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#417: How Nepotism and Impunity brought down Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Forget the 449,072 votes that separated him from his opponent.

The number that finally did it for Sri Lanka’s once-powerful president Mahinda Rajapaksa was 417, the figure that some experts claim is the exact number of relatives, close friends and associates who were given important – and often lucrative – positions in his administration.

Others have put it as high as 600.  Whatever the number, for many Sri Lankans it was several hundred too many as they came out in force on 8 January to dump Rajapaksa out of office and vote in his one-time friend Maithripala Sirisena.

Rajapaksa became president in 2009, riding a wave of popular support after crushing the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels and ending Sri Lanka’s three decade-long ethnic conflict. 

Even before the ticker tape from the victory parades began settling, he was scrambling to entrench his power in government for at least a generation.

His three brothers – Chamal, Basil and Gotabhaya – occupied arguably the three most important government positions in post-war Sri Lanka: Speaker of Parliament, Minister of Urban Development and Secretary of Defence, respectively. 

Mr Rajapaksa’s son Namal is a parliamentarian who once demanded a separate room with an air-conditioner and an internet connection before sitting a legal exam; another son, Yoshitha, is a Sri Lanka Navy officer. 

The duo are co-owners of Carlton Sports, a private TV  network set up in 2011 and which immediately bagged a host of lucrative broadcast rights for international sporting events after a few tweaks to existing laws that previously allowed only public broadcasters to hold such rights.

Rugby football enthusiasts, both Namal and Yoshitha, also regularly included themselves in national squads, often on the basis of being presidential off-spring.

Alas, Mr Rajapaksa’s youngest son Rohitha was a run-of-the-mill playboy with a penchant for jet-skis, helicopters, fast cars and pretty girls.

They are all white: The Rajapaksa’s – From Left: Rohitha Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa MP, President Rajapaksa, Mrs Shiranthi Rajapaksa and

Lt. Yoshitha Rajapaksa

The former president’s nephew is a provincial chief minister; another nephew was named the Island nation’s envoy to the US.  In fact, Sri Lanka’s once-revered Foreign Service was given over to cronies and political appointees whilst veteran diplomats were side-lined.

Among other examples were a presidential brother-in-law who was made chairman of the state carrier Sri Lankan Airlines; a cousin appointed to oversee the government company providing aviation services at the country’s only international airport; another brother-in-law was appointed to the board of the Island’s leading development bank; nephew Shameendra Rajapaksa was named a director at the national telecoms company and the list goes on.

The favours didn’t stop at immediate family. 

Mr Rajapaksa’s “world-renowned” personal astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, bagged a directorship at one of Sri Lanka’s biggest state-owned banks, without having an iota of experience in the banking industry; Dhammika Perera, a former casino-owner and notorious hoodlum, was made permanent secretary of the Ministry of Transport just as the government embarked on an ambitious, Chinese-funded drive to build the country’s transport infrastructure after the end of the war.

Perhaps the most odious appointment of all was that of Sajin Vass Gunawardena, a personal friend of the president from when he was leader of the opposition.

Gunawardena is a businessman and fraudster whose track record of loan defaults, thuggery and remand prison time was as dubious as his shaven-headed, smooth-talking demeanour suggested.

He was named the president’s ‘Coordinating Secretary’ – essentially, Rajapaksa’s fixer on everything from the peace process to the awarding of government contracts.

He made up for a lack of experience in either field with an eye for a good deal.  Some journalists referred to him as “the President’s Blue-Eyed Boy”.

Fixer.  Sajin Vass Gunawardena

In a region long-known for nepotism, Mr Rajapaksa’s unique brand of favouritism shocked large numbers of voters.

This was despite many – including this writer – remaining grateful to the president for bringing an end to one of the world’s longest-running and most violent conflicts. 

People of my generation, who grew up in the Sri Lanka of the 80’s and 90’s knew nothing but war and the crippling fear of becoming yet another victim of a suicide bombing, a form of terror created, refined and exported around the world by the Tamil Tigers.

My most abiding memory of high school is being scared witless and running out of class before jumping over a parapet wall to an adjoining girl’s-only school after a Tiger suicide bomber detonated a massive bomb outside the nearby Military Joint Operations Command facility in Colombo.

The gratitude and sheer, unbridled relief people felt in 2009 quickly evaporated as Rajapaksa and his extended family and friends settled themselves in for what they hoped would be a long, unobstructed run at the top.

Many of these appointees became wildly rich as investment poured in from around the world, not least from China which loosened the purse strings on its vast foreign reserves in a bid to exert influence on an Island that had long been allied to Beijing’s traditional foe India. 

