After months of protests under the slogan ‘Gota, go home’, which united a fractured country, the fall of the Rajapaksa family was as sudden and spectacular as it was unexpected. A feared dynasty that had controlled Sri Lanka for two decades, and had been among the ruling elite since Ceylon’s independence in 1948, was swept from power in days, even prompting comparisons with the French revolution.
Leading a government that included eight Rajapaksas, who between them controlled a quarter of Sri Lanka’s budget, were three brothers: Gotabaya, the president; Mahinda, a former president and prime minister; and Basil, the finance minister (who claimed he really ran the country). They had leveraged their brutal crushing of the Tamil Tiger rebellion – and indiscriminate killing of civilians – to expand their power (dismissing the supreme court’s chief justice and abolishing constitutional term limits in 2014), fanning Sinhalese nationalism along the way, and using torture and death squads to cement their grip.
But Gotabaya, a former army officer, ended up fleeing the country during the night as tens of thousands of protesters converged on the presidential palace; he had to wield his executive powers to commandeer a military plane to escape to the Maldives after officials at the airport tried to stop him leaving. Back at the palace – the former British governors’ residence during colonial rule – protesters were swimming in the pool and posing for photos at his desk. There was ‘an atmosphere of joy and disbelief, with a bit of absurdity and a bit of comedy thrown in,’ said the New York Times, which called it ‘a very Sri Lankan sort of revolution, relatively low-key and polite’.
But how did Sri Lanka, a country that was classified as an upper-middle income country in 2019, deteriorate to the level where the UN World Food Programme had to step in with emergency food aid? With the stock market booming after the civil war ended in 2009, the Rajapaksa government borrowed more than $6bn – particularly from China, which was heavily invested in the Rajapaksa family as much as in Sri Lanka – to pay for vanity infrastructure projects, such as Hambantota port and Mattala Rajapaksa airport.
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But years of bad bets, catastrophic decisions such as cutting taxes and banning chemical fertilisers, and economic mismanagement under Basil led to a default on $51bn of debt in April and talks with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout. By June the currency had collapsed, inflation had reached a record 55% and interest rates were at a two-decade high of 15.5%. It left the country unable to import petrol, cooking gas, medicines and other essentials.
The break with the Rajapaksa era after their humiliating downfall seemed complete: with Mahinda and Basil banned from leaving Sri Lanka by the supreme court and Gotabaya resigning the presidency by email from Singapore (refusing to relinquish power until he was abroad), where the International Truth and Justice Project, a human rights group, filed a criminal complaint seeking the former president’s arrest for his role in alleged abuses during the civil war in 2009, when he was defence minister, and in ‘disappearances’ in 1989.
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History’s verdict will not be kind: ‘Gotabaya was a very poor politician. He surrounded himself with charlatans,’ said Alan Keenan, of the International Crisis Group. ‘Just barked orders at people. He was incapable of charming anyone, cutting deals or changing course in time. The Rajapaksa brand is pretty much trashed for a long time, if not forever.’ Even support in their hometown, where the family also spent state funds lavishly (on more white elephants, such as an almost unused cricket stadium) has melted away, with a statue of the dynasty’s patriarch toppled by a mob.
And yet the person chosen by MPs to replace Gotabaya was Ranil Wickremesinghe, representing the power of the establishment over pressure for change from the street. Nephew of a former president and six times prime minister, he had been the Rajapaksas’ most recent PM and was so closely identified with the former ruling family that protesters had set his house on fire. Confirming his role as the continuity candidate, Wickremesinghe immediately imposed a state of emergency, accused the protesters of being ‘fascists’, and appointed a Rajapaksa ally as prime minister. Leaders of the protests, such as the social media activist Pathum Kerner, have been arrested.
Noting that his United National Party, the country’s oldest, had won a mere 3% of the vote in 2020’s parliamentary elections, an editorial in Sri Lanka’s Daily FT was dismissive of Wickremesinghe, saying he had ‘no popular mandate’ and had ‘won the presidency by proxy’, returned to power by the votes of MPs of the Rajapaksas’ SLPP party, which had been ‘discredited in the public eye, along with the president it brought to power’.
His own cousin Rajiva Wijesinha, a former minister himself, was even more contemptuous, telling the New York Times: ‘He’s been desperate for it for centuries. He would do anything to get it, and so he allowed himself to become a tool of the Rajapaksas – through his own manoeuvring.’
Wickremesinghe was too close to the old regime, warned the Fitch ratings agency, which noted that Wickremesinghe’s role as former PM to the Rajapaksas ‘may increase the risk of further destabilising protests if economic conditions do not improve and/or reforms generate public opposition’.
The Spectator’s correspondent was equally pessimistic, saying that ‘when problems are structural, revolutions often herald a moment of hope, followed by more of the same’. Ahilan Kadirgamar, of Jaffna University, told the New Yorker that it was ‘a revolt and not yet a revolution’, noting that the demands on the street were to oust the Rajapaksas rather than overturn the social order.
But while the protesters may not be revolutionaries, they do want systemic change, such as abolishing the executive presidency. Wickremesinghe must address these demands from the street or he may find himself chased out of power like his predecessor. Kadirgamar sees Sri Lanka poised to either ‘go in a progressive direction, of addressing the concerns of the people, further democratisation, equality and freedom in terms of inter-ethnic relations’. Or, he warns, it could ‘lead to a very worrying, polarised, authoritarian, almost fascist rule’.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board