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Sri Lankan power family falls from grace as economy tanks

The family is not going down without a fight, ordering troops to shoot protesters, instituting a nationwide curfew and allegedly inciting mob violence.
Credit: AP
FILE - Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, along with his brothers former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, center, and former economics development minister Basil Rajapaksa, attend a meeting at their party office with local politicians in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 4, 2018. With one brother president, another prime minister and three more family members cabinet ministers, it appeared that the Rajapaksa clan had consolidated its grip on power in Sri Lanka after decades in and out of government. With a national debt crisis spiraling out of control, it looks like the dynasty is nearing its end with Prime Minister Mahinda stepping down on Monday, May 9, 2022, and the three Rajapaksas resigning their cabinet posts in April, but the family is not going down without a fight. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)

NEW DELHI, Delhi — With one brother president, another prime minister and three more family members cabinet ministers, it appeared that the Rajapaksa clan had consolidated its grip on power in Sri Lanka after decades in and out of government.

But as a national debt crisis spirals out of control, with pandemic woes and rising food and fuel costs due to the war in Ukraine compounding problems from years of dubious economic decisions, their dynasty is crumbling.

The three Rajapaksas resigned their cabinet posts in April, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down on Monday, angry protesters attacked the family's home this week and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not been seen outside his heavily guarded compound.

But the family is not going down without a fight, ordering troops to shoot protesters causing injury to people or property, instituting a nationwide curfew and allegedly encouraging mobs of their supporters to fight in the streets with anti-government demonstrators.

In his first speech to the nation in some two months, Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday said he would return more power to Parliament — by rolling back an amendment he implemented to buttress the all-powerful executive presidential system. On Thursday he appointed a new prime minister — of no relation.

But it might be too little, too late to put an end to the nationwide protests calling for the ouster of the president, the last Rajapaksa still clinging to national office.

“This is a crisis very much of his making. He did not create the crisis from the beginning, but the Rajapaksas have come to epitomize the failings in our structure of government with their nepotism, their corruption and their human rights violations,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank in Colombo.

With soaring prices, fuel and food shortages and lengthy power cuts, Sri Lankans have been protesting for weeks, calling for both the Rajapaksas to step down. Violence erupted Monday after Rajapaksa supporters clashed with protesters in a dramatic turn that saw Mahinda resign. Nine people were killed and more than 200 injured.

Angry protesters attacked the family's ancestral home in the Hambantota area, and Mahinda has been forced to take refuge on a heavily fortified naval base.

With his atypically conciliatory speech Wednesday, it is clear Gotabaya has been “badly shaken by the protests,” said Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat who served as Sri Lanka’s representative to the United Nations during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency.

Still, it may be too early to count him out, Jayatilleka said, noting that Gotabaya had changed tack to sound “flexible and pragmatic.”

“Gotabaya has a dualistic personality — one side of that personality that the country has seen is this unilateralist, quite insensitive ex-military man,” Jayatilleka said. “But there’s another side — somewhat more rational. But the more rational side was on a very long vacation.”

The Rajapaksa family has been involved in Sri Lankan politics for decades, with the focus most recently on Mahinda, the president’s older brother.

While Gotabaya pursued a military career and rose through the ranks, Mahinda focused on politics and was elected president in 2005. Gotabaya, who by then had retired from the military and immigrated to the United States, returned to become defense secretary.

The two won enormous support among their fellow Sinhalese Buddhists for ending the country’s 26-year civil war with ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009 and Mahinda was re-elected to a second term in 2010.

About 70% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people are Buddhists, mainly ethnic Sinhalese. Hindus, mainly ethnic Tamils, make up 12.6% of the population, while another 9.7% are Muslim and 7.6% are Christian.

Minority groups and international observers accused the military of targeting civilians in the war and killing rebels and civilians who surrendered in the final days. According to a U.N. report, about 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of fighting alone.

Mahinda pushed through a constitutional change to allow him to run for a third presidential term and called elections early in 2015 to press what he saw as an advantage, but was defeated in an upset by Maithripala Sirisena, who garnered support from minorities with his reformist platform and push for reconciliation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa then unsuccessfully sought to become prime minister, and it appeared that the luster of the Rajapaksa name had worn off.

But with Sirisena’s coalition government already plagued with infighting and dysfunction, on Easter Sunday in 2019 Islamic extremists targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels in coordinated suicide attacks, killing hundreds of people.

Amid allegations the Sirisena government had not acted on intelligence information, and a wave of Buddhist nationalism, Gotabaya Rajapaksa swept to power in a landslide later that year.

“The bombs catapulted him to victory in the 2019 election,” Jayatilleka said. “The feeling was we need Gotabaya, we need his military experience.”

He appointed Mahinda as prime minister and added two other brothers and a nephew to his cabinet. In 2020 he pushed through a constitutional amendment strengthening the power of his office at the expense of Parliament.

By the time Gotabaya took office, Sri Lanka was already in an economic slump triggered by a drop in tourism after the bombings and a slew of foreign debt from infrastructure projects, many bankrolled by Chinese money and commissioned by Mahinda.

In one notorious case, Mahinda borrowed deeply from China to build a port in Hambantota, the family's home region.

Unable to make its debt payments on the project, Sri Lanka was forced to hand the facility and thousands of acres of land around it to Beijing for 99 years — giving China a key foothold directly opposite regional rival India's coastline.

With the economy already teetering, Gotabaya pushed through the largest tax cuts in Sri Lankan history, which sparked a quick backlash, with creditors downgrading the country's ratings, blocking it from borrowing more money as foreign exchange reserves nosedived.

The pandemic hit soon after, again battering tourism, a prime source of foreign currency. A poorly executed ban on importing chemical fertilizers in April 2021 made things worse by driving prices up before Gotabaya was forced to repeal it.

Compounding the problems this year, the Ukraine war has increased food and oil prices globally. The central bank said inflation was at 30% in April, with food prices up nearly 50%.

With the economy today in tatters, protests have come from all sectors of society, with even Sinhalese Buddhists joining in.

“There is public vilification of the Rajapaksa now and that’s a notable change to what we were seeing previously,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

There is a “real genuine anger among the people that it’s the Rajapaksas who have led to this crisis.”

Still, Jayatilleka suggested if Gotabaya can appoint a new cabinet that enjoys popular support, he may be able to cling to office.

“If he stitches together a government that looks somewhat new — not as top heavy with the Rajapaksas as it was stuffed full of them — that may have more success,” he said.

But Saravanamuttu said it was too late for a comeback.

“His constituency has turned against him and therefore he has no real power base left in the country," he said.

“The monks are turning against him and also sections of the military because ordinary soldiers and their families are also suffering. Word from the street is that he has to go.”

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Rising reported from Bangkok.