AGENCY – Anger at Sri Lanka’s dire economic crisis has sparked huge protests — and for thousands of people out on the streets, the blame for their woes lies squarely with the ruling Rajapaksa family.
On Monday five people died and at least 225 were wounded when backers of the clan attacked anti-government demonstrators in Colombo who had been demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Protesters then stormed the home of the prime minister — the president’s brother — while a museum dedicated to the family was also attacked. Here is a series of short profiles of key members of the powerful clan:
– ‘The Terminator’ –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, took office in 2019, wielding executive power over Sri Lanka throughout the Covid pandemic that analysts say helped trigger the current economic crisis.
Unlike his brother Mahinda, who heads the clan and was prime minister until his resignation on Monday, Gotabaya came to power with little political experience to speak of. Instead, he came from a military background, having been in charge of the army and police throughout Mahinda’s presidency from 2005-2015.
In 2009, he led a brutal government crackdown that crushed the separatist Tamil rebels after decades of civil war. The bloody final weeks of the conflict ended with, according to UN estimates, the deaths of around 40,000 civilians, who were herded into so-called no-fire zones that were then bombed by the armed forces.
He denies accusations that he was behind death squads that abducted and “disappeared” dozens of opponents in feared white vans. Dubbed “The Terminator” by his own family, he is feared by foes for his short temper.
– The clan leader –
Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, is the head of the clan. He was president for a decade for 10 years, and before that was prime minister in 2004.
Mahinda is adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for crushing the Tamil rebels in the military offensive that ended the civil war.
Rajapaksa has refused an international probe into atrocities allegedly committed during the war. A series of local enquiries have failed to yield either a proper war crimes investigation or prosecutions.
During his rule Sri Lanka also moved closer to China, borrowing almost $7 billion for infrastructure projects — many of which turned into white elephants mired in corruption. These include an airport almost without planes, a cricket stadium unused to the sound of willow hitting leather and a hi-tech convention centre devoid of conferences.
The centrepiece — and biggest flop — was the Hambantota deep-sea port that had to be leased to China in 2017 for 99 years after Colombo fell failed to keep up with debt repayments for its construction.
Critics say Mahinda 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 remain largely marginalised.
– ‘Mr Ten Percent’ –
Then there are other members of the family including Basil Rajapaksa, 71, nicknamed “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 syphoned off millions of dollars from state coffers. All cases against him were dropped when Gotabaya became president. Basil was made finance minister when Gotabaya became president but was jettisoned in mid-April as the president tried desperately to rescue his government.
Also out of the door was Chamal, 79, another sibling who was in charge of irrigation. His son Sashindra was involved in a disastrous ban on chemical fertiliser imports. Mahinda’s eldest son Namal, 36, who ran the sports ministry and had been touted as a future leader before the crisis, was also dropped.
– ‘Rajapaksa brand’ –
With only Gotabaya left in power, Namal told AFP on Tuesday that the family was merely going through a “bad patch”. Akhil Bery from the Asia Society Policy Institute said Mahinda’s resignation likely signals the end to his time in active politics.
“But the Rajapaksa brand still has support amongst the Sinhalese population,” Bery told AFP. “Though much of the blame can be placed on the Rajapaksas now, their successors will inherit the mess, leaving space for the Rajapaksas to remain politically relevant.”-(AFP)