The dramatic fall of the House of Rajapaksa
published : 14 Jul 2022 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
For much of nearly two decades, the four Rajapaksa brothers and their sons have run Sri Lanka like a family business -- and a disorderly one, at that. With their grand construction projects and spendthrift ways, they saddled Sri Lanka with unsustainable debts, driving the country into its worst economic crisis since independence. Now, the dynasty has fallen.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was instrumental in establishing the Rajapaksa dynasty. After becoming president in 2005, he ruled with an iron fist for a decade, attacking civil liberties, expanding presidential powers (including abolishing term limits), and making bad deal after bad deal with China. Throughout this process, he kept his family close, with his younger brother Gotabaya holding the defence portfolio.
But in 2015, Mahinda narrowly lost the presidential election, and the Rajapaksas were briefly driven from power. During that time, parliament restored the presidential term limit, ruling out another Mahinda presidency. Yet the family quickly devised a plan to restore their dynasty: Gotabaya would renounce his US citizenship and run for president.
Gotabaya was well-positioned to win. After all, he had been defence secretary in 2009 when Mahinda ordered the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, bringing a brutal 26-year civil war to a decisive end. With that, the Rajapaksa brothers emerged as heroes among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.
To be sure, the final offensive killed as many as 40,000 civilians and sparked international accusations of war crimes. The United Nations described it as a "grave assault on the entire regime of international law".
But the Rajapaksa brothers simply presented themselves as hard-headed custodians of Sinhalese interests. And, thanks to his ethno-nationalist credentials, Gotabaya won the 2019 election -- at which point he immediately appointed Mahinda as his prime minister. Mahinda then appointed his two sons, his other two brothers, and a nephew as ministers or to other government positions.
The same year, 277 people were killed, and hundreds more wounded, in bombings carried out by Islamist extremists on Easter Sunday. The attack highlighted tensions that had been simmering since 2009: though the military offensive marginalised the Hindu-majority Tamils, the war's end sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the Buddhist-majority Sinhalese and Sri Lanka's Muslims, who constitute one-tenth of the country's population.
Beyond deepening ethnic and religious fault lines, Gotabaya followed his brother in establishing an imperial presidency, exemplified by the passage in 2020 of a constitutional amendment expanding the president's power to dissolve the legislature. And he helped to push Sri Lanka further into the economic death spiral that his brother had helped create.
During Mahinda's rule, China won major infrastructure contracts in Sri Lanka and became the country's leading lender, funding the construction of monuments to the Rajapaksa dynasty in the family's home district of Hambantota.
Examples include "the world's emptiest" airport and a US$1.4 billion (50.65 billion baht) seaport that remained largely idle. The China-backed project is the $13-billion "Port City", which is being built on land reclaimed from the sea close to the centre of the capital, Colombo.
China's larger aims in Sri Lanka were suggested in 2014, when two Chinese submarines made separate unannounced visits to Colombo, docking at a newly built container terminal owned largely by Chinese state companies.
So, China gained leverage over a country located near some of the world's most important shipping lanes, and Sri Lanka became mired in debt. The Rajapaksas then enacted a sweeping tax cut in 2019 that wiped out a third of the country's tax revenues.
Then the pandemic hit, crushing the tourism and garment industries, while the war in Ukraine helped to drain Sri Lanka's foreign reserves, creating fuel, food, medicine and electricity shortages.
On May 9, Mahinda reluctantly resigned from his post as prime minister. But protests continued to rage, culminating in the storming of the seaside presidential palace by demonstrators. Gotabaya fled minutes earlier before conveying his decision to resign.
Sri Lanka's next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, re-establish the rule of law, and hold responsible those who caused the current disaster. ©Project Syndicate
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of 'Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis' (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including ‘Asian Juggernaut’, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’ and ‘Water, Peace and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis’.