”Colombage said last week. “This is why the president is very clear that we want to maintain our neutrality and do not want to be caught in the game of the great powers.”
Perera said that while China is an important source of development assistance, neighboring India is a crucial economic and security partner. “We are a security issue for India being on our doorstep,” Perera said. “Thus, the government must balance its interests between the two Asian superpowers”,