The Godfather from Colombo: Down but not out yet? Rise & fall of the Rajapaksas is a morality tale

While the former PM has taken shelter in the naval base at Trincomalee, younger brother Gotabaya remains the President and seemingly enjoys the support of the military

Ex-Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (Photo courtesy: Twitter)
Ex-Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Shalini Sahay

Soon after his forces brutally quelled the dreaded LTTE militarily and ended decades of violence, a triumphant Mahinda Rajapaksa flew to New Delhi to assuage Indian worries about the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Indian diplomats and foreign correspondents recall that while he maintained suitable decorum during official meetings, in his hotel suite, a raucous Mahinda regaled his audience with stories of how pathetic the Indians were to fall for his assurances.

He slapped his thighs, as though readying for a bout of wrestling, and continued to exude the crude machismo of the victorious alpha male even while speaking with Indian guests. He had asked India to support his efforts to revive the country’s economy, battered by decades of war. But those development efforts were only intended for the Sinhala majority south. He would leave India to pay for the northern ‘lungis’.

He wasted the 2009 opportunity to unite all the people of the country, choosing instead to deliberately pander to Sinhala, Buddhist chauvinism. But hours before he sent his resignation letter to younger brother President Gotabaya, Mahinda visited a particularly revered Buddhist shrine in the sacred city of Anuradhapura to seek divine assistance to continue in power. Instead, he faced angry crowds of the once faithful followers now turned foes, among them large sections of the robed clergy, who ran and heckled him out of there.

The letter of resignation ostensibly allows President Gotabaya to assemble a cabinet. However, the PM’s resignation, like those of his siblings and son last month, appears intended to buy time while the Rajapaksa family liquidates its enormous assets and gradually moves to safer shores. India has however quashed all suggestions that Mahinda and family have received sanctuary here.

Rajapaksas belong to one of the two most powerful political dynasties in post-independence Sri Lanka, the other being the Bandaranaikes. However, no other political dynasty across South Asia has been as brazenly nepotistic as the Rajapaksas. Or faced as many charges of corrupt practices.

During Mahinda’s second term as President, between 2010 and 2015, there were more than 40 Rajapaksa family members in various government posts. Many later faced enquiries for financial fraud after his government was voted out. Basil, also a US citizen, was arrested, while his wife and daughter were questioned. When Gotabaya was elected President in November 2019, a total of 11 ministries, including the crucial Finance portfolio to Basil, were entrusted to the charge of the immediate family and extended clan. Other family members have been accommodated in the PM and President’s secretariats.

An apocryphal story about one of the many homes of President Gotabaya is about an unusual ‘aquarium’ in his living room floor. Covered with a sheet of glass, it contains a school of man-eating piranhas. The choice of fish, commentators have observed, like the villain Blofeld in James Bond movies, epitomises not just his lifestyle, but the tough guy persona he has cultivated as the ‘terminator’. It is unclear but unlikely that Gotabaya has retained his US citizenship.

For the Rajapaksas, it is truly paradise lost.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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