For years, Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa dynasty ruled the island nation with an iron fist, striking fear into political opponents, journalists and other perceived threats to its power. Now the protesters are driving them from their homes and from power.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, is set to resign on Wednesday after months of street protests over rising prices and shortages of basic goods such as food or gasoline. After spending time holed up in his official seaside residence, protesters chanting “Gota Go Home” forced him to flee Saturday as they broke down the complex’s gates in dramatic scenes.
The riots showed public fury at Rajapaksa, whose three-year administration has left Sri Lanka begging for cash from the International Monetary Fund and nations including China and India after defaulting on foreign debt for the first time since independence from Britain. in 1948. Bondholders are furious, too: One last month named the Rajapaksas in a lawsuit seeking more than $250 million in unpaid debts, the first of potentially many others.
However, it was not just the protesters who wanted Rajapaksa out of office: even other members of his family saw him as a lame leader. And one in particular, his nephew Namal Rajapaksa, 36, has already been thinking about how the dynasty can restore its long-term reputation, even as increasingly violent protests have some observers wondering if the whole family would be seen. forced into exile. .
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In a recent interview at the ruling party’s office in Colombo, which was vandalized by a mob during the May 9 violence, Namal said Gotabaya “should complete his term and then leave.” He described the family’s current situation as a “temporary setback,” adding that the goal now was to “provide as much stability as we can to address people’s basic needs and work on long-term strategies in the meantime.”
Namal is the eldest son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, the brother of the current president who previously held the top job from 2005 to 2015. With Gotabaya as his defense minister during that time, Mahinda crushed a three-decade insurgency by the Tamil rebels using brutal tactics prompting widespread concerns about civilian deaths. At the same time, the brothers tried to crush political opposition and racked up billions of dollars in debt, mostly to China.
Although the Rajapaksas lost power in the dramatic 2015 elections, they came back with a bang four years later, with Gotabaya as president and Mahinda as prime minister. But a series of political blunders combined with the pandemic soon led to food and fuel shortages that triggered mass protests, ultimately leading Mahinda to resign as prime minister in May.
That decision drove a wedge between the brothers, according to people familiar with the situation, who said Mahinda had for weeks resisted Gotabaya’s calls to step aside before relenting. Of the six Rajapakas in the cabinet at the beginning of the year, Gotabaya was the last one standing, and he will soon be gone.
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The tensions between the brothers reflect their different leadership styles, according to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank.
“Mahinda is a populist politician who people still love,” Saravanamuttu said. “But Gota is a much more reserved and introverted person, and he has no government experience.”
While fighting in public had once been rare for the Rajapaksas, they are now pointing fingers at each other.
In an interview last month at his official residence now occupied by protesters, Gotabaya acknowledged that sweeping tax cuts and a fertilizer ban put in place shortly after he took office did not work. But he characterized those failures as collective, saying his push for an International Monetary Fund bailout last year was rebuffed by advisers and relatives until the protests spiraled out of control.
“I did not get the proper support or implementation from the responsible people,” Gotabaya said, adding that he would not run for president again after his term expires in 2024.
Namal said his father disagreed on whether to implement sweeping tax cuts and urged Gotabaya not to go ahead with an ill-timed ban on synthetic fertilizers. “If my father had been president, he would never have made that decision,” Namal said. Mahinda did not respond to requests for comment.
No matter who is responsible, the Rajapaksas are facing an all-time low and need a rebrand. And Namal is positioning himself as the main person of the next generation to take over.
During the interview, Namal spoke in a measured and calm voice like an experienced politician. A bodybuilding aficionado, the former sports minister wore a short-sleeved T-shirt that exposed part of his biceps.
Namal made it clear that his policies would be more in line with his father’s than his uncle’s. Sri Lanka’s problem, he said, was that he deviated from a plan to turn Sri Lanka into a manufacturing and transshipment hub. He also saw the need to improve airports to attract more tourists and improve agricultural production so that the country would have enough supplies to feed itself.
He acknowledged his family’s history in the corridors of power, but also said he doesn’t believe in “dynastic politics.”
“My father started 55 years ago in Hambantota, I started five years ago, it’s a long journey in politics,” Namal said. “This is a losing streak, so he deal with it and move on.”
In the Hambantota district on the south coast, the family’s power base for decades, the political fate of the Rajapaksa remains in question. Armed soldiers patrol outside his sprawling ancestral bungalow, which was reduced to charred rubble in May. Locals also destroyed a museum built in honor of the family, vandalizing their graves and toppling a golden statue depicting a family hero.
The family’s connection to Hambantota goes back decades. DA Rajapaksa, the father of Mahinda and Gotabaya, was a prominent legislator. Relatives have houses scattered throughout the district. Nuan Sameera, 60, a farmer from Hukura Wallya village, fondly recalled how Mahinda used to frequent a nearby temple and mingle with the locals.
“They are part of us,” Sameera said, even as she criticized the Rajapaksas for food and fertilizer shortages.
Rajapaksa critics associate Hambantota with the clan’s extravagant spending habits. An international airport built a decade ago in his name is devoid of passenger flights. A sprawling cricket stadium barely hosts international matches. And cargo ships barely dock at a billion-dollar port built with Chinese money.
Still, Mahinda remains popular in Hambantota, a largely agrarian district nestled amid watery paddy fields and coconut palms. Sunil Rajapaksa, a farmer who is not related to the family but lives near one of his houses, said he would not be surprised if Namal led the dynasty into a new era.
“If Bongbong Marcos could come back, why not the Rajapaksas?” he said, referring to the son of a former dictator who just won the presidency in the Philippines. “It is only a matter of time before people realize that the Rajapaksas worked to improve the country.”
Namal is clear on one thing: she has no plans to flee Sri Lanka no matter how bad things get.
“We will never leave the country, it will never happen,” he said. “If people don’t want us, they have the ballot, not the bullet.”