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.