COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As guests sat down to a banquet last summer at the grand colonial-era home of Sri Lanka’s president, small talk quickly turned serious.
Addressing members of the ruling coalition, the country’s energy minister, Udaya Gammanpila, defended a slight increase in fuel prices meant to address a critical shortage of dollars the island nation needed to import fuel. fuel, medicine and other necessities.
The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brother Mahinda, the prime minister, agreed to the measure after a year of discussions. But another family member – Basil, the finance minister, one of the five Rajapaksas in the cabinet – had other ideas.
Before the guests made their way to the dance floor, Basil Rajapaksa stood up to declare that Sri Lanka was in fact not suffering from a currency crisis, according to Mr Gammanpila and another person present. The criminals, he claimed, were embezzling dollars from the country’s banking system. Give him two weeks, he said, and he’ll fix it.
He wouldn’t. Nearly a year on, Sri Lanka is in economic ruin, with basic foodstuffs scarce, hospitals running out of medicine and fuel lines stretching for blocks as the country’s foreign exchange reserves are running out. The current wave of anger gripping the country is as much about the family dynasty ruling Sri Lanka as it is about economic disaster. Once empowered by a triumphant Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism after a brutal civil war, the Rajapaksas have been undone by what their own allies call incompetence and denial.
Now that dynasty, which ruled the country for the better part of two decades, is on the verge of extinction, with most of the family hiding in a military base and only the president clinging to power. Last to go: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the patriarch and prime minister, who was evacuated from his home this week after sparking clashes that left eight people dead across the country.
Mr Gammanpila, the energy minister, said the Rajapaksas – especially Basil, a shadowy power broker before becoming finance minister – should have seen disaster coming.
“Basil was unwilling to accept the fact that this financial crisis will lead to an economic crisis, and unless we solve it, it will lead to a political crisis,” he said.
“He was in control,” Mr Gammanpila added, a sentiment echoed by other officials and diplomats, “and he knew nothing.”
That Sri Lanka was headed for an economic crash had become increasingly clear to analysts in recent years. They warned that the country’s balance of payments and macroeconomic trends were misaligned.
Over a period of decades, the small island nation of 22 million people had built up a bloated state sector, strong social welfare programs beyond the country’s means, a sizable military and an elaborate series of construction projects. after war. As economic growth slowed, it continued to borrow to pay.
Economic stress has increased as pandemic travel restrictions have dried up tourism dollars. Then came a disastrous ban on chemical fertilizers, as the Rajapaksa government pushed organic farming at a time when climate change was already threatening crops and food security.
As it became clear that the government needed help from financial bodies like the International Monetary Fund, the Rajapaksa dragged their feet. Accustomed to easy loans from allies like China, they have been discouraged by the stringent expectations that come with such packages, officials and diplomats said.
The economic collapse has spawned a sustained protest movement. At the main protest site, along the scenic Galle Face, which overlooks the Indian Ocean from the capital, Colombo, protesters increasingly broached topics that most ethnic majority Sinhalese had once shunned.
Many have described the root of the crisis as the impunity enjoyed by the political and military elite after a civil war plagued by accusations of crimes against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The end of the war initiated a majoritarian triumphalism, exploited by the Rajapaksas, which concealed the deepest economic troubles and circumvented reconciliation.
Members of their own party say the Rajapaksas, driven by war and ethnic nationalism, felt an even greater sense of entitlement in the face of their weak governance.
Among the protesters were VGN Damayanthi, 45, and her husband, NP Wickramarathna. As the economy collapsed, she said, they lost their family business, a small take-out restaurant that employed 15 people, and sold their house. Now they survive on the money from the sale of their car.
What worries them most is the future of their three children, the eldest of whom will soon be graduating in computer science.
“Part of it was because of Covid,” she said, “but a big part was this family.”
Protests against the Rajapaksas have been peaceful for weeks, and many protesters and analysts were surprised when the president, who had been accused of abuse as defense secretary during the civil war, reacted with restraint.
But the anger culminated on Monday, when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa turned what was meant to be a concession to protesters – his resignation – into a conflagration his brother is struggling to contain.
Supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa, bussed to his residence, came out and attacked peaceful protesters who had camped there for weeks due to the heat and monsoon showers.
The assault sparked a wave of anger and violence, with mobs burning down dozens of homes belonging to members of the ruling party. In Colombo, some of the prime minister’s supporters were forced to jump into a lake and flee to safety on swan boats.
“The president had watched it on TV,” said Nalaka Godahewa, a former minister who was with Gotabaya Rajapaksa when his brother’s supporters marched on protesters.
“When I walked in he was shouting on the phone to the Inspector General of Police – that’s why you let these people in,” he said. “But by then people had come in, so he ordered him to use water cannons, rubber bullets, any force to chase them away.”
Mr Godahewa, whose house was also set on fire, said he remained at the President’s residence for much of the night as anarchy took hold. At Temple Trees, the former colonial compound where the prime minister lives, protesters broke down doors and forced their way in.
The president was reportedly furious: he was working on the phones to get the military to control a mess started by his brother, while helping that same brother evacuate with his family.
Ruling party officials and members have said in interviews that the episode was an indication of the divisions between the two brothers and their circles. (Members of the Rajapaksa family, as well as their official representatives, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, a former president described as increasingly weakened by those who have seen him in recent months, felt left out by a younger brother he believed to have made president. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the 72-year-old president, was trying to find his own ground after realizing his brothers had taken advantage of his political inexperience to introduce disastrous policies in his name.
Supporters of the prime minister, said Charitha Herath, a ruling party MP, “thought they could shake off those protests and prove to the president that he wasn’t acting, but it backfired.
In the days that followed, the president tightened the curfew, ordering security forces to shoot on sight to stop vandalism and arson. In a televised address on Wednesday, he condemned the assault on protesters and the ensuing violence, and vowed to curtail his own sweeping powers. He also announced a new prime minister, bringing Ranil Wickremesinghe back to work for his sixth time.
The president’s ability to hold out for the remaining two years of his term can be determined by the extent to which the military will support him.
A former army colonel, Mr Rajapaksa shielded the army, shielding officers from war crimes investigations and rewarding loyalists with cushy civilian jobs.
Hemasiri Fernando, a former defense secretary, said the military had calculated its own interests and the economic crisis was too widespread, also affecting military families, for officers to blindly support the president despite public anger .
“They understand the difficulties, because they also face them,” Fernando said.