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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The hand of the Rajapaksas

They were the most powerful political clan in Sri Lanka until the recent crisis spun out of control leading to Mahinda Rajapaksa stepping down as PM and paving the way for Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mahinda has gone. But has he? Nirupama Subramanian traces the arc of Sri Lanka’s complex political history and finds that it could be hard to keep the Rajapaksas down for too long

Written by Nirupama Subramanian |
Updated: May 16, 2022 7:34:09 am
A vandalised portrait of Mahinda Rajapaksa outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP)

“It’s up to the people. People are electing (the Rajapaksas).What can I do about it? When they don’t want them, they will kick them out, all Rajapaksas will be kicked out.” So said Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2013 to an interviewer from Al Jazeera who asked him if he was building Rajapaksa family rule in Sri Lanka. He was then President and so powerful that he just laughed out his reply, confident it would never happen.

It did. On May 9, he felt the full force of that kick, quite different from the one he got from the electorate in 2015 when he was booted out as President and lost that year’s parliamentary polls too. This time, compelled by younger brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down from the prime ministership as the family’s sacrificial offering to the public call asking Gotabaya and the entire Rajapaksa clan to “go home”, a vengeful Mahinda first met party cadre who pleaded with him not to leave, and then made no attempt to prevent them as they set out to unleash violence against GoGotaGo protesters at Colombo’s Galle Face Green.

In the violence that followed across the country, anti-government mobs torched the Rajapaksa home in their home district of Hambantota, and the homes of their loyalists at other places. Even Temple Trees, the official home of the Prime Minister, seemed vulnerable. By then, Mahinda had stepped down as PM. As checkpoints manned by civilians sprang up to prevent him  from fleeing the country, it emerged that Mahinda and several members of his family had fled to Trincomalee Naval Base. The Defence Ministry later said as a former President, Mahinda was entitled to the maximum security the State could provide.

It appeared that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dream run had finally come to an ignominious end, that too, a week ahead of the 13th anniversary of the military defeat of the LTTE, the well-spring of his popular appeal for over a decade.

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But is this the end of the Rajapaksa political dynasty? The question is still wide open.

In the widespread alarm at how a peaceful protest against the government turned within minutes into arson and killings, the political establishment was jolted into action to fill a vacuum that had existed since mid-March. Until then, no one had appeared eager to form an interim government of “national unity” that the President repeatedly offered to Opposition, even after he got his Cabinet to resign.

Swiftly, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had told The Indian Express in April that the street protests were Sri Lanka’s Arab Spring moment, “but we have to avoid an Arab Spring  ending [chaos, bloodshed and economic ruin] ”, accepted President Rajapaksa’s invitation to become Prime Minister despite being in a minority of one in Parliament — in the 2020 parliamentary election, his United National Party was unable to win a single seat after a bruising split just before the election. Ranil took the lone parliament seat the party got on the basis of its single digit vote share. In the same interview, Wickremesinghe said he was “staying out” because “you need numbers to form a government”. But circumstances had clearly changed.

Gotabaya remains the President, the only Rajapaksa in office right now, though GoGotaGo, the slogan that has resounded through the streets against the ruling family, is a call for him to step down. It is unclear what assurances Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has received from Gotabaya on the executive presidency when he accepted the appointment, and what he has promised in return.

Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in on May 12, was twice before sacked by a president, the executive and the real centre of power in the Sri Lankan system. His 2015-18 government passed an amendment trimming powers of the president, but the Rajapaksas overwrote it with another amendment. President Rajapaksa has indicated he is willing to consider a roll back, but in his public pronouncements, Wickremesinghe has indicated that it is the economy, not reforming the executive presidency, that is his main concern.

From Mahinda’s point of view, Wickremesinghe, as the only member of the UNP in parliament, is dependent on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Rajapakse political party, to form the government. Power acts as a magnet, so Wickremesinghe may also win back members of his UNP who left in 2020 to join rebel leader Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), now the single largest Opposition group in Parliament. Premadasa had imposed several conditions for joining the interim government, including a time bound plan for abolition of the executive presidency. He believed if he waited, he would get his way. Instead he found himself outwitted by his arch enemy, Ranil. The new PM may also be able to entice other Opposition groups that were part of the ruling coalition but had declared themselves independent when the protests broke out, or indiviudals within these groups.

