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Explained: The Rajapaksa clan in Sri Lanka politics

In South Asia, no other political dynasty has been as confidently nepotistic. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President from 2010-15, there were said to be more than 40 Rajapaksa family members in government posts, apart from the cabinet.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | New Delhi |
Updated: April 8, 2022 1:03:21 pm
Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka crisis, Sri Lanka Economic crisis, Sri Lanka news, World news, Indian express, Indian express news, current affairsSri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa (File)

The Rajapaksa family, whose members include Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister and President, hails from Hambantota district in the south. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brothers Chamal, PM Mahinda, and Basil are third-generation politicians, while the fourth generation is represented by Mahinda and Chamal’s sons Namal, Yositha and Shashindra.

In South Asia, no other political dynasty has been as confidently nepotistic. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President from 2010-15, there were said to be more than 40 Rajapaksa family members in government posts, apart from the cabinet. Many of them faced enquiries for financial fraud after Mahinda’s government was voted out. Basil, who is also a US citizen, was arrested, and his wife and eldest daughter were questioned.

Under the leadership of Gotabaya and Mahinda, the Rajapaksa clan has taken charge of 11 ministries. Other family members have been accommodated in the PM and President’s secretariat. At least one holds a diplomatic post as consul general in Los Angeles.

The beginnings

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In the country’s first parliament, to which elections were held in the months before Sri Lanka’s independence in February 1948, there were two Rajapaksas. One of them was the father of the present President and Prime Minister. A founding member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP), Don Alwin Rajapaksa was a two-time parliamentarian. At the time, the party was in the hands of another founding member, the Oxford-educated S W R D Banadaranaike, scion of a wealthy family from the outskirts of Colombo. After his assassination in 1959, his wife Sirimavo took charge.

The Rajapaksa family tree

Mahinda & Gotabaya

When Chandrika Kumaratunga inherited the leadership of the SLFP from Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1994, Mahinda Rajapaksa had already spent over two decades in politics. But he was no challenge to Kumaratunga’s leadership, biding his time as a cabinet minister during her two terms as President. Other family members were in politics too, notably elder brother Chamal and cousin Nirupama.

His candidacy in the 2005 presidential election came after Kumaratunga stepped down from politics. Mahinda’s determined bid for a military defeat of the LTTE was led by his defence secretary, Gotabaya. After the 2009 victory in which thousands of Tamil civilians were killed or went missing, there was no looking back for the Rajapaksas. Led by the brothers, Sri Lanka embarked on a militarisation of the Sinahalese-Buddhist majority. That was also when Mahinda inducted two score and more family members into various positions. There was large-scale corruption. Journalists began to fear for their lives after the killing of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.

That was also when the Rajapaksas embraced China — Beijing had been a friend from the days of Sirimavo — for a huge infrastructure push. The Hambantota port was inaugurated in 2011, the country was connected by new Chinese built expressways, and, in 2014, a Chinese submarine stopped over at Colombo port, setting alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.

India’s insistence on a political solution for the Tamils got little traction in Colombo, and the DMK’s presence in the UPA meant the then government took an unfriendly stand at the UN Human Rights Council. When Mahinda was defeated in the 2015 presidential elections, he would blame it on India’s R&AW. His bid to become PM failed when the fractured SLFP lost the parliamentary election.

The comeback & now

Mahinda began his comeback with local elections in 2018. President Mathripala Sirisena, fearful of Mahinda’s return, sacked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed his old boss Mahinda as PM. The new arrangement did not last, but Wickremesinghe stepped down a few months after being reinstated. Mahinda formed a caretaker government.

Gotabaya won the 2019 presidential election hands down. Mahinda won the parliamentary election in mid-2020 with a two-thirds majority. But their government failed to anticipate the severity of the crisis. From the heights of popularity, the Rajapaksas are now staring at the nadir of their political careers.

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