The Fall of the House of Rajapaksa is Also a Test for President Sirisena

05 March 2016
Former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, with his son Yositha and wife Shiranthi. The Rajapaksas are currently under investigation for financial fraud.
REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
Former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, with his son Yositha and wife Shiranthi. The Rajapaksas are currently under investigation for financial fraud.
REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

On the evening of 30 January, a police bus carried Yoshitha Rajapaksa through the gates of Welikada Prison in northeast Colombo. Yoshitha, the 27-year-old middle son of Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, flashed a thumbs up with his handcuffed hands at the crowd of onlooking soldiers and news cameramen. A massive British-era fortress, Welikada has often served as a purgatory for political prisoners: independence activists, suspected Tamil Tiger sympathisers, and Sarath Fonseka, the victorious civil war general who was jailed after challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa in an election. Now Rajapaksa’s own son, accused of funnelling state resources to his private sports channel Carlton Sports Network, has become the latest addition to the prison’s infamous guest list.

Yoshitha’s breezy attitude at the prison gates belied the irony and gravity of his family’s situation. Once effectively in control of about 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s budget thanks to nepotistic cabinet appointments, the Rajapaksas have been on the defensive since the patriarch Mahinda’s ouster from the president’s chair over a year ago, and in the past month, the family’s fall has accelerated considerably. In addition to Yoshitha’s arrest, Mahinda, his wife Shiranthi, and their eldest son Namal have been questioned by the police regarding ongoing investigations of financial fraud and murder. Standing in front of the prison to which he once confined his political enemies, Mahinda Rajapaksa tearfully called the recent actions against his family a “witch hunt,” led by his former cabinet minister and current president Maithripala Sirisena, to strip all power from Sri Lanka’s once-untouchable clan.

But the implications of Sirisena’s “witch hunt” extend far beyond the personal fates of the Rajapaksa family members. At stake in these investigations is Sri Lanka’s rule of law, and the simmering allegations present a chance for Sirisena to confront the culture of violence and impunity that pervaded Sri Lanka’s political class during Rajapaksa’s decade in power. At the moment, however, the future of accountability in Colombo remains precarious. Though Sirisena currently holds Yoshitha behind bars, the financial charges against Rajapaksa’s son are light fare. Allegations of murder, most notably that of the popular ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen, still hang in the balance. Former Rajapaksa cronies, too, have begun making loud accusations, no doubt hoping to spend the country’s reformist zeal on the erstwhile president’s crimes instead of their own. Sirisena—the bespectacled and unassuming cabinet minister who unexpectedly split with his longtime ally Rajapaksa over a dinner of hoppers—gained the office of the president in January 2015 largely on pledges to undo the Rajapaksas’ chokehold on the Sri Lankan state. But until Sirisena follows through on a more serious investigation than financial fraud, his agenda of political reform will remain merely a promise.

To be sure, the Rajapaksas are a worthy scapegoat. During their decade of power, members of the ruling family lived entirely above the law. Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed his brothers as cabinet ministers, oversaw the illegitimate impeachment of a supreme court chief justice, tripled Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, and was responsible for a UN-estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the last months of the civil war. Nearly every family member is now being investigated for money laundering, and the former president’s brother, Basil, was arrested in 2015 for misappropriation of state funds in a construction project (he was later released on bail). The Rajapaksa sons got away with assaulting sports referees, shutting down entire boulevards in Colombo for late night drag races, and importing luxury goods without duties. Rohitha, the youngest son, addressed Sirisena in a Facebook post after his brother’s arrest: “You just stood on the tail of THE lion, now don't expect the lion, not to rip u in to parts [sic].” For the past decade, the Rajapaksas were the Sri Lankan state, embodied by the mighty beast on the country’s flag.

The problem, of course, is that jailing Rajapaksas will not bring the rule of law to Sri Lanka. While at one point the legal spotlight never shone on the family, it is now fixed upon them almost exclusively. In bringing down the Rajapaksas, Sirisena risks sending the message to other members of parliament that the way to have one’s own sins overlooked is to point a finger at a Rajapaksa. The MP Mervyn Silva, for instance, has seized this chance enthusiastically. A former Rajapaksa loyalist who jumped ship in the immediate aftermath of Sirisena’s election, Silva is known around Colombo for threatening journalists and, on one occasion, tying a political rival to a mango tree. (Unbelievably, he was at one point in charge of the government’s public relations.) For years, Silva has been dogged by allegations of drug dealing, prostitution, extortion, and murder. His name—along with that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the former president—has been associated with the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the founder of the Sunday Leader, one of Sri Lanka’s most outspoken newspapers. Silva has now loudly accused the Rajapaksas of assaulting his son, Malaka, and killing the rugby player Thajudeen. It is not hard to imagine that Silva hopes his possible role in bringing the Rajapaksas to justice will loom larger than his alleged crimes, not least his shadowy connection to Wickrematunge’s death, which has been under toothless investigation for years.

Sarah Stodder Sarah Stodder is a freelance writer based in New York. You can read more of her work in San Francisco magazine. She is on Twitter as @SarahStodder.

Keywords: Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa Colombo Wasim Thajudeen politics Sarah Stodder Maithripala Sirisena