As you read this, Sri Lanka’s on-the-run president and prime minister may have resigned.
The process for an interim government will likely be in place to transition from an apocalyptic island to a pragmatic one. In this reality lies millennial Sri Lanka’s birth, lingering illness and the daunting prospect of recovery after a run with elected monarchy. The monarchs wanted to be Rambos. In the end, they were Rajapaksas.
But in the story of those who ruled but forgot to govern there’s a telling backstory in danger of being overlooked. It takes us back to the summer of 2009. Signs of today’s catastrophe were evident then.
Colombo was Baghdad-on-Sea. Checkpoints at nearly every turn were manned by soldiers carrying assault rifles. Air force helicopters combed the capital.
In their quarter century of battling the Sri Lankan state, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had killed one president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and maimed another, Chandrika Kumaratunga. She lost vision in her right eye as a result of a bomb explosion during a rally in Colombo’s Town Hall, in 1999.
She was more fortunate than Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by a female Tiger operative in India’s Tamil Nadu during a re-election campaign in 1991.
Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran never forgave Rajiv Gandhi for his foray in Tamil-majority Jaffna peninsula. The Indians arrived in 1987 as iffy peacekeepers and left in 1990 – including more than 1,000 Indian soldiers in body bags – as lifelong foes of the Tigers.
As the war’s endgame raged to the country’s north and east in the Tamil majority areas, Sri Lanka’s rampaging army battled the Tigers.
The war with the Tigers – the ultra-violent face of the long-deprived Tamil ethnic minority – had killed nearly 75,000 Sinhala and Tamil combatants and civilians, young and old alike; the number would rise to an estimated 100,000 by war’s end in a few scant weeks.
It was a shocking figure in that tiny, achingly beautiful country of about 21 million. The war began in 1983, when anti-Tamil riots killed thousands of Tamils, retaliation for the deaths of thirteen soldiers ambushed by LTTE.
Mahinda Rajapaksa – adulated president in 2009 unlike the disgraced on-the-run prime minister of early-May 2022 – had bet the country to win the war. Overseeing the push for his brother was Gotabaya, at the time the all-powerful secretary of Defence, and Public Security, Law and Order. This meant that he was boss of the armed forces, and the intelligence and internal security apparatus.
The feared Gotabaya was lightyears from his on-the-run, openly reviled presidential avatar of this past fortnight.
As I visited Sri Lanka in May 2009 Tiger territory was down to a 30 sq km patch of jungle, beachhead and lagoon near Mullaitivu, halfway between the Jaffna Peninsula and the harbour town of Trincomalee. And India was at hand.
At meetings with senior officials at the Indian High Commission in Colombo, I was told of plentiful medical “supplies” and “support personnel,” all “humanitarian” of course, to aid the Sri Lankan war effort.
This information was delivered with broad smiles – the diplomatic equivalent of raw emotion, as it were.
The brutality of the push horrified a part of the world. The European Union threatened to stall preferential treatment for the country’s crucial garments and textile exports unless the government stopped treating the mostly ethnic-Tamil refugees of war, caught in the crossfire, as acceptable collateral damage. Estimates suggested 200,000 trapped people.
Human rights observers like the Centre for Policy Analysis’ executive director Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, called the Tigers’ behaviour “despicable,” and put the state’s behaviour in the same bracket.
Alongside, media was suppressed when it questioned the state’s approach of total-war, or the totalitarian rule of the Rajapaksas and their cohorts. Several media persons were in jail, or had left the country. Some had been killed, like the respected editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, abducted and killed in early 2009.
“You feel pity for those who think they have a bigger job than God,” Lasantha’s brother Lal told me.
And there was an eerie foreshadowing of the present day. Mauled by conflict, Sri Lanka’s GDP, at $32 billion, was just $2.5 billion more than the combined recession-struck net worth of the Ambani brothers.
A crippling 5% of GDP fed the war machine, and public debt hobbled nearly 90% of the rest. The war ate nearly a quarter of the annual budget. The economy was growing at 4.5% a year and slowing. Inflation was more than 20% a year and increasing.
Foreign exchange reserves were down to a few days’ worth of imports. The currency was close to free-fall. Desperate, bereft of donors like those that flocked in 2003 to aid an abortive peace process, Mahinda was pursuing a $1.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Just stopping the war would spur economic growth by 2% a year, economists estimated. Many top executives were hoping for a sort of Marshall Plan for the north and east that would trigger massive investment in infrastructure, besides sparking a consumer boom, and leveraging literate manpower.
There was talk of exploration for oil and natural gas. There was revival of the talk I had first heard in the late-1980s during the initial years of hope and patchy ceasefires: Sri Lanka would become a Singapore.
The ethnic card
The key aspect was of course ethnic. Since the 1950s, the state had assiduously sponsored schisms. The Tigers were beyond brutal – even killing Tamils fleeing the war, to cap a run of terror that began with Prabhakaran systematically, literally, killing off other Tamil groups.
But they were created because the state, controlled by the Sinhala Buddhist majority that comprises nearly three-quarters of the population, were averse to administrative and political equity even in Tamil-majority areas.
(Sri Lankan Tamils comprise about 11% of the population; “Indian Tamils,” brought by the British to work plantations in central Lanka, are nearly 4% “Moors,” or Muslims, a little over 9%; the remainder are mostly mixed race and Burghers, of European descent.)
