COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A man whose legs are amputated sits in a tiny makeshift tent off Galle Face Green, an iconic park along the scenic coast of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo. The 40-year-old veteran soldier said he used to worship Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “I was one of his biggest supporters. Now, he is nothing to us. I want him gone.”
Today, HMS Mahindasiri is among dozens of veterans who are standing up to the man they once hailed as a beloved leader. “We fought his wars for him, and respected him so much,” Mahindasiri told VICE World News. “We used to make figures of him to worship.”
Mahindasiri was among hundreds of thousands of soldiers who risked their lives to end a brutal 27-year civil war in 2009. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the current president, was the wartime defence chief who played an instrumental role in bringing an end to the war through a brutal crackdown on the country’s 3 million ethnic Tamil people.
It’s been more than 85 days since hundreds of thousands people in the island nation of 22 million came together to protest against Gotabaya and his family. The protest started as the country buckled under its worst economic crisis in recent history, but it soon became more than just about dire shortages of basic necessities. At the heart of the protests is immense anger against one of Asia’s most powerful political dynasties.
“We fought his wars for him, and respected him so much.”
Despite facing tear gas and water cannons from the Sri Lankan military, protesters have been calling the Rajapaksas “thieves” for stealing public money, blaming them for the economic downfall and for bringing suffering to the very people who voted them into power for nearly 20 years. Yet despite loud calls for his resignation, Gotabaya clings doggedly to power.
This week, in his first international media interview since the protests started, Gotabaya said he would not be a “failed president” by resigning, and would complete his term set to end in two years. “I have been given a mandate for five years, [but] I will not contest again.”
But citizens don’t want to wait that long.
How did the Rajapaksas go from being one of the most powerful families in the region, to becoming a cautionary tale for populist leaders in the global south?
In a political landscape with a tradition of political dynasties, the Rajapaksas stood out in terms of the scale of their power and influence. Over the last two decades, various family members held key political positions in the cabinet and state institutions, while relatives were given top diplomatic posts. Before Gotabaya, his elder brother Mahinda was the president from 2005 to 2015. Their nepotism was brazen, as were allegations of human rights abuses of the Tamil ethnic minority during the civil war they oversaw, and widespread corruption. During Mahinda’s rule, the family controlled two-thirds of the Sri Lankan budget.
One of the key drivers of protests has been allegations that the Rajapaksas were stealing public money. “The family didn’t just hold on to power through nepotism but also stole from public funds,” Uditha Roshan, another war veteran at the protest, told VICE World News. Like many protesting Sri Lankans, Roshan wants an audit of the Rajapaksas’ wealth. “We’re broke because they stole all the money. I want the money to be brought back to the national treasury,” he said.
“We’re broke because they stole all the money. I want the money to be brought back to the national treasury.”
The demand for accountability and auditing also stems from the fact that there is no transparency or public record of the Rajapaksas’ actual wealth and assets despite the family having been in politics since the 1940s. Observers note that the family ran the country like a family business, and focused on centralising power while taking away all checks and balances, including on allegations of grave war crimes against Tamils.
Last year, the Pandora Papers investigation, a series of leaked documents that exposed the illicit wealth of the world’s rich and influential, found some members of the Rajapaksas hoarding millions in offshore investments and accounts. Before that, in 2015, an opposition politician accused the Rajapaksa government of illegal financial deals amounting to over $5 billion. Mahinda himself was accused of stealing millions of dollars meant for tsunami relief in 2004. Over the years, Mahinda’s son Namal has also been accused of money laundering and receiving payoffs worth millions by private foreign companies.
This in a country where the median annual income is less than $4,000, and which faces a mounting foreign debt of $50 billion.
“If you try to look at the wealth the Rajapaksas accumulated, we don’t know exactly how much it is,” Berlin-based Bashana Abeywardane, a founding member and coordinator of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), told VICE World News. “What we see out there is just the tip of the iceberg. There is certain evidence, but Sri Lankans also have a gut feeling about the scale of this corruption.”
Over the past month, some exasperated protesters burnt down symbols of the Rajapaksas’ power – from their privately-owned mansions to a museum built by the family using public funds. A few days later, Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda resigned as the prime minister, as did the rest of the Rajapaksas who held different positions. Currently, many Rajapaksa family members are hiding out in a military base.