But the bulk of Wickremesinghe’s support will have to come from the Rajapaksas’ discredited SLPP. On Saturday, the SLPP formally offered its support, claiming to have boosted Wickremesinghe’s parliamentary strength to117, just over the halfway mark of 113.   Thus parliamentarians, who owe their political career to Mahinda, will adorn Wickremesinghe’s cabinet. Mahinda may no longer be in charge, but it appears he will remain relevant.

The appointment has shocked and disappointed those who have been demanding that President Gotabaya must resign, hoping for deeper change instead of a rearrangement.

“This is business as usual. This is Sri Lankan political culture trying to squash the nascent revolt against the ‘old ways’, i.e. self interest disguised as ‘pragmatism’,” tweeted Ambika Satkunanathan, an activist and chair of Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, a rights advocacy group.

Sri Lanka’s history in the first two decades of the new millennium is largely the history of the rise of the Rajapaksas. Their big comeback in 2018-2019 after a humiliating defeat just four years earlier offers insights into tenacity of a political dynasty that is arguably South Asia’s biggest, perhaps its most brazenly nepotistic, one that cannot be written off even now.

Mahinda’s rise to power began in 2004, when he was appointed prime minister during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike. The former President once said it had been her biggest mistake. He was unstoppable after that. After winning the 2005 presidential election, it was Rajapaksa who made the decision to launch an all-out war in the north and east against the LTTE, with his brother Gotabaya playing a key role as the Defence Secretary.

That victory strengthened the Rajapaksa grip on power. In the Sinahlese south, Mahinda and Gotabaya ascended to god-like levels in the eyes of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community for freeing them from the terror of the LTTE. Mahinda won a second term, had the Constitution amended to remove the two-term bar, and was confident he would be president for life. But he had begun taking voters for granted and his arrogance had begun to grate.

Continuing as Mahinda’s defence secretary, Gotabaya became a parallel power centre, wielding influence through fear. He had even given his office a regal touch, his throne-like chair placed at a level above those of his visitors in a statement of power.

On his watch, dozens of people who were known critics of the government were abducted, some never to be seen again. Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of The Sunday Leader was killed in 2009. Prageeth Ekneligoda, a cartoonist, who went missing in 2010, has not been seen since. This was also the time when the Rajapaksas gave free reign to the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist extremist group that triggered several incidents of anti-Muslim violence.

The spoils system had space for the other Rajapaksas too. Their youngest brother Basil was minister in charge of economic development, and controlled all investments in Sri Lanka. Chamal, the eldest, was Speaker. At the time, according to an estimate, as many as 40 Rajapaksas held one office or the other, and between them, controlled most of the government’s finances. Under their grip, media freedoms suffered.

Internationally, Mahinda’s proximity to China began to worry Delhi at a time the regional giant had begun making inroads into India’s south Asian neighbours. The US, too, was concerned about China’s growing claims in the Indian Ocean region. There was also concern that Rajapaksa regime had shelved post-war reconciliation with the Tamil community.

An unforeseen challenge to Mahinda’s candidacy in the 2015 presidential election came from within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that he headed at the time, leading to his shock defeat to the uncharismatic Maithripala Sirisena. A thrashing in the parliamentary elections that followed proved his defeat was no accident. But sensing that Sirisena would fall out with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, whose UNP and Colombo elite background were cheese to the chalk of President Sirisena’s more modest hinterland upbringing and his discomfort with Sri Lanka’s English-spouting class, Rajapaksa began plotting his comeback.

With Basil’s help, Mahinda launched the Sri Lanka Peramuna Podujana, rattling the government with a massive win in the local elections. Immediately, most of the SLFP that had bandwagoned with Sirisena, started reaching out to the former boss. The Sirisena-Wickremsinghe government would finally collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, its failure cruelly evident in the inability to prevent the 2019 Easter Day terrorist attacks.

Later that year Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be voted in as President — after he reluctantly gave up his American citizenship to qualify as a candidate — on the back of people’s fears that terrorism would return to Sri Lanka.

Mahinda, who could not contest the 2019 presidential election because the two-term bar had been restored by the previous government, led his party to a landslide win in the parliamentary election, and became Prime Minister. Basil, who refused to give up his American citizenship to be able to contest the election, joined the government after the ruling SLLP brought in an amendment that among other things, removed the condition that those with dual citizenship cannot contest elections, enabling him to take a nominated seat.

