Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Feuds start in Sri Lanka's first family

By Sudha Ramachandran | Asia Times

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, Udayanga Weeratunga.

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 tense.

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 elections."

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 government.

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 Bangalore.

© Asia Times

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