“If you try to look at the wealth the Rajapaksas accumulated, we don’t know exactly how much it is. What we see out there is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Members of the Parliament earn a modest monthly salary of $150 along with miscellaneous benefits, while the president earns $250 a month. “Their government salaries are less than many common citizens’,” said Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a lawyer and executive director of Sri Lanka's Centre for Investigative Reporting. “Then how do they lead these opulent lives?”
Handunnetti is among a handful of journalists who have been investigating corruption in the state. Handunnetti said that even though the Rajapaksas were known for corruption, there was no public interest or outrage over it for a long time. “In fact, we were called traitors for raising this issue,” she said.
Handunnetti was part of the national daily The Sunday Leader, whose editor Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, a known critic of the Rajapaksas, was assassinated in 2009. At the time, attacks and assaults on journalists reporting on the government were becoming increasingly common. Wickrematunge was reporting on a corruption scandal in the military, involving the then Secretary of Defence Gotabaya. Wickrematunge’s daughter Ahimsa has an active case at the People’s Tribunal in the Hague to investigate the murder.
Sri Lankan media, which ranks 127 out of 180 countries on the press freedom index, is tightly controlled by the ruling elite. A 2018 report by Reporters Without Borders and Verite Research, a media monitoring initiative in Sri Lanka, found that 79 percent of print media outlets have political affiliations, followed by TV (54.8 percent) and radio (45.59 percent).
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, who runs a disinformation monitoring platform Watchdog Sri Lanka, has been observing the weaponization of information online. “One of the biggest purveyors of misinformation are people from the government,” he said. “They have enough leverage in the media that their words are never fact checked. This sets a dangerous precedent for the fourth estate.”
During the ongoing protests, Gotabaya used the state media to label the protesters as “extremists” and “terrorists.” On May 9, a meeting with Mahinda was followed by hundreds of his loyalists attacking the peaceful protesters in what was the deadliest day of violence in months.
A major reason for the Rajapaksas’ popularity has been the country’s Sinhalese majority, who make up 70 percent of the total population. In 2019, a newly elected President Gotabaya said, “We knew from the beginning that our majority Sinhala people will be the biggest factor in our victory.”
While there has been a history of resistance from the Tamil ethnic minority, who have been the targets of an insidious crackdown by the Sri Lankan government, the current protests at the capital are the first resistance movement by the Sinhalese majority, who now appear to be waking from a long stupor of blind obeisance to the Rajapaksas.
Ambika Satkunathan, the former commissioner of Human Rights Commission Sri Lanka, described the Rajapaksas’ appeal as “Trump-like, where intellectualism and expertise was connected to elitism. Add to that, a good dose of racism,” referring to the discrimination of the Tamils by the Sinhalese.
The family were also compared to kings of the country’s perceived glorious past, and songs were sung to valourise them. “We’re still a society with feudal elements, and it’s driven by patronage,” she said. “The Rajapaksas fit right in.”
“We’re still a society with feudal elements, and it’s driven by patronage. The Rajapaksas fit right in.”
Abeywardene of JDS put the Rajapaksas’ popularity in the context of previous governments, especially in the 1980s when a left-wing Sinhala youth uprising was crushed by the previous Sri Lankan government and killed tens of thousands. “That state criminality back then had pushed the people away from governments,” said Abeywardene. “On the contrary, the Rajapaksas’ criminality actually brought them closer to people as ‘saviours of nation’ because now, the victims were largely Tamils or Muslims.”
The underlying factor, he added, is majoritarian racism, which overshadowed all their misconduct.
Gotabaya faces a string of lawsuits in the U.S. involving alleged war crimes. Before he became president, he had dual citizenship in Sri Lanka and the U.S. To become president, he surrendered his U.S. citizenship as his new position afforded him immunity against lawsuits.
The 2010 WikiLeaks cables showed that top U.S. officials knew of the Rajapaksa government’s complicity in alleged war crimes. “The Rajapaksas have never been hunted in the way other world leaders have,” said Abeywardane, implying that the international community appears to have deliberately looked the other way. “How did a citizen of the U.S. carry out all these acts, then go on a holiday, and come back to become the president?”
Satkunathan said that these mounting lawsuits is another reason Gotabaya is determined to stay in power. “Once he lets go, he will be subjected to a barrage of lawsuits both domestically and internationally,” she said. “There’s also a chance that if he lost this power, he wouldn’t have any place to escape to.”
Amalini De Sayrah translated interviews of the Sinhalese war veterans for the story.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.