The rise and fall of a political dynasty that brought Sri Lanka to its knees

At the peak of their power, four brothers from the Rajapaksa dynasty of Sri Lanka held the presidency and prime minister’s office as well as the portfolios of finance, interior and defence, among others. But just when the Rajapaksa clan seemed invincible, an economic crisis of their own making led to their downfall. But does this mean the end of South Asia’s most powerful political family?

On August 12, 2020, an extraordinary display of family power was underway at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist sites, in the central city of Kandy, the political capital of the ancient kings of the Isle. nation.

After a landslide victory in the August elections, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn into a cabinet that included two of his brothers and two nephews, sharing several portfolios within the family.

The Rajapaksas have a tradition of swearing-in ceremonies in temples, a symbolic recognition of the Sinhalese Buddhist populism that propelled them to power. In recent years, as the family’s political fortunes grew, the inauguration entourage of government officials, diplomats and media crews dutifully traveled to sacred temples at historic sites, where another Rajapaksa got another wallet.

The concentration of power and mismanagement has been ungodly, however.

During the inauguration of the new cabinet, the president took the defense portfolio, contravening a constitutional amendment prohibiting the country’s head of state from holding a ministerial post.

His powerful brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, became the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and was also appointed to head three ministries: finance, urban development and Buddhist affairs.

The president then invested his older brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, as minister of irrigation, internal security, interior and disaster management. Chamal’s son, Sashindra, was appointed deputy minister for high-tech agriculture. Namal, the Prime Minister’s son, became Minister of Youth and Sports.

Barely a year later, Basil Rajapaksa was appointed finance minister, taking over the important portfolio from his brother, the prime minister.

At the height of their power, the Rajapaksas seemed invincible as they signed mega infrastructure deals and amassed fortunes while repressing minorities and journalists – and managed to evade accountability in a state where they held all the reins .

For several years, human rights defenders have condemned the reprisals, massacres, repression, corruption and cronyism of South Asia’s most powerful political dynasty. Their pleas went unheeded by an electorate willing to ignore attacks on freedoms and persuaded by the cult of strong leaders who prefer action to compromise.

But that was before the island nation sank into its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. As an acute foreign currency crisis triggered fuel shortages, power cuts and inflation runaway, the tide finally began to turn against the Rajapaksa clan as Sri Lankans struggled to cope with a disaster wrought by their own elected government.

This week, as peaceful anti-government protests turned violent, the Rajapaksa family’s symbols of power came under attack in scenes unimaginable two years ago.

On Monday night, mobs stormed the Prime Minister’s official residence Temple Trees in Colombo, forcing the army to carry out a pre-dawn operation to rescue Mahinda Rajapaksa and her family. The Prime Minister had already handed in his letter of resignation to his younger brother, the President, paving the way for a “new unity government”.

Meanwhile, in the southern province of Hambantota, mobs attacked the Rajapaksa museum in the ancestral village of Medamulana’s family. Two wax statues of Rajapaksa parents were flattened and mobs ransacked the building as well as the nearby Rajapaksa ancestral home.

It was a violent assault on a clan that has held feudal power since colonial times and used patronage and privilege to move from local to national power, placing family members in strategic positions. along the way.

From rural roots to national power

The Rajapaksas are a rural landowning family in southern Sri Lanka whose ancestors have represented their native Hambantota in state and regional councils since pre-independence times.

Prominent families have always played an important role in Sri Lankan politics. But the Rajapaksas were not among the urban political elites in the decades following independence. While families such as the Bandaranaikes – who have produced three Sri Lankan prime ministers and a president – ​​dominated the national scene, the Rajapaksas were among the rural elites in the heartland of the country’s Buddhist Sinhalese south.

The current president’s father, DA Rajapaksa, was a parliamentarian representing Hambantota district. But it was his second son, Mahinda, who catapulted the clan to national dominance when he rose from opposition leader in parliament to prime minister in 2004.

A year later, Mahinda won the 2005 presidential poll by a narrow margin, helped, according to his opponents, by a call for an electoral boycott by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), a militant group better known as of Tamil Tigers.

It was Mahinda’s first victory in the bloody fight against the Tamil Tigers based in Sri Lanka’s neglected north, home to the country’s Tamil minority.

Brother in arms

As president, Mahinda pioneered a model of leadership that would serve his family’s political fortunes, earning him the nickname “Clan Chief” of the burgeoning Rajapaksas.

