Sri Lankan power family falls out of favor as economy slumps

NEW DELHI (AP) — Along with a brother president, another prime minister and three other family ministers, it has emerged the Rajapaksa clan has cemented 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 prices due to war in Ukraine compounding the problems of years of questionable economic decisions, their dynasty crumbles. collapses.

The three Rajapaksa resigned from their ministerial posts in April, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on Monday, angry protesters attacked the family’s home this week and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not been seen outside. its heavily guarded enclosure.


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

In his first address to the nation in about two months, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on Wednesday he would return more power to parliament – reversing an amendment he had implemented to strengthen the all-powerful executive presidential system. On Thursday, he appointed a new Prime Minister – unrelated.

But it may be too little, too late to put an end to the national protests demanding the ousting of the president, the last Rajapaksa still clinging to the national office.

“It is a crisis that he largely caused. He did not create the crisis from the beginning, but the Rajapaksas have come to embody the failings of our government structure with their nepotism, corruption and violations of human rights,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, at the reservoir in Colombo.

With prices soaring, fuel and food shortages and long power cuts, Sri Lankans have been protesting for weeks, calling on the two Rajapaksas to stand down. Violence erupted on Monday after Rajapaksa supporters clashed with protesters in a dramatic twist 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 was forced to take refuge at a heavily fortified naval base.

With his atypically dovish speech on Wednesday, it was clear that Gotabaya was “severely 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 it, Jayatilleka said, noting that Gotabaya had changed tactics to appear “flexible and pragmatic”.

“Gotabaya has a dualistic personality – one side of that personality that the country has seen is this one-sided and quite insensitive former military man,” Jayatilleka said. “But there is another side – a little more rational. But the most rational side was a very long vacation.

The Rajapaksa family have been involved in Sri Lankan politics for decades, with more recent focus on Mahinda, the president’s older brother.

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

The two won huge support among fellow Sinhala Buddhists for ending the 26-year civil war with 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, mostly ethnic Sinhalese. Hindus, mostly of Tamil descent, make up 12.6% of the population, while 9.7% are Muslims and 7.6% Christians.

Minority groups and international observers have accused the army of targeting civilians during the war and killing rebels and civilians who have surrendered in recent days. According to a UN report, around 40,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in the last few months of fighting alone.

Mahinda pushed through a constitutional change to allow him to run for a third presidential term and called elections in early 2015 to assert what he saw as an advantage, but was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena, who won support minorities with its 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 by infighting and dysfunction, on Easter Sunday 2019 Islamic extremists targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels in coordinated suicide bombings, killing hundreds of people.

Amid allegations that the Sirisena government had failed to act on intelligence information and a wave of Buddhist nationalism, Gotabaya Rajapaksa seized power in a landslide later that year.

“The bombs propelled him to victory in the 2019 elections,” Jayatilleka said. “The feeling was that we needed Gotabaya, we need his military experience.”

He appointed Mahinda prime minister and added two more 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 crisis triggered by a drop in tourism after the bombings and a slew of foreign debt from infrastructure projects, many of which were financed by lenders. Chinese money and ordered by Mahinda.

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

Unable to repay its debt on the project, Sri Lanka was forced to cede the facility and thousands of acres of land around it to Beijing for 99 years, giving China a key foothold just opposite India’s rival regional coastline.

With the economy already faltering, Gotabaya imposed the biggest tax cuts in Sri Lanka’s history, sparking a swift reaction as creditors downgraded the country’s ratings, preventing it from borrowing more of money as foreign exchange reserves fell.

The pandemic struck soon after, hitting tourism once again, the main source of foreign currency. A poorly executed import ban on chemical fertilizers in April 2021 made the situation worse by driving up prices before Gotabaya was forced to repeal it.

Compounding the problems this year, the war in Ukraine has driven up global food and oil prices. The central bank said inflation was 30% in April, with food prices up almost 50%.

With the economy now in tatters, protests have come from all sectors of society, including Sinhalese Buddhists.

“There is now public vilification of the Rajapaksa and it’s a noticeable change from what we were seeing before,” said Bhavani Fonseka, senior fellow at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

There is “genuine anger among people that it was the Rajapaksas who led to this crisis”.

Still, Jayatilleka suggested that if Gotabaya could appoint a new cabinet with popular support, he might be able to hold on to the job.

“If he assembles a government that looks somewhat new – not as heavy on the Rajapaksas as it was chock-full of – it might be more successful,” he said.

But Saravanamuttu said it was too late for a comeback.

“His constituency has turned against him so he no longer has a real power base in the country,” he said.

“The monks are turning against him as well as sections of the army 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.

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