Uzair Ali talks about a Fall of Sri Lankan ruling family full of lessons
The Fall of Sri Lankan ruling family & Politics is an extremely uneven exercise and along with success lurks failure and that brings radical changes in fortunes completely changing despite what the power-wielders expect and believe in. This is precisely what happened with the family that dominated Sri Lankan politics for almost two decades. All members of Rajapaksa family that considered that it had a solid grip over the levers of power in the country were forced to flee the country under dire threats after public rage engulfed the entire ruling structure presided over by the Rajapaksa family. This is a familiar tale in the politics of South Asia where the power matrix changes often completely and radically altering the situation. Rajapaksa family probably did not expect to be so humiliatingly driven out of power and exuded a confidence that their past performance was a guarantee for their continued presence on the corridors of power.
The family’s grip on power began when Mahinda Rajapaksa, the elder brother of Gotabaya, was appointed prime minister in 2004. Mahinda, an impressive personality was considered a populist touch and his organising abilities soon gathered a formidable team around him that was loyal to him. Mahinda was elected president in 2005 and under his leadership, the Sri Lankan military managed to put an end to the South Asian nation’s almost three-decades-long civil war, which ended in 2009. The conflict was a clash between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgent group that had hoped to establish a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority, who make up about 15% of the nation’s 22 million people. By achieving victory, that was the result of Mahinda appealing to the nationalist sentiment of Buddhist-Sinhalese majority, consequently allowed him to tighten his grip on power. Mahinda, along with his brothers particularly Gotabaya, who at the time was a powerful official and military strategist in the Ministry of Defense, were seen as war heroes by the Sinhalese majority.
After taking the office of the president in 2005 Mahinda began rampantly borrowing, first to pay for Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war against Tamil minority separatists and then for a super-growth development spree of roads, airports, stadiums and power grids. GDP grew from $20 billion to $80 billion but more than $14 billion was borrowed in the process, and all the Rajapaksas became mired in accusations of vast-scale corruption from bribes to money laundering. Fortunes however took a nasty turn and Mahinda, who had remained in office until 2014, unexpectedly lost the presidential election to the opposition led by his former aide and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena. Though Mahinda lost the 2014 presidential election but the dynasty had no intention of relinquishing its hold on power. Basil, who was out on bail on corruption charges that were later dismissed, set about forming a new political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
After an amendment to the constitution meant Mahinda was not allowed to run for a third term, it was decided – after considerable resistance by some in the family ranks – that Gotabaya would be their candidate in the November 2019 presidential elections. The Islamic terror attacks in April 2019 allowed the family to make a comeback as Gotabaya announced he would run for president and promised to restore security. He won the election bringing the family back to power. Gotabaya brought Mahinda as prime minister and allocated key positions to several other members of the family, making his brother Basil finance minister and another sibling Chamal irrigation minister. His son Namal was appointed minister of sports and youth affairs. The appointments ensured that the dynasty wielded control over the state apparatus as well as major sectors of the economy.
Sri Lanka’s economic problems began long before Gotabaya took power in late 2019. From 1977 onwards, successive governments built the country on a precarious foundation of debt. Imports overwhelmingly exceeded exports and a progressive but costly welfare state widened the deficit further, which was covered by more high-interest borrowing. Gotabaya, an austere, devout and straight-talking military man, was the opposite of his older brother and attracted the backing of an influential group of intellectuals, business leaders and academics, who believed he would forge his own path from the previous Rajapaksa regime. However, Gotabaya’s experience in politics was limited as he had only held the unelected post of defence secretary in Mahinda’s administration, where he was celebrated for ending the civil war, despite accusations of war crimes. But on several key political issues, particularly the economy where Gotabaya was inexperienced, the family took over.
As soon as Gotabaya took office, he began to implement a fiercely ultranationalist agenda, which pushed for the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. He appointed military generals, some implicated in war crimes, to run 15 civilian government ministries, which proved autocratic and inefficient, and defence spending was higher than during the civil war, draining resources. Tamils, concentrated in the north of the island, reported a spike in abuses and arbitrary detentions under draconian terrorism laws. According to those who witnessed it from the inside, the story of Sri Lanka’s crisis is rooted in this family, who concentrated power to the point that the country came to resemble an autocratic family business, accountable to no one until it pushed the nation to bankruptcy. As Sri Lanka began to unravel, the family became riddled with infighting and the once cordial relationship between the two brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda descended into bitterness as they both clung to power.
Cabinet ministers, opposition politicians, Rajapaksa aides and confidantes – many of whom are highly divisive figures who still have vested interests and strong ties to various Rajapaksa family members – pointed overwhelmingly to Basil, the younger of the brothers and so-called strategist of the family, as the one who oversaw the economic downfall. Operating first as a shadowy power broker behind the scenes before becoming finance minister, he was described by several ministers as having unparalleled influence over the president and cabinet, yet proved incompetent at running the economy, was dogged by corruption allegations and ignored multiple warnings that a financial meltdown was coming.
The family’s popularity and dominance of the political landscape, however, resulted in an array of unwise and populist decisions. In 2019, the Rajapaksas implemented huge tax cuts, which hit government finances. And last year, the government decided to ban all chemical fertilizers, hurting domestic food production. Even though authorities reversed the ban after six months, the damage had already been done, leading to food shortages. The then Sri Lankan central bank governor stated many times that from 2018, the situation was going to be delicate for Sri Lanka. The debt was piling up and a lot of loans were coming due and in this situation introducing massive tax cuts that slashed the government’s revenue by 25% was seen as a trigger for the economic collapse. When the COVID pandemic struck, key sectors of the economy, particularly the important revenue-generating tourism industry, were battered. The resulting hardships stoked public fury and resentment toward the Rajapaksas and triggered a massive popular uprising that spilled out on the streets on 9 May finally ending the family rule in ignominy. TW