The Rajapaksa Family face Populist Power

Banyan ... with what seems to be a title ” Unhappy Families”

As the sun goes down the numbers swell on Galle Face Green, a promenade facing the Indian Ocean in downtown Colombo where families and lovers typically come to stroll and fly kites. These days it hosts a more purposeful crowd. Families are there, but so are farmers, students and their professors, Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, Muslims and members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. A makeshift settlement has sprung up. There are teach-ins at the “People’s University” and slapstick plays for children. The capital’s classiest choir has even led a rousing rendition of “Do you hear the people sing?”. This is Gota Go Gama: “Gota Go Village”. “Gota” is short for Gotabaya. The whole carnival takes aim at the president, the 72-year-old Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his family: Go, Gota, just go.

The Rajapaksas are not used to being treated this way. They have dominated Sri Lanka’s politics since Gotabaya’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, won a presidential election in 2005. As defence secretary, Gotabaya oversaw the armed forces in a ghastly civil war against Tamil rebels. Tens of thousands of trapped civilians were killed in the denouement. Afterwards, the Rajapaksas wallowed in triumphalism and settled scores with critics. Mahinda lost power in a surprise electoral defeat in 2015 (his government’s rampant corruption did not help). But his machinations soon brought on a constitutional crisis in which he contested the prime ministership.

Of all the Rajapaksas, Mahinda, whose person drips with golden amulets and other lucky charms and who moves with the bearing of one of the island’s kings of old, appeals most to the clan’s followers among the Sinhalese (and largely Buddhist) majority. He would have liked to return to the presidency, but Parliament overturned a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 that had ended term limits. So it was Gotabaya who ran in 2019 and won in a landslide.

Gotabaya promised brisk technocratic government and “vistas of prosperity and splendour”. Instead, the country got, as usual, yet more Rajapaksas. Mahinda came in as prime minister. Another brother, Chamal, was put in charge of irrigation. Soon, after a constitutional amendment to allow dual nationals into government, yet another brother, Basil, was finance minister (he holds an American passport). The president’s nephews also got posts. Military types got many of the rest.

The president, who pushed through a constitutional amendment strengthening his executive powers, seemed itching to run the country as would a drill sergeant. Instead he and his brothers ran it into the ground. Their earlier regime had burdened Sri Lanka with debt from infrastructure projects, including vanity schemes in their home district, that have not generated returns. Their current administration cut taxes when revenues were most needed. A ban on fertiliser imports, to conserve dollars, hurt food production. The currency has plummeted. Foreign reserves have dwindled. Any deal with the imf seems a way off. Inflation has soared. Power cuts are a daily headache, and there are long queues for petrol, too. An Indian credit line for fuel has bought time. But that is going to run out at the end of April.

And then what? The people on Galle Face Green are furious over their country’s precipitous fall. Soon, hunger may loom. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa mismanagement and sleaze have so diminished Gota’s authority that he has not shown his face in public in weeks, as barricades have gone up around the presidential office. But impeaching a president is far from easy, and heaven knows Gota wants to stay. Out of office he is even liable to prosecution for war crimes.

Basil went early in April, when Gota replaced his cabinet. Until this week, Mahinda was adamant that he, too, would not budge as prime minister. Now, the president appears willing to do the budging for him. On April 27th he called for an all-party government to be formed once the prime minister and month-old cabinet had resigned.

It is not clear that opposition parties will play along. But ejecting Mahinda could persuade enough of the doubters in the ruling coalition for the government to win any no-confidence vote. Whatever happens, the implications are profound. The Rajapaksas have always been as thick as any Sicilian family. Whatever their differences, they knew they needed to stand together. But the crowds on Galle Face Green have had an effect. From now on, it seems, the Rajapaksas stand separately.


Filed under accountability, democratic measures, disparagement, governance, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, rehabilitation, self-reflexivity, slanted reportage, social justice, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, trauma, vengeance, violence of language, world events & processes

5 responses to “The Rajapaksa Family face Populist Power

  1. Osl

    The whole problem with 2-duit analyses like this is that they ignore the fundamental cause of the crisis (much as the protesters have done), which is the 45-year history of taking loans to pay for imports, itself due to the vested interests of the import cartels and mafias: the sugar mafia, the milk powder cartel, the Panchikawatte mafia (motor spares), the Armour Street mafia (hardware), the Pettah mafia (red split lentils and rice imports), the cement cartel, the medical equipment cartel, etc, which have prevented the country from industrialising.
    It is easier to blame individuals or families or politicians, without looking for the real corruption of a state machine in the thrall of these lumpen bourgeoisie.

  2. My capacities in deciphering economic issues are weak, but what OSL says here seems grounded and sensible. He is stressing a set of factrs making up a BIG FACTOR which i was not aware.of.
    However the fundamental causes must surely be multiple. So, to my puny mind, the further questions are:

    A = to what extent (A2) the severe decline in remittances and (A3) tourist trade contributed o the severe depression?

    B = and the further question whether the Hillary Clinton inspired payback programme of the USA from 2009 sa the IMF serving US goals by working towards the economic stranglehold on Sri Lanka.

    I invite Banyan and any other knowledgeable person to submit essays on this topic to …hopefully articles that take note of the existing items in THUPPAHI from Nishan de Mel (a video interview); Truthseeker and Darini Rajasingham.

    …… Michael Roberts Editor Thuppahi

    • Michael Patrick O'Leary

      Banyan is Dominic Ziegler, The Economist‘s senior Asia correspondent and columnist. He joined the Economist in 1986 as a financial reporter. He went on to become Finance Editor, then Washington Correspondent from 1991-94. He was China Correspondent from 1994-2000, based first in Hong Kong and then Beijing. He went back to London as Finance and Economics Editor in 2001. In 2004 he returned to the US as an acting Washington Correspondent, and after that stood in for half a year as editor of the Books and Arts section, before serving as Deputy Editor of Intelligent Life, an Economist publication. He was Tokyo Bureau Chief from 2005-09 and then founding author of The Economist‘s Banyan column on Asian affairs, before returning to London in late 2010 to take up the position of Asia Editor.

      You could probably contact him via

  3. Chandra Maliyadde

    Depending an economy on migrant remmitances at a severe social cost is uncivilized to me. Innocent rural women toil their sweat from morning till midnight for tuppence. Remmitances is the biggest source of Foreign exchange earnings. We spend that money on luxury imports and repayment of loans.
    Tourism and Exports as it is constituted add a little net Foreign exchange to reserves.They are with forward linkages and with high import contents.

  4. Sanath de Dilva

    Michael, fascinating anecdotes as always!
    It was just wonderful chatting with you.
    Best Regards,

Leave a Reply