Ruling Sri Lanka is a family affair

Times Staff Writer

The Rajapakse family business is virtually everyone’s business on this island.

That’s because the family’s line of work is running the country -- and fighting a civil war, to boot. Between them, the four Rajapakse brothers occupy the most powerful jobs in Sri Lanka’s democratically elected government, including the biggest plum of all: the presidency.

Indeed, by appointing his siblings to key posts, President Mahinda Rajapakse has ensured that 70% of the national budget is under the control of his family, critics say. It’s an eye-popping figure but, according to observers, a credible one.

Mahinda Rajapakse also heads the Defense and Finance ministries, two of the government’s largest portfolios. Last year, defense alone accounted for 19% of national spending, pushed to so high a level because of the lapse back into open battle between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels, after the collapse of a fragile cease-fire.

The architect of the government’s campaign against the Tigers is the hawkish defense secretary and decorated military officer Gotabhaya Rajapakse. Basil is the president’s senior advisor, described by some as the power behind the throne.


The fourth Rajapakse brother, Chamal -- the only one besides Mahinda to be elected to office, as a member of Parliament -- is in charge of the Ports and Aviation Ministry.

Under Sri Lanka’s Constitution, and throughout 24 years of brutal conflict with the rebels, it has not been uncommon for presidents to retain the Defense Ministry for themselves. But by vesting so much authority from other areas of government in himself and his brothers, the current president, who was elected two years ago, has indulged in blatant nepotism and overstepped the bounds of propriety, his detractors say.

“Maybe he could have all those ministries and departments that deal with the war, but not something like finance,” said opposition politician Lakshman Kiriella. “Under the constitution, he can hold all the ministries. It’s not illegal. But it’s immoral.”

The Rajapakses do not reject complaints that they control most of the state’s purse strings, choosing to ignore them. Requests for comment from the president’s office and from the prime minister’s office went unanswered.

For months, critics have tried to make political hay out of the near-monopoly the brothers hold on government. Two former presidential Cabinet members crossed over to the opposition this year, partly out of frustration that the Cabinet, though composed of more than 50 people, wielded little real power compared with the Rajapakses.

But Sri Lanka’s hapless opposition has been unable to mount a serious challenge. The president’s aggressive military push against the separatist Tamil Tigers has also made him a popular figure among his nationalist allies in Parliament and among some sections of the ethnic-majority Sinhalese public.

And so far, although bureaucratic corruption ranks as one of the top grievances of ordinary Sri Lankans, no accusations have surfaced that the Rajapakse brothers have used their public authority for private gain.

But some analysts are worried that the concentration of power sets a bad precedent for democratic governance on the island, which won independence from Britain in 1948.

“Given the dominance of the president, and his dependence on his brothers, it could be said that 100% of the budget is dependent on them, as they can block anything,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “This is not healthy.”

He said that civil society and businesspeople were “very much alienated by these happenings, and they constantly speak out. But that’s about all they can do.”

Members of the opposition are trying to overcome internal squabbles and mobilize public opinion against the Rajapakses’ lock on government. An anti-government rally last month drew tens of thousands of protesters in Colombo, the capital.

But unless the ruling coalition is hit by more defections, or popular discontent swells, change is unlikely. For the time being, the business of governing Sri Lanka is liable to remain all in the family.