A younger Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in pressed white shirt and red tie, grins like a Cheshire cat as his elder brother Mahinda embraces him in a rare public display of tenderness. It was 2006 and Gotabaya, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary under his brother’s presidency, had narrowly survived a suicide bombing by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group that for decades fought the Sri Lankan government in a brutal civil war.
This lucky escape was the turning point in a career that helped make his family the political dynasty of modern Sri Lanka. Gotabaya crushed the Tamil Tigers with a military campaign in which tens of thousands of civilians are believed to have died, dismissing allegations of war crimes. He brought the family back to power in 2019 after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, trading off his image as a military strongman to win a decisive presidential mandate from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
“The main appeal made by the people to me was to protect the country,” he said in 2020. He would do so “in the same manner we won the war, when most were of the opinion that we would not be able to”.
If allegations including graft and extrajudicial killings by the military have not stopped Gotabaya and his family’s rise, this week’s events might. The president, 72, is accused of leading the economy into crisis with double-digit inflation, severe shortages and a dramatic collapse in living standards.
His cabinet resigned on Monday — including prime minister Mahinda. In an attempt to remain in power, Gotabaya appointed veteran political rival Ranil Wickremesinghe in his brother’s place. Yet despite violent attacks by his supporters and an army-enforced curfew, it is unclear whether Rajapaksa will be able to quash an entrenched protest movement calling for his resignation.
At the heart of his humbling is the tale of a military leader who never learnt to be a politician and, critics say, Sri Lanka’s missed opportunity to transform itself from a war-scarred country into one of Asia’s economic powerhouses. Rajapaksa stacked his administration with relatives and military officials, and used divisive policies and rhetoric to mobilise his hardline base. He made economic decisions, including an idiosyncratic fertiliser ban, that exposed his lack of governing experience.
Rajapaksa “ran the government like the military, not realising that in politics you have to create these broad coalitions and make these broad compromises”, says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a sociologist at the University of Jaffna.
People describe Gotabaya, who looks more like a retired professor than a war veteran, as a reserved counterpart to Mahinda, a rambunctious political operator. He was “in his element” during the war, according to Nirupama Rao, a former Indian diplomat who dealt with him for years. “He tended to be a man of few words, quite unlike his brother.” Yet he sometimes revealed a menacing side, once threatening to hang a political rival.
The Rajapaksas hail from a political dynasty in Hambantota, a once sleepy rural district on Sri Lanka’s luscious southern coast that has been transformed by Chinese investment into a would-be Belt-and-Road infrastructure hub. The family stand accused of enriching themselves while the island careened towards its current debt crisis. They deny the allegations.
Gotabaya, one of nine siblings, entered the army in 1971 and rose up the ranks, while Mahinda followed their father into parliament. Sri Lanka’s civil war started in 1983, a traumatic conflict that would kill about 100,000. Gotabaya fought early military offensives before a spell in the US, returning after Mahinda became president in 2005.
An unrelenting offensive against the Tigers finally ended the war in 2009. The Sri Lankan army is accused of indiscriminately bombing densely populated areas and executing suspected militants. Journalists and other perceived dissidents were also abducted, tortured and murdered while Gotabaya was defence secretary. The Tigers were also accused of atrocities. As president, Gotabaya has stalled efforts for accountability, according to Human Rights Watch, rubbishing allegations of wrongdoing as western pearl-clutching. “Either you are a terrorist or you’re a person who’s fighting the terrorism,” he once told the BBC.
After a spell in opposition, the family returned to power in 2019. With Sri Lanka already facing a brewing economic crisis after years of heavy overseas borrowing, Rajapaksa cut taxes, eroding government revenues. The loss of tourism during the pandemic dealt a further blow.
Yet even as foreign reserves shrivelled and supplies from fuel to medicine ran low, his government dismissed calls to restructure and begin IMF negotiations until a popular and political revolt forced a U-turn in March.
Nalaka Godahewa, an allied MP, argues that Rajapaksa is poised to make a comeback. He “was brought into power by professionals who wanted a non-politician,” he says. “He has an opportunity to deliver what he promised with a fresh cabinet.”
But with soldiers now patrolling the streets to enforce uneasy calm after a week of violence, critics hope this is the last stand of the once-mighty Rajapaksa family.
“[Their] base has diminished considerably,” says Bhavani Fonseka, a human-rights lawyer. “From what was promised in 2019 and the situation two years later, it’s a spectacular collapse.”