Sri Lanka economic crisis: The all-powerful Rajapaksas under fire

Public anger over the worsening crisis is directed towards the clan, which has held sway over the island nation’s politics for decades.

Sri Lanka Protest
People dressed as Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, right, and his brothers, Finance Minister Basil, left, and PM Mahinda walk during a protest against the economic crisis in Colombo [File: Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo]

Anger is boiling over in Sri Lanka at the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, much of it directed at the island nation’s all-powerful Rajapaksa family.

Late on Thursday, hundreds of people tried to storm the home of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the current president and one of four politically active brothers. In a night of violence, one person was injured and at least 45 others were arrested.

The AFP news agency profiles the clan, which has held sway over the nation’s politics for decades and which returned to power after a brief hiatus in 2019 when Gotabaya was elected president.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka''s newly appointed Prime Minister Rajapaksa
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, is the charismatic head of the group and the current prime minister. He previously held the post in 2004, and was then president from 2005 to 2015.

Gotabaya appointed him to the prime ministership a second time three years ago.

Mahinda is adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for crushing separatist Tamil rebels in May 2009 following a brutal military offensive that ended a decades-long civil war.

The bloody final weeks of the civil war ended with – according to estimates by the United Nations – the deaths of about 40,000 civilians, who were herded into so-called no-fire zones that were then bombed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Rajapaksa denied the death toll and refused an international inquiry into alleged atrocities. A series of local inquiries have failed to yield either a proper war crimes investigation or prosecutions.

During his rule, Sri Lanka also moved closer to China, borrowing almost $7bn for infrastructure projects, many of which turned into white elephants mired in corruption.

Critics say he also did little to bridge the divide with Sri Lanka’s Tamils after the war. The community is barred from commemorating their war dead and remains largely marginalised.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Rajapaksa, 72, was Mahinda’s main lieutenant during his time as the head of state, holding the influential post of secretary to the Ministry of Defence with day-to-day control of the armed forces and police.

He denies accusations that he was behind death squads that abducted and “disappeared” dozens of opponents in notorious white vans.

Dubbed “The Terminator” by his own family, he is feared by foes for his short temper.

As president, he has presided over Sri Lanka’s spiralling economic crisis.

A dire shortage of foreign currency – needed to pay down Sri Lanka’s debt – forced the government to ban swaths of imports, causing severe shortages of essentials.

Sri Lanka’s heavily tourism-dependent economy was first hit by the Easter Sunday serial blasts of 2019 and then torpedoed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many experts say that economic mismanagement by the Rajapaksas is also to blame, including years of chronic budget deficits and ill-advised tax cuts.

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa

basil rajapaksa
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Basil Rajapaksa, 70, is a political strategist who managed the economy under Mahinda and is now the finance minister.

He was called “Mr Ten Percent” in a BBC interview in reference to commissions he allegedly took from government contracts.

Subsequent administrations failed to prove any charges he siphoned millions of dollars from state coffers. All cases against him have been dropped since Gotabaya became president.

Minister Chamal Rajapaksa

chamal rajapaksa
Chamal Rajapaksa [File: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters]

Chamal Rajapaksa, 79, was speaker of parliament when Mahinda was president and is also a former minister of shipping and aviation.

He currently holds the irrigation portfolio and is number two in the defence department under Gotabaya, who is also the defence minister.

Formerly a police officer, he once served as a personal bodyguard to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister.

Minister Namal Rajapaksa

namal rajapaksa
Namal Rajapaksa, centre, in Colombo [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Namal Rajapaksa, 35, a lawyer, is the scion of the family dynasty and the eldest son of Mahinda, who is thought to be grooming him to be president one day.

He entered parliament in 2010 aged just 24, and is now minister for sports and youth.

During his father’s decade in power, Namal was highly influential, although he did not hold any portfolio.

A rival former administration accused him of money laundering and other corruption charges, which he denies.

Source: AFP