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In Sri Lanka, is the fall of the Rajapaksa Family imminent?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa bows at an official function (Photo: ANI/Reuters)

The domestic political landscape of South Asia is fascinating. One can find strong political dynasties in most of South Asian democracies. The Bhuttos and Sharifs are well known dynastic icons in Pakistan, the Koiralas have frequently dominated the political landscape in Nepal, Hasina and Zia families have ruled the roost in Bangladesh, while the Gandhi family’s extended innings in India is common knowledge.

Similarly, the mention of Sri Lankan politics is incomplete without a discussion on the Rajapaksa family. In the last few months, Sri Lanka has occupied headlines in every South Asian country, precisely for its unprecedented economic crisis. This happened when the Rajapaksa family was completely dominating the Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Assi Ghat in Varanasi on one of his India visits (Photo: ANI) 

Prior to the recent cabinet reshuffle, more than six family members occupied cabinet posts. A few others were well ensconced in the state ministerial position. The family exercised almost all the critical roles of governance, indirectly controlling more than 70 per cent of the Sri Lankan budget.

Just take a look at some of the important portfolios taken over by the family after 2019. These included President (Gotabaya Rajapaksa), Prime Minister (Mahinda Rajapaksa), Minister of Finance (Basil Rajapaksa), Minister of irrigation (Chamal Rajapaksa), Minister of Youth and Sports (Namal Rajapaksa), and State Minister of Paddy and Grains, Organic Food, Vegetables, Fruits, Chillies, Onion and Potato, Cultivation Promotion, Seed Production and Advanced Technology Agriculture (Shasheendra Kumara Rajapaksa). This is not new for the Rajapaksa family, which had almost 40 members occupying various government posts when Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President from 2010 to 2015.  

Why So Popular?

While today one can see street protests against the family in almost every corner of Sri Lanka, it is also true that the Rajapaksas have enjoyed substantial support from the public in the past. Riding on the Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalist sentiment, this family maintained a strict position against the Tamil and Muslim minorities. They also kept siding with China on foreign policy issues. Their party glorifies Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa for crushing the Tamil separatist movement in 2009.

Mahinda Rajapaksa had won the 2005 Presidential elections. He later called his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa—a retired military official who had shifted to the US to Sri Lanka.  Gotabaya returned to this island nation and joined his President and brother as the Defence Secretary. After that, the duo inflicted severe injury on Tamil separatists and defeated them convincingly. There are several allegations of human rights violations against the two brothers for their highhandedness and inhuman approach to the civil war. But for the Sinhalese nationalists, these two brothers were like “terminators,” despite accusations that they were running “death squads”. 

The victory of the Sri Lankan State in the Civil War under the political leadership of the Rajapaksa brothers earned them enough accolades to establish their supremacy. In the 2010 Presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa secured some 57.88 per cent of the votes and won the race for the President post for the second consecutive term with a comfortable margin. Although Mahinda Rajapaksa lost by a slight margin in 2015 due to several complaints of corruption, in 2019 his brother Gotabaya captured the Presidential position, defeating his nearest rival by a healthy margin of 11 per cent.

The island nation, recovering from the civil war again witnessed the large-scale terror attack. It was 21st April 2019 when militants belonging to the National Tawahujja Jama’ath (NTJ) carried out what is termed as ‘Easter bombings’ that had killed more than 260 people, including some 40 foreign nationals. This Easter terror attack again brought the Rajapaksa family to the limelight, already known for winning the Civil War. Thus, all these disturbances implicitly helped the Rajapaksa family in its political careers, as they were seen as tough and strong leaders. As a result, in the last 17 years, the family has remained in power for almost 13 years. 

The Family Background

The Rajapaksa family is from the land-owning class that belonged to the Giruwapattuwa village. While the family gained prominence in Sri Lankan politics in the last two decades, it was always considered a heavyweight in the Southern district of Hambantota. In electoral politics, the family history goes back to 1936 when D. M Rajapaksa was elected to represent the Hambantota district in the state Council. After that, family members remained in politics and were in high profile political positions. Although, their ascendancy and domination in national politics have been witnessed in the last couple of decades. 

The China Inclination 

Facing their most demanding challenges in the political arena, the Rajapaksa brothers had decided to continue in office with some changes in the cabinet. This family had shown no hesitation in aligning with China. Some big projects like Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port (Hambantota International Port) and Colombo Port City were awarded to Chinese infrastructure companies. Critics have raised valid questions such as the economic rationale and utility capacity of such big projects for a small nation. Nevertheless, Mahinda Rajapaksa remained firm and backed China. One good example is the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA). Due to less traffic, this airport was also tagged as the ‘world’s emptiest airport’. This airport was constructed by taking a Chinese high-interest loan. Due to heavy losses in MRIA, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government in 2018 entered into a negotiation with India to jointly operate this airport. Albeit, after the election of G. Rajapaksa in 2019, things changed. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not in favour of India jointly operating MRIA, and he ended negotiations with India.

Let us not forget that the international community criticised the Rajapaksa family for war atrocities, and they remained sceptical in assisting them. On the other hand, China was soft and even provided “sophisticated weaponry” to the Sri Lankan military during the civil war. 

What Next? 

The Sri Lankan economy has defaulted on debt; the country is negotiating with the IMF for a bailout package and approaching others countries like India for help. It is a new low in the political life of the Rajapaksa family. They always manage to ride on the national sentiment and project themselves as powerful leaders. These are the reasons why even corruption issues against some family members have not deterred them from occupying high power seats. This may undergo a change, and this time even China is not coming unconditionally to rescue the Rajapaksa clan. As of now, with international help, the Rajapaksa family may survive this Tsunami, but in the future, the image reconstruction for the Rajapaksas will remain a herculean task.

(Dhananjay Tripathi is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)