The transition from a rules-based order to one of the family networks began shortly after the 2005 presidential inauguration when, according to family lore, Mahinda walked out of the inauguration room and spotted his younger brother, Gotabaya.

A former army officer, Gotabaya had moved back home to the United States before 2005 to work on his brother’s election campaign.

According to biographers, the new president tapped Gotabaya on the shoulder and told his brother – who had left the army as a lieutenant colonel – that he was going to be Sri Lanka’s new defense secretary.

The consolidation of Rajapaksa with the army had begun. It was not long before Mahinda was ready to start a war that would “end” the Tamil Tigers, as he had promised his electorate.

Enter the “terminator”

By the time Mahinda was elected president, the Tamil Tigers had abandoned their demands for an independent state in the north and were demanding greater autonomy under the terms of a Norwegian-sponsored ceasefire.

The deal, it was hoped, would usher in a peace deal that would end a brutal civil war that had killed tens of thousands of people over two decades.

The Rajapaksa brothers instead oversaw a military operation that would defeat the Tamil Tigers, winning the support of Sri Lankans eager to end the civil war. But for the country’s Tamil minority, it sparked a period of state violence against civilians that has drawn condemnations from the UN and international human rights groups for the kidnappings and disappearances of supporters. alleged Tamil Tiger as well as “journalists, activists and others considered political opponents” by “gunmen operating in white vans, which have become a symbol of political terror”.

Gotabaya was particularly implicated in the infamous 2009 “White Flag Incident” when members of the Tamil Tiger and their families, after contacting the UN, Red Cross and other Western governments, agreed to surrender to the Sri Lankan authorities to be shot dead by the army.

The Rajapaksa brothers have repeatedly denied any responsibility for the disappearances. They also maintain that they did not issue the shoot-to-kill order during the “white flag” surrender.

Falling into the “Chinese debt trap”

Gotabaya’s tough stance on security bolstered his popularity in the 2019 presidential elections, just as it helped his more politically experienced brother, Mahinda, win parliamentary elections the following year.

But it was the economy, not the security, that proved to be the downfall of the Rajapaksa clan.

Horrified by the gross human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, Western governments began to remove Sri Lanka from aid disbursement lists. As opportunities for aid and concessional borrowing dried up as Sri Lanka transitioned to lower-middle-income country status, the government began to rely heavily on commercial borrowing to finance the national budget.

The Rajapaksas were also increasing their dependence on Chinese investment. A massive port project in the family’s hometown of Hambantota has quickly become a classic example of the “Chinese debt trap”, with Sri Lanka borrowing from Chinese banks to pay for commercially unviable projects at onerous rates.

Chinese investments in a number of unachievable megaprojects, mainly in Hambantota, are the subject of numerous economic reports, with analysts attributing responsibility to different parties. But in the real world, there was no doubt that life was getting harder and harder for Sri Lankan citizens.

As the country’s sovereign debt soared, the Rajapaksas resisted domestic and international calls for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal and debt restructuring, insisting that Sri Lanka would service its debt.

Meanwhile, Basil Rajapaksa, who was appointed finance minister in 2020 despite corruption cases against him, has been dubbed “Mr. Ten Percent” as allegations swirled that the family was embezzling state funds.

His nephew, Chamal Rajapaksa’s son, Sashindra, was implicated in a disastrous ban on chemical fertilizer imports, which hit the country’s critical agricultural sector.

As the pandemic put an end to tourism, Sri Lankans began to despair of their country’s ruling clan.

On May 9, when Rajapaksa supporters attacked peaceful protesters gathered in Colombo, the floodgates of rage against the powerful political dynasty were opened.

A day after the deadly violence, Mahinda’s son Namal, who was sports minister before his resignation earlier this year, insisted the family were simply going through a “bad patch”.

At 36, Namal is widely seen as Rajapaksa’s main successor, and he has a vested interest in downplaying the problems facing the family.

But analysts familiar with Sri Lanka’s culture of dynastic patronage are not yet willing to dismiss the Rajapaksas as a political force. “The Rajapaksa brand always has the support of the Sinhalese people,” Akhil Bery of the Asia Society Policy Institute told AFP.

“Although much of the blame may be placed on the Rajapaksas now, their successors will inherit the mess, leaving the Rajapaksas the opportunity to remain politically relevant.”