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Extravagant, self-righteous and shameless: keeping up with the Rajapaksas

Picture yourself surrounded by the delightful azure seas, pearlescent sandy beaches and stunning villas of the Maldives: the perfect idyllic lifestyle. Then add a quick tour around the hustle and bustle of Singapore to your itinerary, participating in the extravagance of shopping, immersing yourself in the futuristic architectural endeavours, and perhaps adding a romantic touch by going to world-class restaurants with your significant other. Lastly, to destress, and perhaps move from the material to the spiritual, how about a three-month trip to Thailand? Known for its devotion to Buddhism, it is an excellent destination for self-reflection, and some of us really need it.

This is the tour that Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife have been on, private jet to private jet to destress from the crippling chaos in Sri Lanka, such as food and fuel shortages, protests, and arson. Receiving a 90-day visa-free stay requesting asylum in a third country, the Rajapaksa couple arrived in Thailand on Thursday. The two then drove off in a funky black Sedan with the promise to not perform any political activity in the country.

The Rajapaksa dynasty tells us a classic tale of corruption: interwoven with bad administration, sheer incompetence and bitter family feuds that should have stayed private. The mockery of a reign started off with a bang (or many from the gunshots) as charming and charismatic big brother Mahinda was elected as president for two terms from 2005 to 2015. Cosplaying as the down-to-earth rural southerner, disdainful of the Westernised Colombo elite, he was the populist politician. The populist of the Buddhist Sinhalese. Younger brother Gotabaya was dished out the position of defence secretary, and many other family members (including his sons and nephews) received a slice of the pie too. Together, the two chummy brothers brutally, relentlessly, and inhumanely, ended the decades-long civil war against the Tamil Tigers (a separatist group). This first ‘success’ of the family was one which flirted with the coquettish titles of ‘war heroes’ and ‘war criminals.’ Keen to celebrate such a prize with a spending spree, Mahinda splashed out on huge infrastructure projects. 200 million rupees on the picture-perfect Lotus Tower. Port expansions! Bigger, better cricket stadiums! Projects that failed to return enough to justify the investment, and instead turned Sri Lanka into the horror story every politician must allude to when discussing Chinese loans. Extravagant spending initially showing Sri Lanka’s glam soon turned her connotations to be quite glum.

Blood is thicker than water. A constitutional amendment meant that Mahinda could no longer retain his control for a third term, so little brother Basil (who eventually became the puppeteer for all the finance ministers and financial advisors) set up a new political party to rival the opposition. The opposition won a term in the end, up to 2019…

Bitter feuds, family arguments and heated remarks later, Gotabaya was chosen to run for president. He won. The Rajapaksas must be feeling bittersweet and perhaps penitent about his victory now. Repackaging his mentor Mahinda’s ‘down-to-earth’ approach and seasoning it with some extra Sinhalese nationalism (inspired by his one unelected post of being defence secretary as mentioned before) he won the hearts of many Sinhalese, especially as the opposition failed to mitigate the 2019 Easter bombings. Gotabaya’s presidency though did have a distinct flavour Mahinda’s didn’t: sheer incompetence. No experience and no qualifications made him dependent on Jayaweera: Basil and Mahinda’s decades-long buddy. With the role of giving inexperienced Gotabaya some much-needed financial advice, Jayaweera completely annihilated the job. Gotabaya fulfilled his election promise of cutting taxes due to him, despite multiple international warnings, slashing government tax revenue by 25%, eventually causing Sri Lanka to default on its loans. The ridiculous self-righteous ban on fertiliser, causing ironically more unsustainable organic farming to be used, meant price ceilings trebled for many staples and Sri Lanka had to import rice for the first time. Coupled with the shattered tourism industry as a result of the pandemic and the gaping loss of Ukrainian and Russian tourists, Sri Lanka’s economy was finished.

The lack of currency, the international ban on loans, the shortage of food, the shortage of fuel, the shortage of medicine, the inability to import, the lack of tax revenue to spend, the rising protests, the anger and betrayal of the people, changed the once cordial relationship between the Rajapaksas to be bitter. Really bitter. President Gotabaya publicly yelled at Prime Minister Mahinda to resign. Mahinda eventually did so after his son Namal (former minister of sports and youth affairs), older brother Chamal (former minister of finance and irrigation) and younger brother Basil did so. May the 9th meant this initially private family feud spilt into the streets as protesters were violently beaten. Gotabaya resigned only when he arrived in Singapore.

Keeping up with the Rajapaksas is a completely different matter from Keeping up with the Kardashians though. The Rajapaksa’s shameless family feuds have real effects on real people. An island of 22 million has just had its future robbed. School students have had their ambitions ruthlessly snatched as exams were cancelled from a paper shortage. Markets were once teeming with bright colours, enchanting gossip, friends battling over the bill and insults when bargaining; markets are now filled with downcast merchants, earning less than $1 a day, skipping meals as they barely afford sambal and bread each day, painstakingly sourcing firewood instead of fuel to cook. For many hard labourers, daily wages have halved whilst the prices of milk powder trebled, and sugar and tea doubled. The same milk, sugar and tea that were used when sitting around and chatting with their friends.

The Sri Lankan future at the time of writing does not seem much brighter yet. Wickremesinghe, the new president, is friendly with the Rajapaksas. Sri Lanka needs a bailout from the IMF. However, Sri Lanka Matha is ‘Beauteous in grace and love // Laden with grain and luscious fruit // And fragrant flowers of radiant hue // Giver of life and all good things.’ It has an excellent, resilient, well-educated population with a noble spirit as demonstrated by these protests. What we as citizens elsewhere should learn from Sri Lanka is the real cost of corruption. We should keep a closer eye on our politicians. We should hold them accountable faster. Sri Lanka will rise against this, and she will take this as a lesson that will change her forever.

Currently, Wickremesinghe negotiating with the IMF seems the best option, hopefully the marionette strings of the Rajapaksas don’t block his eyes…



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