Total inward investment by China alone topped $5 billion during the Rajapaksa regime. 

The president himself had “seven or eight” luxury mansions, one source tells me.  That was apart from the magnificent presidential palace as well as ‘Temple Trees’, the Prime Minister’s residence in the heart of Colombo.

Those close to him were also not shy about flaunting their wealth and status.

During a visit to Colombo in 2013 (long after the threat of terrorism had all but evaporated), the bus I was travelling in stopped abruptly to allow for a government motorcade to pass.  A dozen vehicles – a number of gleaming new BMW 7-Series limousines accompanied by equally shiny SUV’s with blacked-out windows, and Land Rover Defenders packed with Special Forces armed to the teeth whizzed past, sirens and tyres screaming bloody murder. 

It was an impressive sight and everyone thought it must have been the president or the Defence Secretary.

It later transpired that the motorcade was carrying the country’s sports minister, doubtless fearful of critics armed with cricket bats.

The money that poured into the country also bred corruption. 

“Commissions” for securing contracts rose from 10% to 30% with many foreign investors having to pay up-front.  One businessman, Sumal Perera, was given the moniker “Commission Kaakka” (Commission Crow), perpetually pecking away at innumerable government infrastructure contracts.

The Southern Expressway, Sri Lanka’s first highway.  Completed in 2011, the highway connected Colombo to southern Sri Lanka.

The cost of building highways – a favourite pastime of the president in the aftermath of the war – was several times the global average per kilometre, once topping a faintly ludicrous $57 million. 

Incidentally, the President’s portfolio included the Ministry of Highways.

The cost of other infrastructure projects was vastly inflated. 

The rich became fabulously and conspicuously wealthy whilst the poor often became desperate. 

One young professional from Colombo told me the story of his office cleaner who could only afford to have one meal a day.

“She is a mother of three and was on about Rs 15,000 (£75) a month.  And this is a woman who had a full-time job.  So you can imagine how people like day labourers and casual workers live.  Having one meal a day is living in utter desperation”, he said.

The government’s official figure for inflation was an acceptable 4% but the real figure, many analysts say, is in “double digits”.  The president’s portfolio also includes the Finance Ministry.

For Sri Lankans, a people renowned for their languid, carefree nature, it all became intolerable. 

Above and beyond the nepotism and the corruption, the impunity with which those in power quelled political opposition, cracked down on critics and got away with cold-blooded murder was even more insufferable.

The killers of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga – whose famous posthumous editorial ‘And Then They Came for Me’, implicated Rajapaksa’s government in the murder – remain at large, six years after Mr Wickrematunga was gunned down in broad daylight.

Journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, another well-known critic of the government, has not been seen since leaving his office on 24 January 2010. 

Scores of other journalists were harassed, beaten, threatened and many forced into exile.  A number of news websites that were critical of the government were shut while newspaper presses were burnt down.

Still more, including Tamil civilians, have “disappeared”.

The regime had become so fearsomely authoritarian that the new president didn’t make any major announcements about the economy or social welfare in his first comments but was instead forced to promise freedom of the press and investigations into murders of journalists as well as disappearances.

In 2013, Shirani Bandaranayake, the country’s Chief Justice, was removed from office by President Rajapaksa on trumped-up charges after the Supreme Court had dared to rule against several parliamentary bills proposed by the president and his siblings.

Among the proposed bills was one by Basil Rajapaksa, the Minister of Urban Development.  The law would have allowed the Ministry to declare any piece of land as “historic” or “protected” and acquire it from the landowner – a measure some activists warned would have been used to confiscate lands in the Tamil-majority north and east. 

Above – Ousted Chief Justice Mrs Shirani Bandaranayake.

Such strong arm tactics often extended to physical intimidation and even murder.

The killing of politician Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra by fellow government MP Duminda Silva remains unsolved with just the latter’s bodyguards given up as scapegoats. 

Malaka Silva, the young son of controversial minister Mervyn Silva – a foul-mouthed tyrant given the peculiar title of ‘Minister of Public Relations’ – had a habit of staggering into nightclubs in the early hours of the morning with a coterie of bodyguards, eat and drink to his heart’s content and leave without paying.  In October of last year, he and his bodyguards beat up a foreign couple – an Englishwoman and her Scottish partner – after the woman rejected his advances. 

One nightclub operator described him as the “bane of the entire industry”.

