Through a combination of authoritarianism, nepotism, cronyism, and hubris, the Rajapaksa family weighed down Sri Lanka’s economy with more debt than it could possibly bear. The country’s next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, and reestablish the rule of law.
For much of nearly two decades, the four Rajapaksa brothers and their sons have run Sri Lanka like a family business – and a disorderly one, at that. With their grand construction projects and spendthrift ways, they saddled Sri Lanka with unsustainable debts, driving the country into its worst economic crisis since independence. Now, the dynasty has fallen.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was instrumental in establishing the Rajapaksa dynasty. After becoming president in 2005, he ruled with an iron fist for a decade, attacking civil liberties, expanding presidential powers (including abolishing term limits), and making bad deal after bad deal with China. Throughout this process, he kept his family close, with his younger brother Gotabaya holding the defense portfolio.
But in 2015, Mahinda narrowly lost the presidential election, and the Rajapaksas were briefly driven from power. During that time, parliament restored the presidential term limit, ruling out another Mahinda presidency. Yet the family quickly devised a plan to restore their dynasty: Gotabaya would renounce his US citizenship and run for president.
Gotabaya was well-positioned to win. After all, he had been defense secretary in 2009 when Mahinda ordered the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, bringing a brutal 26-year civil war to a decisive end. With that, the Rajapaksa brothers emerged as heroes among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.
To be sure, the final offensive killed as many as 40,000 civilians and sparked international accusations of war crimes. The United Nations described it as a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law.” According to Sarath Fonseka, the wartime military commander, Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of surrendering rebel leaders. In California, where he was previously domiciled, Gotabaya faces civil charges over alleged war crimes.
But the Rajapaksa brothers simply presented themselves as hardheaded custodians of Sinhalese interests. And, thanks largely to his ethno-nationalist credentials, Gotabaya won the 2019 election – at which point he immediately appointed Mahinda as his prime minister. Mahinda then appointed his two sons, his other two brothers, and a nephew as ministers or to other government positions.
The same year, 277 people were killed, and hundreds more wounded, in bombings carried out by Islamist extremists on Easter Sunday. The attack highlighted tensions that had been simmering since 2009: though the military offensive marginalized the Hindu-majority Tamils, the war’s end sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the Buddhist-majority Sinhalese and Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who constitute one-tenth of the country’s population. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings provided new ammunition for the Rajapaksas to whip up Sinhalese nationalism.
Beyond deepening ethnic and religious fault lines, Gotabaya followed his brother in establishing an imperial presidency, exemplified by the passage in 2020 of a constitutional amendment expanding the president’s power to dissolve the legislature. And he helped to push Sri Lanka further into the economic death spiral that his brother had helped create, not least through his dealings with China.
During Mahinda’s rule, as China shielded the Rajapaksas from war-crime charges at the UN, it won major infrastructure contracts in Sri Lanka and became the country’s leading lender. Debt to China piled up, incurred largely over the construction of monuments to the Rajapaksa dynasty in the family’s home district of Hambantota.
Examples include “the world’s emptiest” airport, a cricket stadium with more seats than the district capital’s population, and a $1.4 billion seaport that remained largely idle until it was signed away to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease. The most extravagant China-backed project is the $13-billion “Port City,” which is being built on land reclaimed from the sea close to the center of the capital, Colombo.
China’s modus operandi is to cut deals with strongmen and exploit their countries’ vulnerabilities to gain a strategic foothold. China’s larger aims in Sri Lanka were suggested in 2014, when two Chinese submarines made separate unannounced visits to Colombo, docking at a newly built container terminal owned largely by Chinese state companies.
So, China gained leverage over a country located near some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, and Sri Lanka became increasingly mired in debt, including “hidden debt” to China from loans whose public disclosure was prohibited by their terms. But hubris prevented the Rajapaksas from recognizing the looming crisis. On the contrary, they enacted a sweeping tax cut in 2019 that wiped out a third of the country’s tax revenues.
Then the pandemic hit, crushing the tourism and garment industries – Sri Lanka’s two main foreign-exchange earners. More recently, the war in Ukraine, by triggering soaring international energy and food prices, helped to drain Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves, creating fuel, food, medicine, and electricity shortages. It was the final straw for many Sri Lankans, who took to the streets in droves.
On May 9, Mahinda reluctantly resigned from his post as prime minister, in an effort to appease protesters. But protests continued to rage, culminating in the storming of the seaside presidential palace by demonstrators. Gotabaya fled minutes earlier before conveying his decision to resign.
Within Sri Lanka, photos of protesters lounging on the president’s bed and cooking in his backyard have become a symbol of people’s power. But they should also serve as a warning to political dynasties elsewhere in the world, from Asia to Latin America. When a family dominates a government or party, accountability tends to suffer, often leading to catastrophe. This can cause even the most entrenched dynasty to fall – and swiftly.
There is also a lesson for other heavily indebted countries. Unless they take action to make their debts sustainable, they could quickly be overwhelmed by crisis.
As for Sri Lanka, its next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, reestablish the rule of law, and hold responsible those who caused the current disaster. But in a country where politics is a blood sport, one should not underestimate the challenge of overcoming the Rajapaksas’ corrosive legacy.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.