At the height of their power, four brothers from Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa dynasty held the presidency and the prime minister’s office as well as the finance, interior and defence portfolios, among others. But just when the Rajapaksa clan seemed invincible, an economic crisis of their own making led to their undoing. But does that spell the end of South Asia’s most powerful political family?
On August 12, 2020, an extraordinary display of family power was under way at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka, in the central city of Kandy, the political capital of ancient kings in the island nation.
Following a landslide victory in August elections, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swore in a cabinet that included two of his brothers and two nephews, sharing multiple portfolios among the family.
The Rajapaksas have a tradition of temple swearing-in ceremonies, a symbolism-heavy acknowledgment of the Sinhala Buddhist populism that kept propelling them into power. Over the past few years, as the family’s political fortunes enlarged, the investiture entourage of officials, diplomats and media teams dutifully trekked to sacred temples on historic sites, where yet another Rajapaksa was granted yet another portfolio.
The concentration of power and mismanagement though, have been unholy.
At the inauguration of the new cabinet, the president took on the defence portfolio, contravening a constitutional amendment barring the country’s head of state from holding a cabinet post.
His powerful brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, became Sri Lanka’s new prime minister and was also named head of three ministries: finance, urban development and Buddhist affairs.
The president then swore in his eldest brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, as minister for irrigation, internal security, home affairs and disaster management. Chamal’s son Sashindra was made junior minister for high-tech agriculture. The prime minister’s son Namal became minister of youth and sports.
Barely a year later, Basil Rajapaksa was named finance minister, taking over the important portfolio from his brother, the prime minister.
At the height of their power, the Rajapaksas appeared invincible as they signed mega infrastructure contracts and amassed fortunes while cracking down on minorities and journalists – and successfully evaded accountability in a state where they held all the reins.
For several years, human rights defenders condemned the reprisals, massacres, crackdowns, corruption and cronyism of South Asia’s most powerful political dynasty. Their calls went unheeded by an electorate willing to overlook assaults on liberties and persuaded by the cult of strong leaders preferring action over compromise.
But that was before the island nation descended into its worst economic crisis since its independence from Britain in 1948. As an acute foreign currency crisis sparked fuel shortages, power cuts and spiraling inflation, the tide finally began to turn against the Rajapaksa clan as Sri Lankans struggled to cope with a disaster of their elected government’s own making.
This week, as peaceful anti-government protests turned violent, symbols of the Rajapaksa family power came under attack in scenes unimaginable two years ago.
On Monday night, crowds stormed the prime minister’s official Temple Trees residence in Colombo, forcing the army to conduct a predawn operation to rescue Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family. The prime minister by then had already submitted his resignation letter to his younger brother, the president, clearing the way for a “new unity government”.
Meanwhile in the southern province of Hambantota, mobs attacked the Rajapaksa Museum in the family’s ancestral village of Medamulana. Two wax statues of the Rajapaksa parents were flattened and mobs trashed the building as well as the ancestral Rajapaksa home nearby.
It was a violent assault on a clan that has held feudal power since colonial times and has used patronage and privilege to rise from local to national power, placing family members in strategic positions along the way.
From rural roots to national power
The Rajapaksas are a rural land-owning family from southern Sri Lanka whose ancestors have represented their native Hambantota on state and regional councils since pre-independence days.
Prominent families have always played an important role in Sri Lankan politics. But the Rajapaksas were not part of the urban political elites in the decades following independence. While families such as the Bandaranaikes – which produced three Sri Lankan prime ministers and one president – dominated the national scene, the Rajapaksas were part of the rural elites in the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist southern heartland.
The current president’s father, D. A. Rajapaksa, was a parliamentarian representing Hambantota district. But it was his second son, Mahinda, who catapulted the clan into national dominance when he rose from opposition leader in parliament to prime minister in 2004.
A year later, Mahinda won the 2005 presidential poll with a narrow margin, aided, according to his opponents, by a call for an election boycott by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), a militant group better known as the Tamil Tigers.
It was Mahinda’s first win in the bloody fight against the Tamil Tigers based in Sri Lanka’s neglected north, home to the country’s Tamil minority.