Saturday 10, December 2022

From demigods to traitors

News Desk: They were once seen as heroes of the nation, the almost mythical warrior-king leaders who defeated the separatists in a bloody civil war.

Yet the final days of Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa dynasty tell a very different tale.

In the early hours yesterday, embattled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a hurried exit from the South Asian nation, days after thousands of angry protesters broke into his official residence, swam in his pool, and demanded he finally go.

He had been expected to resign later that day, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn't wait around to make it official. Instead, before dawn, he boarded a military plane leaving Colombo and fled to the Maldives.

His departure is a historic moment for the island nation of 22 million, which the Rajapaksas had ruled with an iron fist for much of the past two decades before losing the faith of their once adoring citizens.

"The sight of Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing Sri lanka on an air force plane represents (the downfall) of this family," said Ganeshan Wignaraja, senior research associate at the British think tank, ODI Global.

"Their legacy I don't think is a positive one. But one hopes that Sri Lanka will move on in a new direction."

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not the first member of the family to have been president. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who like Gotabaya was widely considered a "war hero" among the majority population, was elected President in 2005 and achieved near legendary status in 2009 when he declared victory in the 26-year civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels.

That victory gave Mahinda Rajapaksa an almost inexhaustible well of political capital to draw on and he would go on to enjoy a 10-year grip on power during which he was venerated by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority. He was popularly referred to as "appachchi" the father of the nation and people would often bow when he walked past and fear for him when he was unwell.

For much of his term, Mahinda Rajapaksa ran Sri Lanka like a family business, appointing his brothers to key positions; Gotabaya as Defense Secretary, Basil as Minister of Economic Development, and Chamal as the Speaker of Parliament.

And while the good times were rolling, despite gripes about nepotism, the brothers remained popular. The country saw years of growth, fueled by the government's vast borrowing from overseas to fund public services.

But the good times weren't to last.

After the end of 30-year-long Tamil Eelam war, the majority Sinhalese Buddhist people comprising 70 percent of the total population threw their might behind the Rajapaksa clan almost elevating it to the status of demi-gods.

The Rajapaksa clan thrived on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. The emboldened majority started asserting itself dictating the terms to minority Tamils and Muslims. It suited the politics of Rajapaksa and they also encouraged it. Between 2010 and 2015, they amassed enormous wealth and power.

Their total disregard for the rule of law, contempt for the democratic opposition, extra judicial killings, abductions, judicial manipulations and media muzzling have also earned them a bad name during that period.

They had no rivals to unseat them. Euphoric and ecstatic supporters started to describe Mahinda as the reincarnation of the legendary king Dutugemunu.

The opposition came together to defeat the Rajapaksa clan, and in the 2015 January Presidential elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a shock defeat at the hands of his own agriculture minister Maithripala Sirisena. The new government had vowed

to permanently end the rule of the Rajapaksa clan.

Mahinda declared that he would come back to rule again. The new national government faltered from Day 1, and in 2019, Rajapaksas were back in power. Actually, they were much stronger and many thought they would be in power for a long time. The Easter Bombings of 2019 also played a major role in their big win.

Rajapaksa came to power on a manifesto promising "Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour", but according to the UN the country now desperately needs humanitarian aid.

The coronavirus pandemic hammered tourism and overseas remittances both mainstays of the economy leaving it facing a foreign exchange crisis.

Lengthy power cuts are in place as the country does not have dollars to import oil for generators, the nation's 22 million people have been enduring acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines since late last year, and poverty is spreading.

President Gotabaya, full of hubris and no real experience in handling a sensitive matter like economy, did not listen to saner voices both within and outside. Just to stay in power at any cost, the Rajapaksas dismissed all charges against them as bogus that finally forced the people to protest against them.

The same people who were once cheering the Rajapaksa clan as the saviours of Sri Lanka have turned against them calling them "traitors". Now the whole clan is hiding from the wrath of people.

The carefully built invincible image of Rajapaksa now lays in tatters. Their ignominious exit from power has destroyed all the myths built around the family.


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