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Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from the British in 1948 and the once ethnically polarised Sri Lankan nation has united and is up in arms against the ruling, all-powerful and corrupt Rajapaksa family.
“Go Home Gota” has become the rallying cry of frustrated citizens venting their anger at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his relatives, who make up the country’s most influential political clan which has held sway over the nation’s politics for far too long.
Across the country, lifestyles that many Sri Lankans took for granted after the economy was opened up after 1977, by the J R Jayawardena led United National Party (UNP), have evaporated. An economic meltdown in this debt-ridden country has resulted in ever worsening food shortages, lengthy power outages, scarcity of medicines, lack of cooking gas and fuel for vehicles.
Last week saw a dramatic turn of political fortunes for the Rajapaksa family. President Rajapaksa’s cabinet resigned and his governing coalition suffered defections, stripping away his two-thirds majority in the 225-member legislature.
President Rajapaksa however has stated that he has no intention of resigning despite the vox populi demanding that he does. The island nation now resembles the final days of some of Asia’s notorious strongmen viz. Indonesia’s Suharto, who was finally brought down by a wave of public anger.
The ongoing unprecedented explosion of island wide protests commenced on March 31 with hundreds demonstrating their fury against hawkish President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government, headed by his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, once revered and adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for crushing the separatist Tamil rebels – LTTE – in May 2009.
The island nation now resembles the final days of some of Asia’s notorious strongmen viz. Indonesia’s Suharto, who was finally brought down by a wave of public anger.
The Rajapaksas’ ultranationalist political brand resonated across the country’s majority Sinhalese-Buddhist population, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa projected it as a vision for Sri Lanka to become a Sinhalese-Buddhist ethnic state, in his election campaign.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s10- year rule (2005-2015), he took Sri Lanka into China’s drooling orbit, borrowed billions of US dollars for gigantic, impractical infrastructure projects, mired in corruption. As expected, these projects turned out to be white elephants and a mere Rajapaksa ego-boosting exercise for which generations of Sri Lankans yet to be born, must pay.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency, he appointed his right-hand man brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary, with full control of the armed forces and police. Gotabaya – dubbed “The Terminator” by his own family – is widely accused of operating death squads and blamed for the abductions and disappearances of political opponents, and journalists critical of the Rajapaksas.
Hot on the heels of the Easter Sunday carnage of 2019 that killed over 269, US citizen, Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka promising to squash the “Islamic extremist perpetrators”. This catapulted him to the powerful seat of Executive President.
The other Rajapaksa sibling, Basil Rajapaksa, was the Finance Minister until his resignation recently. He is called, “Mr. Ten Percent”, for allegedly pocketing commissions from government contracts. All legal cases against him for syphoning off millions of dollars from state coffers were dropped, after brother Gotabaya became the President.
The eldest Rajapaksa brother, Chamal Rajapaksa was a police officer in the Sri Lanka Police who served as a personal bodyguard to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman Prime Minister. Chamal was appointed as the Speaker of Parliament during brother Mahinda’s Presidency. Under brother Gotabaya, he was given the irrigation ministry portfolio and the number two position in the Defence Ministry. President Gotabaya, in addition to being the President is also the defence minister.
Namal Rajapaksa is Mahinda’s eldest son and regarded as the ‘crown prince’ of the Rajapaksa dynasty, groomed to be the President of Sri Lanka, eventually. During his father’s decade in power, Namal was highly influential although he did not hold any ministerial portfolio. He has been accused of money laundering and other corruption charges, which he denies.
The Rajapaksas hail from a middle-class farming family in the Southern city of Hambantota. D. A. Rajapaksa, also a politician, was the father of nine; Chamal, Mahinda, Gotabaya, and Basil are four of them. Rajapaksa Snr. was a founding member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and a Member of Parliament.
After the defeat of the SLFP in the 1965 general elections, Don Alwin Rajapaksa lost his political power and his material wealth. During this period some of his children were studying in Colombo. Financially in the doldrums, he found it difficult to support his large family. He sold his vehicle, leased his lands and went through enormous hardships to sustain the family. When he fell seriously ill in November 1967, there was no vehicle to take him to hospital. When transport was eventually found, his heart condition had deteriorated and he died on admission to hospital.
Sri Lankan national politics was dominated by English educated and westernised upper middle-class families such as the Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes, J R Jayawardena and his nephew, Ranil Wickeramsinghe
Though the Sinhala speaking Rajapaksa family has been associated with Sri Lanka’s legislature since1936, national politics was dominated by English educated and westernised upper middle-class families such as the Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes, J R Jayawardena and his nephew, Ranil Wickeramsinghe. Thus from 1977, the Rajapaksas were not represented in Parliament after the J R Jayawardena-led United National Party’s landslide victory in 1977.
The Rajapaksas re-emerged as a dominant political force in their hometown, Hambantota district in the 1989 Parliamentary election, when Mahinda and Chamal were elected Members of Parliament. In 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President. Since then, numerous members of the 39-member family including a Rajapaksa niece, Nirupama Rajapaksa, held prominent political and diplomatic positions. At one point the Rajapaksa brothers reportedly directly controlled 70% of the national budget.
Rajapaksa nepotism continued with Gotabaya becoming President.
Nirupama Rajapaksa’s name was mentioned in the Pandora Papers released in October 2021. Reports claimed that she, together with her husband controlled a shell company – an inactive company used as a vehicle for various financial manoeuvres – to buy luxury apartments in London and Sydney and other investments.
They also reportedly set up other shell companies and trusts to obtain lucrative consulting contracts from foreign companies engaged in business with the Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka government, as well as to buy expensive art work. Several reports attribute these fraudulent deals as part of the Rajapaksa family’s undisclosed wealth in offshore countries.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reports that Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband have declined to answer ICIJ’s questions about their trusts and companies.
The Rajapaksa family name is now synonymous with authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism and bad governance.
(Sharmini Serasinghe has over 40 years of experience in print and broadcast journalism. She has written a thought provoking book, Sri Lanka: The Elusive Miracle of Asia.)
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