Between the brothers, Mahinda is the politician, Basil the organiser , and Chamal the  quiet elder. Gotabaya believed his planning of military strategies against the LTTE, and later the much praised beautification of the capital city, equipped him to run a country. Until Gotabaya goofed it up with his ill-informed tax cuts and his sudden edict to farmers to switch to organic farming — which together with the pandemic resulted in unprecedented economic pain of the kind Sri Lanka had never known before — Mahinda’s plan was to groom his son Namal for the ultimate prize in Sri Lankan politics: the presidency.

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But of all four brothers, it is Gotabaya who is still standing, defying a protest that began as, and still is, a call for him to go. According to those who have interacted with Rajapaksa family members recently, relations between the brothers have been tense over which of them could be let go to appease protesters.

A heavy drinker until a few years ago, Mahinda has been in bad health, reportedly with a serious kidney ailment. Those who have met him in recent months say he appeared barely coherent or focussed. A great believer in Hindu gods, including Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati, his wrist covered with all manner of holy threads, Mahinda is also reported to have a personal occult adviser. On a recent TV appearance, he was seen clutching a string of beads as he addressed the nation on the crisis. Mahinda may still hope to oversee the transition to the next generation of Rajapaksas. The return of his 73-year-old friend Wickremesinghe from political wilderness to head a government powered by his party, may have reinforced his belief that in politics, there are no closed doors.

Wickremesinghe had once believed he would go down in history as the leader who ended the country’s civil war. His UNP’s urban constituencies were deeply unhappy with how the war was affecting the economy. When he became Prime Minister at the end of 2001, Sri Lanka had experienced negative growth of 1.4 per cent. Having determined correctly that LTTE was a war machine, Wickremesinghe was determined to break it by denying it war.

As a first step, he signed off on a Norway-brokered ceasefire with the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran (the two did not come face-to-face for this), and was prepared to put the Tigers in charge of an interim administration in the North and East. The ceasefire did bring in foreign financial inflows. But his ambitious plans were cut short when Kumaratunga, unhappy with the terms of the ceasefire and at being kept out, exercised her powers as President and sacked him before any of this came to fruition.

Now, as the new Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe has another chance at going down in history as the leader who steered Sri Lanka’s economy back on course from its worst ever crisis. In established business and political elites, there is a sigh of relief that Wickremesinghe, considered a safe pair of hands when it comes to the economy, is back in charge. In interviews, he has said that as Prime Minister from 2015-2018, he had done much to stabilise Sri Lanka’s economy which was in bad shape when he took over. He negotiated a $1.5 bn package from the IMF, implementing a set of reforms in return for the bailout.

For India, his return to the helm is a welcome development. Many Indian projects in Sri Lanka that saw the light of day between January to March this year had been agreed upon in 2017. Though the 2015-2018 government ended in disappointment for Delhi, Wickremesinghe is viewed as easier to work with than any of the Rajapaksas.

With four decades in public life, the well-read Ranil is far less insular than many other Sri Lankan politicians. He is also the quintessential establishment man. He may even see this as a chance to become the President, an office he has always coveted but never managed to win. “The young people protesting on the streets were demanding a system change. Now they have a Prime Minister who is the system himself,” said a lawyer who did not wish to be named.

But his moody leadership of the party, and poor success rate at winning elections has diminished the UNP. Even as he focuses on economic repair, Wickremesinghe will be watched by the people of Sri Lanka for how he deals with the Rajapaksas. In his last term from 2015-2018, Wickremesinghe was criticised for dragging his feet on action against the Rajapaksas on charges of corruption and money laundering. Adding to the discontent over the new arrangement, rumours are swirling in Colombo that Wickremesinghe may allow the brothers and their families to leave the country. The protests at Colombo’s Galle Face Green demanding Gotabaya’s resignation are ongoing.

In his first remarks to the press, Wickremsinghe triggered much speculation by saying the GoGotaGo protesters would be allowed to continue camping at GoGotaGama (gama is is the Sinhalese word for Village) at the Galle Face Green, outside the presidential secretariat. Some of the protests have now shifted to the road outside Temple Trees. The new camp site is called NoDealGama.

It’s not over yet.

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