Feuds start in Sri Lanka's first family
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Sri Lanka's first family appears to be at war with itself. With its
grip over power tightening substantially and the stakes increasing, feuds
between family members are said to be growing.
The meteoric rise of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's 24-year old son Namal is
reported to have irked several cousins, aunts and uncles.
Plump, baby-faced Namal is a neophyte in politics. He was elected this year as
Sri Lanka's youngest parliamentarian. "A future leader with a friendly spirit,
possessing good values ... the dashing and smashing, young Namal Rajapaksa," as
he is described on his web site, is among a large number of
Rajapaksas who sit in parliament or provincial assemblies, occupy key posts and
ministerial positions, and wield enormous influence.
Neither nepotism nor dynastic politics is new to South Asia. The Nehru Gandhi
family, which has given India three prime ministers so far, is the most well
known of India's political families, but there are several others like the
Thackerays, the Karunanidhis and the Gowdas.
Sri Lanka too has its political families, such as the Senanayakes, the
Bandarnaikes and the Rajapaksas to name a few. Rajapaksa's predecessor,
Chandrika Bandarnaike, is the daughter of two prime ministers. For many years
during her presidency, her mother Srimavo was premier. Chandrika's brother
Anura has held ministerial positions and was a speaker of parliament when she
was president. The opposition United National Party (UNP) was often referred to
as "Uncle Nephews Party".
But nepotism has been taken to new heights by President Rajapaksa.
Besides being president, Mahinda Rajapaksa is minister of defense, finance and
planning, ports and aviation, and highways. His elder brother Chamal is speaker
of parliament. Younger brother Gotabaya is defense secretary. Besides
controlling the armed forces, the police and the Coast Guard, he is in charge
of immigration and emigration.
Interestingly, Gotabaya is also in charge of developing prime state-owned land
in the capital, Colombo. Basil, the youngest of the Rajapaksa brothers in
politics is minister of economic development and oversees tourism and
investment promotion. The president's cousin, Nirupama is deputy minister for
water supply and drainage. His nephew, Shashindra, is the chief minister of the
Uva province. Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States, Jaliya
Wickramasuriya is the president's cousin , as is its ambassador to Russia,
Besides, dozens of nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws have been appointed as
heads of banks, boards and corporations. Through their portfolios, the
president and his brothers control directly around 70% of this year's budget.
So vast is the influence of the family that almost all investment decisions in
post-war Sri Lanka, which is aggressively engaging in reconstruction, must get
the nod of a Rajapaksa.
What makes the Rajapaksa nepotism all the more dangerous is that unlike other
democracies where it is possible to get rid of leaders through the ballot box,
in Sri Lanka it seems that Rajapaksa rule is here to stay at least for the
foreseeable future. Rajapaksa and several of his family members are hugely
popular. Moreover, a recent constitutional amendment removed the two-term
restriction for presidents.
during the war, the Rajapaksas and Sri Lanka's then-army chief, Sarath Fonseka,
were united. They fell apart over the spoils of war and credit for the defeat
of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While Fonseka claimed that he
as army chief had led the military operations that culminated in the LTTE's
defeat, the Rajapaksas said it was the president's leadership that made victory
possible. When Fonseka challenged the president in the elections, the
Rajapaksas were determined to eliminate the threat he posed.
"The Rajapaksas worked like a fist to finish Fonseka," a member of parliament
of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the core of the ruling alliance, told
Asia Times Online.
Having eliminated the threat posed by Fonseka - he is in jail serving a
30-month sentence - and decimating the opposition, the Rajapaksas have now
turned on themselves.
Namal's growing profile in Sri Lanka and his parents' grand ambitions for him -
reports say that he is being groomed to succeed his father - seems to be
evoking resentment among the others in the family.
Chamal, who was earlier minister of aviation, irrigation and water management,
was reportedly miffed when he didn't get a ministerial post in the present
cabinet. He was appeased somewhat only after he was made the speaker.
However, he is reported to be unhappy with the way his sons have been treated.
Along with being Uva chief minister, Shashindra was the president's private
secretary. In May, Namal replaced him as the private secretary. Chamal's second
son Shamindra was not given the chairmanship of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority,
a post that would have cast the spotlight by putting him in charge of the
multi-billion dollar Hambantota port project. He has had to remain content with
the post of director of Sri Lanka Telecom.
It is "rivalry between Basil and Namal that is the far fiercer battle", the
SLFP parliamentarian said. Basil has been Rajapaksa's pointman, his political
strategist and adviser. It is his role that is under "great challenge" from
Namal's growing ambitions.
If the Rajapaksas fell out with Fonseka over the spoils of war, the Basil-Namal
feud is being played out mainly in the arena of post-war reconstruction. It is
in the war-ravaged north that this uncle-nephew face-off is becoming the most
Basil was appointed head of a presidential task force that is dealing with
development and reconstruction of the war-ravaged north. Increasingly, Namal is
seen in the north, interfering in who benefits from relief. He and his allies
have got themselves plum projects. Tamilnet reports that he controls the highly
lucrative boat transport to the north, among other things.
Millions of dollars are being poured into reconstruction by India and other
countries. "Besides the money that is up for grabs, there are benefits to
building their image," said the SLFP member. "The image of the victorious
Sinhala extending largesse to the defeated Tamils could be reaped at future
Besides the state machinery that Namal and other Rajapaksas deploy to further
their personal interests, Namal heads two organizations, the Nil Balakaya (Blue
Battalion) and the Tarunyata Hetak (A Tomorrow for the Youth). These are youth
groups, really goon squads that he puts to use to mobilize support and crush
rivals. Several members of the Nil Balakaya have been rewarded with senior
positions as heads of corporations.
This has evoked resentment among several SLFP leaders.
But none dare speak up. After all, their prosperity, indeed their very
survival, depends on their close ties with the Rajapaksas.
"Sahodara Samagama" (Brothers' Organization) was a term coined by the UNP to
deride the Rajapaksa government. "It is now being used by a small clutch of
SLFP leaders, albeit only in the barest of whispers," added the politician,
admitting that he himself "would only dare think of the phrase" to describe the
A Sri Lankan official, a critic of the Rajapaksas, says that "the Rajapaksa
clan" has been successful only because it has stayed together so far. "Mahinda,
Gotabhaya and Basil work as a triumvirate. While Mahinda is the public persona
of the Rajapaksa clan, and Gotabhaya the brawn that crushes their rivals, it is
Basil who is the brains in the family."
"None will succeed without the other," he said, speaking to Asia Times Online
on condition of anonymity. "They cannot afford to fall apart."
If it doesn't work as a fist, the family is finished.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in