Tragedy of Sri Lanka’s dynastic politics and blind public adoration

Author: Muniini K Mulera. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • Their gravest error is that they listen to their fawning, opportunistic court dancers and consider the sane cautionary voices of scribes and political opponents to be their enemies. Pity.

Dear Tingasiga:
 Sri Lanka, once a land of promise, is now in ruinous self-immolation. Its most powerful ruler, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a close friend of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni Tibuhaburwa, is discredited by the very people whose adoration once fueled his visions of deity.  
Like Uganda, Sri Lanka suffered many years of bloody civil war. Mahinda Rajapaksa, elected President of Sri Lanka in 2005, brought that war to an end by ordering a devastating military assault against the rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That decisive military operation was overseen by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a retired lieutenant colonel who was the Defence Secretary, a post to which he had been appointed by his brother.


There appeared to be a peace-dividend, with Sri Lanka recording excellent economic growth and Colombo, the capital, becoming the world’s fastest growing city during the period 2009 to 2015. However, in the words of Ranga Jayasuriya, a Sri Lankan journalist, “having won the war, Mahinda Rajapaksa was consumed by power”. The son of a former Member of Parliament and minister in the government of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known before May 22, 1972, Mahinda Rajapaksa used his power and popularity to turn his country into personal property. He did this with exceptionally brazen arrogance.  

The Rajapaksa family had dominated politics in their home District of Hambantota for decades. While they had also participated in national politics, they had never risen to the top national leadership until Mahinda was elected President. “They were buoyed up by the way Gotabaya had conducted and won the war, and by the effusive Sinhala ethnic nationalism that was generated by the war and the victory,” Dr Sam Musoke, a Ugandan Canadian that worked as an economic advisor to the Government of Sri Lanka for thirteen years, told me two days ago.  “The Rajapaksa family felt an entitlement and developed an impunity that was glaring in the face of their weak ability to govern and manage the country.”

Mahinda’s oldest brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, was elected speaker of parliament during the president’s second term. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was also the Minister of Defence and Urban Development, of Finance and Planning, of Law and Order and of Highways, Ports and Shipping. In addition to the post of Defense Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was made Head of the Urban Development Authority (UDA), an agency that had absolute power to requisition any land “in the interest of the state”. This power was used by the Rajapaksas and their cronies to acquire enormous tracts and parcels of land, including in the “liberated” Tamil areas. The president appointed his younger brother, Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development. Their sister, Preethi Rajapaksa, was made Chairperson of the Colombo Port Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other key government corporations.  Nirupama Rajapaksa, the president’s niece, was appointed deputy minister of water supply and drainage.
Other relatives or close friends of the family were installed in bodies like the Central bank and the Board of Investment. A nephew became the director of the government-owned Sri Lankan Airlines. At the same time, Mahinda’s brother-in-law was the chairman of the board of directors of Sri Lankan Airlines. 

Another cousin of the president became the chairperson of the Airport and Aviation Services. The president’s cousin was made ambassador to the USA, and another cousin was appointed ambassador to Russia. (The US Government asked Rajapaksa to withdraw his cousin because he was allegedly entangled in money laundering schemes. He recently pleaded guilty to embezzling $332,000 from funds that had been meant to acquire a new site for his country’s embassy in Washington DC.)

In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in a Presidential Election after a rebellion from within his party. The new government was weak. In the 2019 Presidential Election, the family fielded Gotabaya Rajapaksa to run for President.  He won the election and appointed his brother Mahinda (the former President) as Prime Minister. Brother Basil Rajapaksa was now appointed Minister of Finance. Brother Chamal Rajapaksa was now made minister for irrigation. Mahinda’s son, Namal Rajapaksa, was made Minister of Youth and Sports, including control over the financially lucrative Sri Lanka Cricket Board.  Yositha Rajapaksa, another son of the prime minister, became his chief of staff. More Rajapaksa family members populated senior civil service posts, parliament, and provincial governments.

Less than three years into the latest phase of the Rajapaksa Dynasty, Sri Lanka lies in economic ruin, with basic food items scarce, hospitals out of medicine, lines for fuel stretching for blocks, and inflation at 40 percent. Protests and riots forced the prime minister to resign two weeks ago, but his brother, the president, is hanging on to power. Meanwhile, the country’s usable foreign reserves, reported to have been $7.9 billion at the end of 2019, have dropped below $25 million. This in a country of 22 million people, and a foreign debt of $51 billion, $7 billion of which was supposed to be paid in August this year. Sri Lanka has now officially suspended payment of its debts.

“The wave of anger gripping the country is as much about the Rajapaksa Dynasty as it is about the economic disaster,” Dr. Musoke told me. “The Rajapaksas have been undone by what their own allies call incompetence and denial of reality, and failure to set goals that benefit the nation. Many have described the root of the crisis as the impunity that the political and military elite enjoyed after a civil war, rife with accusations of crimes against Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils and looting of the country’s resources.”

Dr. Musoke continued: “The war’s end initiated a majoritarian triumphalism that was exploited by the Rajapaksas. This triumphalism concealed the deeper economic troubles and caused the family and crony dominated government not to pay attention to basic needs of the people as well as the need for reconciliation and healing after the war.”
So, one family, persuaded that they were the anointed of God, the only ones with the right stuff to govern Sri Lanka, have brought their country to its knees. The Rajapaksas have turned their beautiful country, known as the “Teardrop of India”, into an angry tsunami that may well consume them.

Ranga Jayasuriya distilled it beautifully: “A full-blown dynastic enterprise that Mahinda Rajapaksa so meticulously designed is now in ruins. Rajapaksa is not alone; Hosni Mubarak, Muamar Gaddafi, Suharto et al groomed their offspring to inherit the thrones, and when the good times ended, destiny had a different calling for them. Most third world tin pot dictators think and behave the same way. When they fall from grace, they all tend to have a hard, and often fatal, landing.”

Their gravest error is that they listen to their fawning, opportunistic court dancers and consider the sane cautionary voices of scribes and political opponents to be their enemies. Pity.

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer.     [email protected]