End of the war
The war formally ended on May 19, 2009, with an announcement of victory by Mahinda. Prabhakaran had been killed a day earlier or so the army announced. The bullet-ridden bodies of his teenage son, daughter, and wife were found near a lagoon in Mullaitivu, 600 metres or so from the LTTE chief’s body.
Much of Sri Lanka erupted with joy. In a heartbeat Mahinda could signal a great, benevolent presidency, and resurgence for Sri Lanka with equity. But the Rajapaksas chose to continue with structured hate and hubris.
Mahinda placed his face on his country’s Rs 1,000 currency notes. A new series, issued on May 20, showed a smiling Mahinda flashing a victory sign.
A building frenzy overcame the country. Several billion dollars of largely debt-driven construction and reconstruction projects were distributed in the capital region, the Rajapaksa family stranglehold in Hambantota to the south and the devastated north and east.
On a visit to Trinco shortly after war’s end I saw bunkers cheek-by-jowl with new resorts. But the main beneficiaries of the boom in the north and east weren’t Tamils.
Meanwhile, a buoyed Mahinda called early presidential elections, in 2010, a year ahead of schedule. He won hands down.
On several subsequent visits, I witnessed the post-war economic boom, continuing reluctance to devolve power in Tamil areas, a policy tilt towards China, and the Rajapaksa family’s death grip.
All in the family
Alongside the continuing offices of Mahinda and Gotabaya, Basil, another brother, was in charge of economic development. Yet another, Chamal, became speaker of parliament.
Together with their extended families they controlled finance and planning, the army, police, the intelligence apparatus, post-war reconstruction, the parliament, the central bank, education, religious affairs, the ports authority, Sri Lankan – the state-run airline – and telecommunications, besides several other institutions.
Alongside, the Rajapaksas continued to pander to the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the clergy, overwhelmingly their power base.
Meanwhile, conscious of Tamil sentiment at home and acutely aware of the Rajapaksas’ tilt towards China and massive Chinese-funded projects, including a deepwater port in Hambantota, India weighed in.
At the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2013, it voted for a US-sponsored resolution on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Canada opted out of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo that November.
Mahinda doubled down.
On October 25, days before the CHOGM summit, the president’s office praised China’s 2 billion Sri Lankan rupee input to renovate the Bandaranaike Memorial International Convention Hall, the venue. “I would like to say thank you to China for its generous assistance to us at all times,” Mahinda declared.
Back in business
The ride ended in 2015, when Mahinda lost his bid for re-election as president to Maithripala Sirisena, a stealth attack from within his own party. But the Rajapaksas remained watchful.
Then came Easter Sunday in 2019, and the Rajapaksas reinforced their raison d’être. On April 21, coordinated explosions in Colombo and elsewhere, mostly at churches and hotels frequented by Westerners, killed nearly 300 and injured several hundred.
The attacks were traced to radicalised operatives of the National Thowheed Jamath. On the face of it, it was played as revenge for an attack on mosques in New Zealand that March.
But the roots may have been deeper in this emotionally and politically fragile island. Anti-Muslim riots had broken out in central Sri Lanka in March 2018. Though they were quickly contained, it was perceived as the ruling United National Party turning a blind eye to Buddhist radicals alleged to have set it off.
That traditionally right-wing party at the time combatively counterbalanced President Sirisena through its leader and prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
(Muslims constitute less than 10% of the now 23 million population. Buddhists account for a dash over 70%, Hindus nearly 13%, and Christians, largely Roman Catholic, most of the remainder.)
The Rajapaksas pounced. Mahinda had formed a breakaway party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. The Rajapaksas banked on the pivotal Sinhala Buddhist bloc – deeply upset with the Easter bombings, dragging with them an insecure lot of “undecideds.”
The presidential vote was up as a rocky Sirisena let slip his control. He decided to not stand for re-election. In the presidential elections on November 16, 2019 Gotabaya won, defeating his UNP opponent.
Parliamentary elections were held on August 5, 2020. Despite Covid, and strenuously pushed by Gotabaya. Mahinda won at the head of a new alliance.
And, just like that, the Rajapaksas were back in business. Gotabaya as president. Mahinda as prime minister this time. And much of the family as eager players in government and policy-making.
But they inherited a stressed country. The Sri Lankan economy grew spectacularly for three years after the war. But growth slowed since, and then hovered between 2% and 4% a year from 2017.
Unemployment rates and inflation improved over the decade, but the economy was still hugely vulnerable to overseas and domestic debt, government profligacy – and political turmoil.
Covid kicked in, shattering the island’s crucial tourism sector. A disastrous government policy mandating a rapid switchover to organic farming crashed agricultural productivity. Debts came calling. The economy tanked. We know the rest.
Sri Lanka is today a basket case, with millions newly impoverished. The Rajapaksas are on the run. So is Wickremasinghe, the prophylactic prime minister who took the parliamentary reins after Mahinda was forced to resign and flee in May.
Absolutism and hubris have long been on Sri Lanka’s over-generous menu. For any resurgence, the carte will need to offer shared prosperity, true integration and democracy.
This article is a lightly edited version of one that first appeared in the Dhaka Tribune.
Sudeep Chakravarti is an historian, author, commentator on matters of conflict and conflict-resolution, and visiting professor of South Asian Studies at ULAB. His latest book is The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East (Simon and Schuster, 2022).