A family affair: how Gotabaya Rajapaksa ruled Sri Lanka through fear and favour

With the Sri Lankan president fleeing to the Maldives, New Internationalist examines his modus operandi – and how he rose to the top of a powerful dynasty

Amid the country's economic crisis,
protesters call for Rajapaksa's resignation outside the parliament building in Colombo.
April 5, 2022.
Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lankan politics is a cosy world, and nothing embodies it better than the presence of the Rapjapaksa family at its top. This band of brothers has combined feudalism in politics and neo-liberalism in economics.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa swept to victory in the 2019 presidential election, having previously served in the government of his older brother Mahinda. He immediately appointed Mahinda prime minister. Two other brothers, Chamal (former speaker of the House) and Basil (former finance minister), ensure a clubbable atmosphere in the island’s parliament. But the events of recent days show that Sri Lanka is showing definite signs of Rajapaksa fatigue – as runaway debt, inflation and inequality portend a generalized economic collapse in the country. The sacrifice of Mahinda in May was not enough to stem the country’s new-found appetite for toppling the entire Rajapaksa band. Demands for Gotabaya’s resignation escalated into the storming of the presidential palace and even joyous celebrations in Gotabaya’s personal swimming pool. On Tuesday he finally fled Sri Lanka on a military jet to the Maldives.

The family has its roots and landed wealth in the paddy and coconut plantations along the south coast of Sri Lanka. They first became involved in Sri Lankan politics back in the 1930s, and with one brief hiatus have turned the Hambantota district into a family fiefdom – and a springboard for national politics – ever since. As with most contemporary ethnonationalist populists, they rose to power attacking the shortcomings of neoliberal elites while embracing ethnic chauvinism: in this case, Sinhalese supremacy over minority Tamils and Muslims. The Rajapaksa brand also seeks the votes of rural Sri Lankans by railing against a liberal elite in the capital. Sound familiar?

The Rajapaksa clan’s recent political traction followed Sri Lanka’s nationalist polarization and the brutal defeat of the Tamil Tigers after a 26-year civil war in 2009 – in which family members played key roles. Gotabaya in particular was lionized as a warrior-in-chief defence minister under his brother’s government. In the course of the final confrontation, he led the Sri Lankan military in a campaign of uncompromising repression against the Tamil north. Controversy still surrounds how many tens of thousands of Tamil civilians either died or disappeared in the so-called ‘no-fire zone’ in 2009. While most Tamil opinion still paints the 73-year-old Gotabaya as a war criminal responsible for genocide, to the Sinhalese majority sick of the war and the troublesome Tigers he became a national hero. He used this prestige to launch his presidential campaign. Despite taking early retirement from the military, he never loses an opportunity to flout his rank as Lieutenant-Colonel.

The Rajapaksas never tire of nationalist puffery, and frequently trumpet their willingness to defy the West and embrace Chinese income streams. But, like many conservative nationalists, they work both sides of the street. Although Gotabaya had to resign his US citizenship to run for president, he lived there for many years working for US corporations and still has a son living under the star-spangled banner.

What a family stranglehold it is. As well as the brothers, one nephew has served as a cabinet member, another the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, another still a junior minister – not to mention a fourth in the parliament. According to some estimates, about 75 per cent of the budget is under the control of Rajapaksa ministers. The family is rumoured to be worth over $18 billion. Their failure to adequately deal with the foreign exchange crisis and their ill thought-out ban on agrochemicals imports is hitting ordinary Sri Lankans hard, with soaring food prices and crippling power blackouts. Little wonder that thousands of demonstrators took up the chant ‘No Rajapaksa should be there’ and are demanding an end not just to Gotabaya’s presidency but to the family’s dynastic grip on power. The Rajapaksas’ working class support – along with that of rural farmers – has been the bedrock of their political success. With that fast evaporating, will they attempt a come-back – or is playtime finally over?

Sources: Bloomberg; Defend Democracy Press; Al Jazeera; The-Quest; DailyMirror; Forbes; The New York Times.

This article was adapted from Hall of Infamy in NI538