On Christmas Day 2011, a group of men led by politician Sampath Vidanapathirana entered a hotel in the southern resort town of Tangalle.  There they shot and killed a British charity worker – Khurram Sheikh – after the victim had tried to protect his Russian girlfriend from the men.

The killers were identified but it took two years for the case to come to trial amid allegations that Vidanapathirana had used his political connections to hinder the prosecution.

He was finally convicted and jailed in July 2014 but only after pressure from the UK government.

In late 2014 Dr Chris Nonis, Sri Lanka’s respected ambassador to the UK, resigned in disgust after he was assaulted by an inebriated Sajin Vass Gunawardena at an event in New York where President Rajapaksa and his entourage were attending a UN summit.

The thirty people who had witnessed the incident initially insisted that Dr Nonis had “fallen from his chair”.      

Galagoda Atte Gnansara, the founder of the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’, a militant Buddhist organization.  (Photo courtesy of AP)

Perhaps the most egregious form of government heavy-handedness and impunity came in the form of the much-reviled Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) a militant Buddhist organization.  The BBS had been brought into the fray by the Rajapaksa regime as it attempted to entrench its position among Sinhala Buddhist voters.  It was a move that backfired with the government condemned for turning a blind eye as BBS goons – many in Buddhist robes – went about attacking mosques, churches and attempted to enforce ‘Buddhist’ guidelines on public behaviour.

Everyone, it appeared, was punch drunk on power.

That kind of corrupting power led to fears that Rajapaksa would use violence and attempt to cling on to power after his election loss.

In fact, the new government has launched an investigation into reports that Rajapaksa conceded defeat only after senior army officials refused his demands to deploy troops and impose a state of emergency as the results came in.

As it happened, Rajapaksa left his official residence peacefully and it is believed that some members of the extended family have fled the country, doubtless carrying the vast fortunes they have acquired in their time in government.

Despite his shock victory, president-elect Maithripala Sirisena – a dour rice farmer-turned-politician, born and raised in a small village in Polonnaruwa, in the Sri Lankan hinterland, and educated in Soviet Russia – remains an enigma.

Above: Newly-elected President Maithripala Sirisena

Minority Tamils and Muslims voted in droves for Mr Sirisena and his first task will be to unite all the Island’s communities and get rid of the fear and cynicism that blighted the country during the Rajapaksa years.

Whilst many outside Sri Lanka have applauded his victory and the end of a despotic regime, some activists have expressed concerns that Sirisena has pledged to disallow an international inquiry into the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians during the final, bloody days of the war.

The issue continues to blight Sri Lanka’s international image although many Sri Lankans I spoke to feel that it was an horrific yet inevitable consequence of a brutal war. 

After all, many say, it was the Tamil Tigers who had used civilians as human shields preventing thousands of families from escaping.

Others feel that Sri Lanka as a nation should face up to the fact that atrocities were committed and that an effective and sensitive reconciliation process needs be conducted.

One exiled journalist told me: “Entire families were lost.  There are tens of thousands of people who are still grieving and trying to come to terms with what occurred.  The government needs to do its part to help these people and formulate a proper reconciliation process”. 

Mr Sirisena has also promised to ring in constitutional change, including limiting presidential powers – one of the first things that Rajapaksa had done in the immediate aftermath of the war was to amend the constitution to allow him to rule for life. 

While his immediate family have fled the island – Basil has reportedly flown to Dubai whilst Gotabhaya is a US resident – Rajapaksa has pledged to remain and lead the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in opposition.

Many fear he is merely biding his time to make a return to office – he continues to enjoy significant support among Sinhala Buddhist voters.

In a country where memories run long, Sirisena has his work cut out to help people move on – his biggest challenge will be to convince his countrymen that reconciliation is not an esoteric, “western” concept but one which should come easily to a Buddhist people.

Sirisena has begun by setting out a 100-day agenda which includes some encouraging policy measures – including the introduction of a ‘code of conduct’ for politicians, commissions to investigate corruption, reducing the price of basic commodities, safeguarding women’s rights as well as improving women’s participation in politics and the re-instatement of Shirani Bandaranayake.

However, Sirisena is just one man in a land of 21 million souls.

Having so effectively exercised our democratic franchise, we must now focus our energies on finding a way forward.

The process must strike a balance between exorcising the demons of the past and offering closure to those whose lives have been torn apart, be it the Tamil mother whose son has disappeared, the daughter of the Sinhala journalist killed in a hail of bullets or the Muslim family whose home was destroyed by thugs masquerading as Buddhist monks.

Then rebuild.  One more time.

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