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Sri Lanka’s all-powerful Rajapaksas under fire

Anger is boiling over in Sri Lanka at the country's worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, much of it directed at the island nation's all-powerful Rajapaksa family.

People shout slogans as they gather outside Sri Lanka President’s home to call for his stepping down as the country’s unprecedented economic crisis worsened in Colombo, on March 31, 2022. – The protest trying to storm the home of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa turned violent on March 31, 2022, with at least one man critically wounded, as residents slammed the government’s handling of the country’s crippling economic crisis. (Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP) /

Anger is boiling over in Sri Lanka at the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, much of it directed at the island nation’s all-powerful Rajapaksa family.

Late Thursday hundreds of people tried to storm the home of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the current president and one of four politically active brothers. In a night of violence one person was injured and 45 were arrested.

AFP profiles the clan, which has held sway over the nation’s politics for decades and which returned to power after a brief hiatus in 2019 when Gotabaya was elected president.

‘The Chief’
Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, is the charismatic head of the group and the current prime minister. He previously held the post in 2004 and was then president from 2005 to 2015.

Gotabaya appointed him to the prime ministership a second time three years ago.

Mahinda is adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for crushing separatist Tamil rebels in May 2009 following a brutal military offensive that ended a decades-long civil war.

The bloody final weeks of the civil war ended with — according to UN estimates — the deaths of around 40,000 civilians, who were herded into so-called no-fire zones that were then bombed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Rajapaksa denied the toll and refused an international probe into alleged atrocities. A series of local enquiries have failed to yield either a proper war crimes investigation or prosecutions.

During his rule Sri Lanka also moved closer to China, borrowing almost $7 billion for infrastructure projects — many of which turned into white elephants mired in corruption.

Critics say he also did little to bridge the divide with Sri Lanka’s Tamils after the war. The community is barred from commemorating their war dead and remain largely marginalised.

‘The Terminator’
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, was Mahinda’s main lieutenant during his time as head of state, holding the influential post of secretary to the defence ministry with day-to-day control of the armed forces and police.

He denies accusations that he was behind death squads that abducted and “disappeared” dozens of opponents in notorious white vans.

Dubbed “The Terminator” by his own family, he is feared by foes for his short temper.

As president he has presided over Sri Lanka’s spiralling economic crisis.

A dire shortage of foreign currency — needed to pay down Sri Lanka’s debt — forced the government to ban swathes of imports, causing severe shortages of essentials.

Sri Lanka’s heavily tourism-dependent economy was first hit by the Easter Sunday Islamist attacks of 2019 and then torpedoed by Covid.

But many experts say that economic mismanagement by the Rajapaksas is also to blame including years of chronic budget deficits and ill-advised tax cuts.

‘Mr. Ten Percent’
Basil Rajapaksa, 70, is a political strategist who managed the economy under Mahinda and is now finance minister.

He was called “Mr. Ten Percent” in a BBC interview in reference to commissions he allegedly took from government contracts.

Subsequent administrations failed to prove any charges he syphoned off millions of dollars from state coffers. All cases against him have been dropped since Gotabaya became president.

The Bodyguard’
Chamal Rajapaksa, 79, was speaker of parliament when Mahinda was president and is also a former minister of shipping and aviation. He currently holds the irrigation portfolio and is number two in the defence department under Gotabaya, who is also defence minister.

Formerly a police officer, he once served as a personal bodyguard to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister.

The Scion
Namal Rajapaksa, 35, a lawyer, is the scion of the family dynasty and the eldest son of Mahinda, who is thought to be grooming him to be president one day.

He entered parliament in 2010 aged just 24, and is now minister for sports and youth.

During his father’s decade in power, Namal was highly influential although he did not hold any portfolio.

A rival former administration accused him of money laundering and other corruption charges, which he denies.

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