Brief history of the rise, fall of Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Published - July 14, 2022 12:18 am IST - Colombo

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled overnight to Maldives on a military jet on July 13 amid mass protests over the island nation’s economic crisis.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled overnight to Maldives on a military jet on July 13 amid mass protests over the island nation’s economic crisis. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Before he fled Sri Lanka on July 13 amid a crushing economic crisis, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the last of six members of the country's most influential family still clinging to power.

Mr. Rajapaksa and his wife flew on a military jet to the city of Male, the capital of the Maldives, the air force said.

His departure comes four days after massive crowds broke into his official residence and occupied his seaside office, and he pledged to leave the country. Protesters also stormed the residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has said he will leave once a new government is in place.

Here is a closer look at the rise and fall of Mr. Rajapaksa:

A family affair

For decades, the powerful land-owning Mr. Rajapaksa family dominated local politics in their rural southern district before Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005. Appealing to the nationalist sentiment of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority, he led Sri Lanka into a triumphant victory over ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, ending a 26-year brutal civil war that had divided the country. His younger brother, Gotabaya, was a powerful official and military strategist in the Ministry of Defense.

Mr. Mahinda remained in office until 2015, when he lost to the Opposition led by his former aide. But the family made a comeback in 2019, when Mr. Gotabaya won the presidential election on a promise to restore security in the wake of the Easter Sunday terrorist suicide bombings that killed 290 people.

He vowed to bring back the muscular nationalism that had made his family popular with the Buddhist majority, and to lead the country out of an economic slump with a message of stability and development.

Instead, he made a series of fatal mistakes that ushered in an unprecedented crisis.

Tax cuts drain government funds

As tourism plunged in the wake of the bombings and foreign loans on controversial development projects — including a port and an airport in the president’s home region — needed to be repaid, Mr. Rajapaksa didn't listen to economic advisers and pushed through the largest tax cuts in the country’s history. It was meant to spur spending, but critics warned it would slash the government’s finances. Pandemic lockdowns and an ill-advised ban on chemical fertilizers further hurt the fragile economy.

The country soon ran out of money and couldn’t repay its huge debts. Shortages of food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine stoked public anger at what many saw as mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

The end begins

The family’s unravelling began in April, when growing protests forced three Rajapaksa relatives, including the finance minister, to quit their Cabinet posts and another to leave his ministerial job. In May, government supporters attacked protesters in a wave of violence that left nine dead. The anger of the protesters turned against Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was pressured to resign as prime minister and took refuge on a heavily fortified naval base.

But Mr. Gotabaya refused to go, triggering chants in the streets of “Gota Go Home!” Instead, he saw his savior in Mr. Wickremesinghe, a seasoned Opposition politician whom he brought in to steer the country out of the abyss. Ultimately, however, Mr. Wickremesinghe lacked the political heft and public support needed to get the job done.

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