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Rule of the Rajapaksas: Sri Lanka marks return of influential family amid struggling economy, growing Chinese footprint

India may be cautious of China's sway in the island nation, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems keen to maintain cordial ties with the northern neighbour

November 25, 2019 / 05:47 PM IST
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) with his brother Mahinda. (Image: Reuters)

Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) with his brother Mahinda. (Image: Reuters)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man largely responsible for the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been elected to lead Sri Lanka as the nation reels under the ripple effects of a ghastly terror attack.

Nicknamed 'Terminator' in the family, Gotabaya has promised strong leadership to secure the island of 22 million people, a majority of whom are Sinhalese Buddhists. During the election, Gotabaya capitalized on public outrage at the outgoing government’s mishandling of intelligence reports warning of terrorist attacks. In April, a Muslim militant group claiming loyalty to the Islamic State killed hundreds of people in coordinated suicide bombings at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.

“As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey,” President-elect Rajapaksa wrote on Twitter. “Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline...”

All in the Family

Gotabaya Rajapaksa's election signals the return to power of a divisive family credited with ending the country’s long civil war but through brutal means.


In a disquieting but predictable move, Gotabaya has begun concentrating power within his own family. Due to a law introduced by the previous government, Mahinda could not run for another term as president, so Gotabaya was put forward as the candidate. However, there were suggestions that Mahinda, the more charismatic and popular of the duo, remains the de facto leader. His appointment as both prime minister and finance minister, two of the most powerful posts, lends credence to the reports.

Another Rajapaksa brother, Chamal, a legislator, was sworn in as the minister of agriculture, irrigation, internal trade and consumer welfare. Sibling Basil Rajapaksa will also continue to play a powerful role behind the scenes as chief strategist.

The appointments concentrate power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family in a manner similar to when Mahinda was president. At the time, it gave the brothers the power to act with complete impunity, control the courts and condone a campaign of intimidation and violence.

The brothers oversaw the military operation which ended the Tamil separatist conflict in 2009. It lasted more than 25 years and is estimated to have claimed some 100,000 lives.

sri lanka war

During its final stages, thousands disappeared - many are said to have been tortured or killed. The enforced disappearances continued into years after the war ended, when businessmen, journalists and alleged critics of the Rajapaksas were rounded up and never seen again.

There are multiple court cases relating to corruption and torture pending against both Gotabaya and Basil.

The Chinese Footprint

China's foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, congratulated Gotabaya after the election, saying, "China and Sri Lanka are strategic cooperative partners with sincere mutual assistance and ever-lasting friendship", before expressing his hopes for "high-quality BRI cooperation” in the years to come.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, is an ambitious infrastructure project seeking to strengthen China's connectivity with the world. Cash-strapped partner nations, like Sri Lanka, are hoping Chinese investment will ease their economic woes. Lankan dependence on Chinese money, however, precedes the BRI.

When Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa was desperately in need of a strong ally. The United States, Europe and India were critical of the government amid allegations of human rights abuses against the ethnic Tamil minority.

Mahinda then steered towards Beijing and the money flowed in. Roads, railways, ports and power stations were built across the island nation.


Since the end of the civil war in 2009, China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest lender. Borrowings, loans and grants from China account for as much as $11 billion. In 2017, a Chinese state-owned company wrote off $1 billion in debt to gain a 99-year controlling lease of the strategic Hambantota harbour in the south.

That trend is likely to continue, according to S Keethaponcalan, a Sri Lankan researcher at Salisbury University. “Under Gotabaya, Sri Lanka will again move closer to China. Chinese development assistance could become crucial for the development agenda of the new government,” he said.

As Gotabaya takes over the reins of a country riddled with debt running into billions of dollars, his supporters expect him to revitalize the economy. Many expect China to help deliver this key campaign promise.

Big Brother India

In 2014, tensions between India and Sri Lanka peaked when a Chinese submarine and warship were allowed to dock in Colombo, fuelling New Delhi's fears of Chinese aggression.

After his defeat in 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa accused India of interfering in the elections, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the last year, however, the icy relationship has seemingly thawed. In September 2018, Mahinda met PM Modi in New Delhi. Soon after, diplomatic circles in Colombo read the renewed dialogue as a signal that India was not going to scuttle any comeback move by Rajapaksa.

New Delhi has also been quick to woo the new Lankan administration. PM Modi was the first world leader to call President-elect Gotabaya. A day into his five-year term, Gotabaya held his first bilateral meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

Gotabaya is also slated to undertake his first overseas visit to India on November 29.

New Delhi may be cautious of China's growing footprint in the neighbouring island nation, but as events in the first few days of his presidency have shown, Gotabaya is keen to maintain cordial ties with the northern neighbour.

“The selection of the venue for the new president’s first visit as New Delhi is perhaps the signal that the new government will adopt a pro-China policy while accommodating India's concerns,” S Keethaponcalan said.
Nayanika Chakraborty
first published: Nov 25, 2019 05:47 pm

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