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PoliticsSri Lanka

The rise and fall of Sri Lanka's powerful Rajapaksa dynasty

Aparna Ramamurthy
July 13, 2022

The fleeing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his dramatic fall from grace marks a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a political family that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for almost two decades.

Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa
The family's grip on power began when Mahinda Rajapaksa (L), the elder brother of Gotabaya (R), became PM in 2004Image: Eranga Jayawardena/AP/picture alliance

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday, hours before he was expected to resign following the crippling economic and political crisis that has engulfed the island nation over the past few months.    

His fall from grace and his going off to the Maldives mark a significant downturn for a family that has dominated political life in Sri Lanka for almost 20 years

Its grip on power began when Mahinda Rajapaksa, the elder brother of Gotabaya, was appointed prime minister in 2004.

"Mahinda turned out to be a man with a populist touch who was good at sensing broad political issues. He deeply projected himself as a people's man. He got himself surrounded by people with the same philosophy that he shared," said Rohan Samarajiva, founding chair of the think tank LIRNEasia.

Popular for ending civil war

Mahinda was elected president of Sri Lanka in 2005. Under his leadership, the military managed to put a stop to the South Asian nation's almost three-decades-long civil war, which finally ended in 2009.

The conflict was a clash between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgent group, which had hoped to establish a separate state for the nation's ethnic Tamil minority, who make up about 15% of the population of 22 million.

By leading the military into a triumphant victory over the Tamil rebels and appealing to the nationalist sentiment of the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority, a popular and charismatic Mahinda tightened his grip on power.   

 At the time, Gotayaba was a powerful official and military strategist in the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry.

"That's when the Rajapaksa brothers were seen as war heroes by the Sinhalese majority," said Amirtanayagam Nixon, a senior journalist from Colombo.

Mahinda remained in office until 2015, when he unexpectedly lost the presidential election to the opposition led by his former aide and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena.

The dynasty makes a comeback

But Islamist terror attacks on Easter Sunday in April 2019 allowed the family to make a comeback. 

After the bombings, which killed over 250 people, Gotabaya announced that he would run for president and promised to restore security.  

He vowed to bring back the muscular nationalism that had made his family popular with the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, and also to lead the country out of an economic slump.

He won the election that was held in November that year, bringing the family back to the center of power. 

"First time, it was victory over the Tamil rebels. Second time, they campaigned that only they can save the country from ISIS, a Muslim terror group," said Nixon. 

After Gotabaya assumed the presidency, he appointed Mahinda prime minister. 

The president also handed 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. 

Samarajiva said that the public didn't take this nepotism seriously. 

Neil DeVotta, a professor of politics and international affairs at the Wake Forest University in the US, pointed out that the Rajapaksas' Sinhala majoritarian rhetoric and actions were the main reason behind their success.  

"Being Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists and portraying themselves as the most robust defenders of their nation was the secret sauce to their success. It allowed the predominant Buddhist population to overlook their venality," said DeVotta, who is the author of the book "Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka." 

Bad and populist decisions 

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. 

"Almost every decision that Gotabaya took was wrong. And people are paying the price for it," said Samarajiva, who worked for the Ministry of Economic Reforms. 

"Gotabaya had multiple advisers around him. And in many cases, he took advice from the wrong people. For example, he would take advice on agriculture from a medical doctor," he noted. 

Sri Lanka's crisis worsens as prices soar

Samarajiva stressed that the tax cut decision was one of the gravest mistakes. 

"The then Sri Lankan central bank governor told me umpteen 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," he said, adding: "Introducing massive tax cuts that slashed the government's revenue by 25% is 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. 

Samarajiva said that he and other experts met the president in May 2020 and suggested that the government knock on the doors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to seek help. 

But the government dragged its feet and only approached the IMF in March this year. 

Too little, too late?

"The things that Gotabaya did to remedy his errors were always too late and too little," Samarajiva underlined. 

The huge debt pile might not be entirely Gotabaya's fault as successive governments were responsible for it, but the borrowing has increased massively on the Rajapaksas' watch, he said, pointing to the high-interest commercial loans used to finance projects that ultimately ended up financially unviable.   

DeVotta shares a similar view. 

"Sri Lanka has been mismanaged politically and economically for decades, but the Rajapaksas took this to new heights, thanks to corruption and their utter disregard for the rule of law," he said. 

"Their insatiable appetite for plunder took a poorly governed country and ruined it."

The bad policy decisions, coupled with the abuse of power, corruption and nepotism, have culminated in the most debilitating economic and political crisis Sri Lanka has faced since it emerged as an independent nation in 1948.

The resulting hardships have stoked public fury and resentment toward the Rajapaksas, and triggered a massive popular uprising, which has now forced Gotabaya to flee Sri Lanka. Reports suggest that some other members of the family are also trying to leave the country.

"It's the misuse of power and corruption by the family, which made the country suffer," Nixon said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru