The way Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa destroyed Sri Lanka

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Crowds pounded on the gate of the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, its size and rage swelled dangerously.

For weeks, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, was under pressure to resign as the economy collapsed and protests began. Mahinda, the president’s brother, Gotabaya, and a patriarch of his own political dynasty, was once revered as Appachachi, the beloved father of the people. He was now locked in his second-floor bedroom, along with relatives who frantically called in army officers to plead for help.

Outside the gate, anti-government protesters who had previously been attacked by Mahinda supporters were taking revenge – rioting, burning buses and burning hundreds of homes owned by Rajapaksa allies. One of their party members was beaten to death and his body was dragged to the streets.

May 9 was the most violent day Chaotic in recent Sri Lankan history. But inside Rajapaksa’s house there was unrest for years.

The Rajapaksa brothers have dominated politics here for most of the last 20 years. After helping Mahinda win the presidency in 2005, his brothers Chamal, Gotabaya and Basil took over the ministry, controlling three-quarters of the national budget and building popular support despite allegations of human rights abuses and corruption. But by 2019, when Gotabaya became president, the family was plagued by infighting and unemployment that would wreak havoc on the most developed country in South Asia.

In interviews, current and former ministers, foreign diplomats and Rajapaksa confidants, some of whom spoke for the first time when they saw the family breakup, said Gotabaya and Mahinda and their respective parties, appointed ministers and agricultural policy, investment agreements and political benefits. As the economy plunged into recession this year, Mahinda, backed by several Rajapaksas, resisted Gotabayar’s wishes.

The disbelief deepened at this stage when members of Mahinda’s inner circle, surrounded on May 9 in his compound, felt that the President had abandoned them. A cousin of the prime minister, Udayanga Weiratunga, and another family member present told the Washington Post that they suspected Gotabayar supporters in the army had deliberately delayed coming to their aid for six hours.

Gotabaya is in power after replacing his brother with the new prime minister, who revealed this week that Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves amount to less than $ 1 million, medical supplies are dwindling and there is almost no fuel.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena says Sri Lanka is facing “complete destruction”. “The country has learned the lessons of dynastic politics.”

When Mahinda, the son of a wealthy rice and coconut farmer active in politics, ran for parliament in 1970, he was following in the footsteps of some of the dominant aristocratic families in Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island off the coast. India.

“You can’t win [in politics] If you are not from an established family, “says Rajin Sally, a professor at the National University of Singapore.” So the system is left to established insiders who can plunder the state. “

The second of nine children, Mahinda was charismatic, loved the crowd and stuck to her younger brother Basil, who is considered the family’s political strategist. Their middle brother, Gotabaya, has always been different: isolated, politically inexperienced, a tittler and vegetarian who has spent 21 years in the military. “He used to go to his ancestral home only during the New Year,” recalls their cousin, Mahinda’s close brother Vairatunga.

Rajapaksa ran the country like a family business during Mahinda’s 10-year presidency, which began in 2005. He named Gotabaya as defense secretary when Basil and his older brother, Chamal, were given the responsibility of irrigation and economic development. Sri Lanka has enjoyed years of growth, fueled by mountains of foreign debt.

Mahinda enjoyed the praise of voters who approved her bloody but decisive victory in the 26-year civil war against the Tamil rebels and her repeated appeals to Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

But allegations of corruption, including dubious deals with Chinese state-owned companies and officials around Mahinda. Gotabaya was also involved, albeit to some extent, and faced an investigation into the 2006 purchase of a MiG fighter from Ukraine.

Sankhitha Gunaratne, deputy executive director of Transparency International Sri Lanka, said Mahinda and Basil had faced numerous allegations, including the removal of tsunami relief assistance and the use of public funds to buy land, but many cases had been stayed or withdrawn. “The corruption of the so-called Rajapaksa is like a big tree that casts a shadow over many people,” he said.

In 2021, a leaked information from a financial document known as Pandora Papers revealed that one of the nieces of the Rajapaksa brothers had hidden millions of dollars in offshore accounts.

Amid growing anger over Rajapaksa’s alleged superstitions and corruption, Mahinda lost a bid for a third term in 2015. Almost immediately, an eclectic coalition of Western business executives, military extremists, and Buddhist monks identified a new candidate: Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

It quickly became clear that Gotabaya, backed by new political patrons, would clash with Mahinda. Men rarely face each other directly, yet they disagree on everything, including high-level political gamesmanship and petty corruption, family confidants say.

Dilith Jayabira, a media magnet who is widely credited with starting Gotabayar’s candidacy, recalls an incident in 2018 when Mahinda called her at Gotabayar’s house. Mahinda named Gotabayar after an illegally built resort so that a powerful monk, a political ally, could get free electricity. The scandal was about to unfold and as was often the case, Mahinda was reluctant to tell his brother, so he pushed Jayavira to tell him the news.

Jayabira said Gotabaya was “exuberant” and went to a Buddhist temple, refusing to share a car with his brother.

In October 2018, a constitutional crisis erupted when Sirisena, the then President, fired his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda in his place. Whom he defeated just three years ago. The capital was tense as both men demanded the No. 2 job in the country and spread rumors that Vikramasinghe might be forcibly removed. Fearing that Mahinda and Basil would try to outwit him and engineer him into their own power, Gotabaya secretly met Vikramasinghe to promise his support.

Soon, the Supreme Court ruled against Mahinda’s claim and he withdrew. The family had no choice but to support Gotabaya.

In the run-up to the election, terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists shook Sri Lanka, sparking Sinhalese Buddhist support around the former military man. On the campaign trail, Gotabaya spoke of security, good governance and development, projecting himself as a technocrat and with the rising skyline of Indian- and Chinese-funded skyscrapers in Colombo, followed by Singapore. He won the landslide.

On the day of his swearing-in on November 19, 2019, Gotabaya signaled his separation from his family. She refuses to wear a red “sataka”, a scarf signed by the royal family, in favor of a short-sleeved shirt. Unlike Mahinda, who printed his picture on a Rs 1,000 note when he was president, Gotabaya banned the hanging of his official portrait in government offices.

But the next day was “the beginning of the fall,” said Nalaka Godaheva, a former financial executive who later became Gotabhaya’s media minister.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. They have drafted steep tax cuts and argued against seeking help from the International Monetary Fund despite rising debt. Gotabaya has personally imposed a ban on chemical fertilizers that damage crop yields, just as global food prices have risen.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. In several cases, the government issued trade policies that were withdrawn within 24 hours. “Your ministers fought with the secretaries,” Weiratunga said. “The war has spread within the administration.”

Rajapaksa was united on one issue: a constitutional amendment was passed in 2020 that weakened the commissions investigating corruption and gave the president far-reaching powers over the courts.

By early 2022, the economy was in the throes of a recession. Food prices like rice have doubled from a year ago. There was a shortage of petrol and electricity. Foreign exchange reserves were running out.

In April, night-time demonstrations in the capital demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation from politics began and some became violent. Gotabayar’s entire cabinet – including Finance Minister Basil; Elder brother, Chamal; And Mahinda’s son – resigned, giving Gotabaya a chance to form a new government. Sri Lanka needs a stable image to present to foreign lenders and to discuss an emergency bailout.

But Mahinda, the prime minister, resisted the opposition’s call and even hinted at resigning from the presidency.

Gotabaya did not emphasize the issue. “GR will say, ‘He knows what I want,'” said Godahewa, who joined the cabinet after several Rajapaksa left. “He felt he needed the support of Basil and Mahinda.”

As pressure mounted on Mahinda, his supporters staged a rally on May 9 at Temple Tris, the Prime Minister’s compound. Inside the two families and according to the video of the incident, the father, feeling sad and thinking of resigning, suddenly became excited.

“As a leader who has always listened to the people, now I ask you: what needs to be done?” Mahinda told the thousands of supporters who were sitting when a chandelier was lit. “You have to stay!” The crowd roared. “Does that mean I shouldn’t resign?” He asked again, to soak the call to fight.

When the rally ended, supporters came out of the temple tree with steel rods and wooden sticks, beat up anti-government protesters and caused a bloody reaction that shocked the nation.

Stuck in the temple tray with her sons, who asked her to stay, Mahinda told her speech writer at 4am that she was resigning. The speech writer spread the news in the media, but it did not stop the violence, said two people inside the compound. Despite the family’s request, the army did not send reinforcements until 11pm after protesters had already breached a gate. At 4am, Mahinda was taken by soldiers to a military base.

“Mahinda realized that the stall was intentional,” said Weiratunga, who accused Gotabaya of trying to intimidate his brothers. But two ministers who were on the side of the president that day said he was furious and called the military officers to no avail.

“He could not control the army or the police,” Godaheva said.

Godaheva and foreign diplomats say Army Commander Shavendra Silva – who has had frequent contacts with Western officials – was reluctant to deploy his forces for fear of being seen as a military crackdown.

The absence of the army that day widened the rift between the brothers. In a speech to Parliament this week, Chamal punished Mahinda for not leaving politics in 2015. Why they were not protected May 9 in a rare dispute demonstration. “How Gotabaya now treats the party will determine the direction of public outrage,” Weiratunga said.

On May 12, a controversial and isolated Gotabaya announced the name of a new prime minister: Ranil Wickremesinghe, the man he had secretly met in 2018 when he first joked for a stand against his brother.

Four years later, Sri Lanka’s strongest family is falling apart – perhaps for the better, says media magnet Jayavira.

“Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka ended in tragedy,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then.

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