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Sri Lanka crisis: How the mighty Rajapaksa family lost power, grace

Agencies |
Jul 14, 2022 11:30 AM IST

Sri Lanka Crisis: The Rajapaksa dynasty dominated Sri Lankan politics until April when street protests against fuel and food shortages began to slip out of control.

Colombo: Known as The Terminator to family and foes alike for his ruthless crushing of Tamil rebels to end a decades-long civil war, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rule is drawing to a close with him a fugitive and his island’s economy in ruins.

(Left to right) Rajapaksa brothers Mahinda (former PM), President Gotabaya and former finance minister Basil. (File Photo/AP)
(Left to right) Rajapaksa brothers Mahinda (former PM), President Gotabaya and former finance minister Basil. (File Photo/AP)

Rajapaksa, one of a clan of four brothers who have dominated the country’s politics in recent years, was defence secretary under his brother Mahinda’s Rajapaksa’s presidency from 2005-15.

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He denied allegations that at least 40,000 minority Tamil civilians were killed by troops under his command during the closing months of the war, but the accusations bolstered his tough-guy image in the eyes of the majority Sinhalese.

He was also considered the architect of “white van” abductions under Mahinda, when dissidents and journalists were grabbed in unmarked vehicles and disappeared, allegedly the victims of extrajudicial killings.

He made no bones about winning the 2019 elections with the overwhelming support of his own majority Sinhala-Buddhist community.

The Rajapaksa dynasty dominated Sri Lankan politics until April when street protests against fuel and food shortages began to slip out of control. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country early on Wednesday, leaving no one from the once- illustrious family in a position of power.

Also Read: What explains Sri Lanka's worst economic crisis?

The president vowed last month to stay on until his five-year term ended in 2024, despite the anger his tenure prompted among the people. Thousands of Sri Lankans stormed his official residence on Saturday, forcing him to go into hiding and agree to step down. He was to have done so on Wednesday.

“One day this had to happen,” said Mallawaara Arachchi, a 73-year-old retired engineer, as he wandered around the official residence of the prime minister last occupied by Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda, and now also by protesters.

“They have robbed everything from the people,” he said. But with the family gone “we will be the best country in the world in the near future”.

Mahinda resigned in May, thus ending his son Yoshith’s stint as chief of staff. His other son, Namal, elder brother Chamal and younger brothers Basil and Shasheendra quit as ministers in April.

Former finance minister Basil, who also holds US citizenship, was stopped at the airport from fleeing the country on Tuesday by immigration officials wary of the public response if he had been allowed to leave.

The country of 22 million has barely any dollars left to import fuel, it has defaulted on billions of dollars of foreign loans, headline inflation hit 54.6% last month with more dire predictions, while schools and offices stay shut to conserve petrol and diesel.

It is the most debilitating political and economic crisis to hit the country since independence in 1948, including during a brutal civil war in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as defence secretary, oversaw the crushing of Tamil Tiger insurgents in 2009.

Much of the blame for the crisis has been placed on the Covid-19 pandemic that squeezed out the island’s tourism industry and dried up remittances from Sri Lankans overseas. The Rajapaksas’ tax cuts left a hole in state revenues and a ban on chemical fertiliser damaged crops before it was lifted.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package could yield results later this year or next at the earliest, prompting Sri Lanka to seek even more aid from neighbour India and China.

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