Sri Lanka’s power family falls from grace as economy collapses

NEW DELHI (AP) — With a president brother, another prime minister and three other relatives in the cabinet, it seemed the Rajapaksa clan had solidified its grip on power in Sri Lanka after decades in and out of government.

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

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

But the family will not give up without a fight, ordering troops to fire on protesters causing injury to persons or property, instituting a nationwide curfew and reportedly encouraging mobs of their supporters to fight in the streets with the anti-government protesters.

In his first address to the nation in about two months, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said Wednesday that he would return more power to parliament, reversing an amendment he put in place to bolster the all-powerful executive presidential system. On Thursday he named a new, unrelated prime minister.

But it could be too little, too late to end the nationwide protests calling for the removal of the president, the last Rajapaksa still clinging to national office.

“This is a crisis largely of its making. He did not create the crisis in the first place, but the Rajapaksas have come to epitomize the flaws in our governance structure with their nepotism, corruption and human rights violations,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives. tank in Colombo.

With prices soaring, fuel and food shortages and prolonged power cuts, Sri Lankans have been protesting for weeks, calling for the resignation of both Rajapaksas. The violence erupted on Monday after Rajapaksa supporters clashed with protesters in a dramatic turn that led to Mahinda’s resignation. Nine people died and more than 200 were injured.

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

With his uncharacteristically conciliatory speech on Wednesday, it’s clear that Gotabaya has been “hit hard by the protests,” said Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat who served as Sri Lanka’s representative to the United Nations under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency.

Still, it may be too early to rule it out, Jayatilleka said, noting that Gotabaya had changed course to sound “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 ex-military man,” Jayatilleka said. “But there is another side, something 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, most recently focusing on Mahinda, the elder brother of the president.

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 emigrated to the United States, returned to become secretary of defense.

The two won huge 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 for 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 Muslims and 7.6% are Christians.

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

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

Mahinda Rajapaksa then unsuccessfully sought to become prime minister, and it seemed that the shine of the Rajapaksa name had faded.

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

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

“The bombs catapulted him to victory in the 2019 elections,” Jayatilleka said. “The feeling was that 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 that strengthens the power of his office at the expense of Parliament.

When Gotabaya took office, Sri Lanka was already in an economic recession caused by a drop in tourism after the attacks and a large amount of foreign debt from infrastructure projects, many financed with Chinese money and commissioned by Mahinda.

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

Unable to make debt payments on the project, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the facility and thousands of acres of land around it to Beijing for 99 years, giving China a key foothold right across the street. coast of India, its regional rival.

With the economy already reeling, Gotabaya pushed through the biggest tax cuts in Sri Lankan history, prompting a swift backlash, with creditors downgrading the country’s ratings, preventing it from borrowing more money as foreign exchange reserves shrink. they collapsed

The pandemic hit soon after, hitting tourism, a main source of foreign exchange, again. A poorly executed ban on importing chemical fertilizers in April 2021 made matters worse by driving up prices before Gotabaya was forced to overturn it.

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

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

“There is public smearing of the Rajapaksa now and that is a marked change from what we were seeing previously,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior fellow at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

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

Still, Jayatilleka suggested that if Gotabaya can name a new cabinet that commands popular support, he could hang on.

“If you put together a government that looks like something new, not as heavy on the Rajapaksas as it was full of them, that may be more successful,” he said.

But Saravanamuttu said it was too late for a comeback.

“His electorate 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 army because ordinary soldiers and their families are also suffering. Word on the street is that he has to go.”

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Increase reported from Bangkok.

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