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The family that crashed a country

The family that crashed a country


Running Sri Lanka is the Rajapaksa family business. Gotabaya is the president and at one point last year there were five of them in the cabinet. Now the country is on the verge of economic collapse.

“So without gas we can’t do anything, without kerosene oil we can’t do anything. Next month you can see Sri Lankan people without food, a lot of people [will] die.”


This man isn’t a protester.

He’s just queueing for gas, so his family can cook.

Every day, across Sri Lanka, millions of people are having to queue for basics – fuel, food, medicines, baby milk, you name it. 

Often the queues turn violent.


Thousands have been injured. 

MPs who support the government of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa have had their houses torched.

Some have had to swim to safety across a lake in the capital, Colombo.

Rajapaksa’s political base – Sri Lanka’s Sin-ha-lese majority – has turned against him.

In April his entire cabinet including his brother, the prime minister, resigned and fled.

The clamour for the president to go too is deafening – on the streets, in parliament, and in the media.

But he won’t. He’s digging in, which prompts a simple question. Why?


Rajapaksa is not exactly charismatic.

Two weeks ago he gave a speech to the nation.

[Rajapaksa speech] 

He sounded more like a doctoral student defending his thesis than a president fighting for his political life.

But  did actually win the election, in 2019. 

He had a few things going for him.

One was name recognition. For the Rajapaksas, running Sri Lanka is a family business.

At one point last year there were five of them in the cabinet including the prime minister – Gotabaya’s older brother.

Also, he was known as a tough former soldier and defence minister in Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war, and we’ll come back to that.

And there was this: 

“Sri Lanka police arrested seven suspects just hours after the Easter Day bombings following a raid that left three officers dead. One of the blasts at about 8.30 this morning was caught on cell phone. Up close the carnage was shocking.” 

CBS News

On Easter Sunday, 2019, bombers linked to Islamic state killed 269 people in a series of attacks on churches and hotels in Colombo. Seven months later Rajapaksa ran for the presidency on a promise of better security, and won. 

It wasn’t a great time to be president.

Sri Lanka depends on tourism and the bombings drove tourists away. Then Covid kept them away for most of 2020 and 2021.

Just as they started returning this past winter, the war in Ukraine drove up energy prices – and Sri Lanka had to import almost all its gas and oil. 

A country with deep pockets and a diversified economy could probably have weathered this storm. But that isn’t Sri Lanka. 

For the past decade its governments have borrowed billions, mainly from China, for big, wasteful infrastructure projects and to pay the interest on its loans. 

Between 2015 and 2019, 89 per cent of new debts were taken on to pay for old ones.

It was more like a Ponzi scheme than actual economic management, and now there’s nothing left.

Here’s the new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe:

“I’m not looking at the books, I know the books are cooked, I can’t look at it at the moment. But where the economy is, i will, if you understand. On the monetary side of it, we are now dealing with the IMF. On the monetary side. But the real economy is not functioning.” 

Ranil Wickremesinghe, BBC News

By the time of this year’s energy price squeeze everyone knew the game was up for the Rajapaksas – including the Rajapaksas. 

In his speech to the nation, the president made a point of promising a new government without any of his siblings or cousins.

But the man himself sticks around like a bad smell – and so does the question: why?


Autocrats like power, but there’s more to this story than megalomania.

In the 1990s, after a successful career as an army officer beating back Tamil insurgents, Rajapaksa went awol.

He emigrated to America and settled down as a systems analyst in Southern California. 

He returned to Sri Lanka in 2005 to help one of his brothers run for office, but often went back to the US on holiday. 

And it was there, in a supermarket car park in LA in 2019, that a private investigator walked up to him and served him with court papers in a manila envelope.

He was being accused of war crimes committed on his watch as defence minister in 2009. 

The families of a murdered journalist and a tortured Tamil fighter wanted to put him on trial in the States.

Activists say thousands were killed and tortured on Rajapaksa’s orders. 

“Patients were killed and the patients who were in the hospital and there were other patients who were waiting for treatment. There was a medical store where we kept the medicines, those were destroyed and scattered all over the place. Ambulances were destroyed. So I have seen that personally.” 

Jegan Waran, ABC News

Rajapaksa denies everything despite grim evidence, including mass graves found in so-called “no-fire zones” to which Tamil fighters retreated at the end of the war.

The accusations haven’t gone away.

But – and here’s the thing – the presidency gives Rajapaksa immunity from prosecution.


In fairness, he could have tried to impose martial law. 

Instead he’s promised to end corruption and revise the constitution to limit his own powers. Then, he says, he’ll go. 

But in the meantime the man he’s appointed as prime minister, Wickremesinghe, is an old-timer who’s had the job five times before.

He’s acquired a reputation as the Rajapaksas’ in-house troubleshooter. 

“The people are asking the president to leave office and they are undeterred by anything. For over a month they are protesting on streets and camped outside his secretariat. And then he goes and appoints someone as prime minister who could not win his own seat in the last election. We have as president so who just lost his mandate and as prime minister someone who never had a mandate.”

Jaffna MP MA Sumanthiran, The Print

Wickremesinghe is pleading for time. 

“We are getting back on our feet. We need your assistance for a year, whatever we get from you we will repay. Help us to do it. We are the longest and oldest democracy in Asia.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe, BBC News

A democracy in which people power somehow isn’t working. 

Today’s story was written by Giles Whittell and mixed by Ella Hill