For weeks protesters in Sri Lanka have chanted “Go home Gota.” Now Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president, appears to be looking for one. His first stop was the Maldives, reached last night. The United Arab Emirates may be the final destination.
The Rajapaksa family’s fall has been spectacular. It has resonated across the region, and well beyond. The ruler of Sri Lanka has been a high-profile casualty of the global cost of living crisis, analysts have said. In distant South Africa, a talk show host asked if the soaring cost of living there could spell the end for the ruling party. Others are asking the same question.
But the case of Sri Lanka, an exceptional place in every sense, is not easily transferrable, though there are lessons in it for any leader or protester.
The story starts with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother, Mahinda, who won power in 2005 by projecting himself as a simple man from the rural south standing against the metropolitan, westernised political elite in Colombo, the capital. He wasn’t anywhere near as folksy as he pretended to be, but no matter. He also promised an end to the decades-long, bloody civil war against a faction of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka’s north.
This was duly, and brutally, delivered. The Rajapaksas sought to channel and intensify the resultant wave of support among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority. A surge of chauvinism was one consequence. Another was the sense of empowerment that moved the Rajapaksas to spend enormous, borrowed sums on huge infrastructure projects of dubious value. A second win for Mahinda came in 2010.
In 2019, it was Gotabaya who won back power for the family, defeating a floundering and divided coalition government by offering voters strong and technocratic leadership. This appealed to a new constituency: still Sinhala and nationalist but educated, urban, westernised, tech-savvy. Gotabaya’s appeal was boosted by the Islamist extremist bombings on Easter Sunday that year.
What no one expected was the sheer incompetence of Gotabaya’s increasingly autocratic rule. Taxes were cut, interest rates reduced, vast new loans sought, money printed – all at exactly the wrong time. Covid brought a collapse in tourism and remittances, both big sources of foreign exchange. A decision to make agriculture in Sri Lanka fully organic – largely an effort to greenwash an inability to afford fertiliser – crashed the entire sector. Soon, Sri Lanka was in a full economic meltdown.
“Gotabaya was a very poor politician. He surrounded himself with charlatans … just barked orders at people. He was incapable of charming anyone, cutting deals, or changing course in time,” said Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka with the International Crisis Group.
Allegations of systematic corruption made huge price hikes, power cuts and shortages of medicines particularly enraging. With the country’s president, prime minister, finance minister and dozens of top officials all from the same family, there could only be one direction to point the finger of blame.
This may not be a revolution – Sri Lanka has a long and established tradition of democracy, albeit one that has been strained in recent years – but it is an immense upheaval. The likelihood of a return of the family to power is unlikely, at least for many years.
“The Rajapaksa brand is pretty much trashed for a long time, if not for ever,” said Keenan. Other good news is that the protest movement has bridged community and class divides in Sri Lanka in a way that few have seen for decades. Optimists see the possibility of a new national vision and spirit taking root.
Others worry that years of majoritarian rhetoric have had an effect. Both Mahinda and Gotabaya exploited resurgent Sinhalese nationalism in different ways. A new methodology could be equally effective. It is obvious to everyone that there is no political or economic quick fix for a very troubled country.
“There is energy on the street, but it will be difficult to move from that to putting Sri Lanka on the real road to recovery,” said Charu Lata Hogg of Chatham House.
Other leaders in south Asia and beyond have followed a similar playbook to that of the Rajapaksas. With economies under huge strain everywhere, many will be watching with interest.
On the one hand, the Rajapaksas’ toxic cocktail won the family almost 15 years in power and what is reported to be immense wealth. On the other, Gotabaya ended up ordering the Sri Lankan air force to fly him out of the country because civilian immigration officials reportedly tried to prevent his escape. Being trapped when the protesters are diving into the presidential swimming pool and there’s no fuel for the limos is the stuff of authoritarian nationalist nightmares. Some very cynical calculations are currently being made in the corridors of power in capitals across much of the developing world.
July 13, 2022 at 11:56PM Jason Burke