The Fall of the House of Rajapaksa is Also a Test for President Sirisena

By Sarah Stodder | 5 March 2016

On the evening of 30 January, a police bus carried Yoshitha Rajapaksa through the gates of Welikada Prison in northeast Colombo. Yoshitha, the 27-year-old middle son of Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, flashed a thumbs up with his handcuffed hands at the crowd of onlooking soldiers and news cameramen. A massive British-era fortress, Welikada has often served as a purgatory for political prisoners: independence activists, suspected Tamil Tiger sympathisers, and Sarath Fonseka, the victorious civil war general who was jailed after challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa in an election. Now Rajapaksa’s own son, accused of funnelling state resources to his private sports channel Carlton Sports Network, has become the latest addition to the prison’s infamous guest list.

Yoshitha’s breezy attitude at the prison gates belied the irony and gravity of his family’s situation. Once effectively in control of about 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s budget thanks to nepotistic cabinet appointments, the Rajapaksas have been on the defensive since the patriarch Mahinda’s ouster from the president’s chair over a year ago, and in the past month, the family’s fall has accelerated considerably. In addition to Yoshitha’s arrest, Mahinda, his wife Shiranthi, and their eldest son Namal have been questioned by the police regarding ongoing investigations of financial fraud and murder. Standing in front of the prison to which he once confined his political enemies, Mahinda Rajapaksa tearfully called the recent actions against his family a “witch hunt,” led by his former cabinet minister and current president Maithripala Sirisena, to strip all power from Sri Lanka’s once-untouchable clan.

But the implications of Sirisena’s “witch hunt” extend far beyond the personal fates of the Rajapaksa family members. At stake in these investigations is Sri Lanka’s rule of law, and the simmering allegations present a chance for Sirisena to confront the culture of violence and impunity that pervaded Sri Lanka’s political class during Rajapaksa’s decade in power. At the moment, however, the future of accountability in Colombo remains precarious. Though Sirisena currently holds Yoshitha behind bars, the financial charges against Rajapaksa’s son are light fare. Allegations of murder, most notably that of the popular ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen, still hang in the balance. Former Rajapaksa cronies, too, have begun making loud accusations, no doubt hoping to spend the country’s reformist zeal on the erstwhile president’s crimes instead of their own. Sirisena—the bespectacled and unassuming cabinet minister who unexpectedly split with his longtime ally Rajapaksa over a dinner of hoppers—gained the office of the president in January 2015 largely on pledges to undo the Rajapaksas’ chokehold on the Sri Lankan state. But until Sirisena follows through on a more serious investigation than financial fraud, his agenda of political reform will remain merely a promise.

To be sure, the Rajapaksas are a worthy scapegoat. During their decade of power, members of the ruling family lived entirely above the law. Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed his brothers as cabinet ministers, oversaw the illegitimate impeachment of a supreme court chief justice, tripled Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, and was responsible for a UN-estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the last months of the civil war. Nearly every family member is now being investigated for money laundering, and the former president’s brother, Basil, was arrested in 2015 for misappropriation of state funds in a construction project (he was later released on bail). The Rajapaksa sons got away with assaulting sports referees, shutting down entire boulevards in Colombo for late night drag races, and importing luxury goods without duties. Rohitha, the youngest son, addressed Sirisena in a Facebook post after his brother’s arrest: “You just stood on the tail of THE lion, now don’t expect the lion, not to rip u in to parts [sic].” For the past decade, the Rajapaksas were the Sri Lankan state, embodied by the mighty beast on the country’s flag.

The problem, of course, is that jailing Rajapaksas will not bring the rule of law to Sri Lanka. While at one point the legal spotlight never shone on the family, it is now fixed upon them almost exclusively. In bringing down the Rajapaksas, Sirisena risks sending the message to other members of parliament that the way to have one’s own sins overlooked is to point a finger at a Rajapaksa. The MP Mervyn Silva, for instance, has seized this chance enthusiastically. A former Rajapaksa loyalist who jumped ship in the immediate aftermath of Sirisena’s election, Silva is known around Colombo for threatening journalists and, on one occasion, tying a political rival to a mango tree. (Unbelievably, he was at one point in charge of the government’s public relations.) For years, Silva has been dogged by allegations of drug dealing, prostitution, extortion, and murder. His name—along with that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the former president—has been associated with the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the founder of the Sunday Leader, one of Sri Lanka’s most outspoken newspapers. Silva has now loudly accused the Rajapaksas of assaulting his son, Malaka, and killing the rugby player Thajudeen. It is not hard to imagine that Silva hopes his possible role in bringing the Rajapaksas to justice will loom larger than his alleged crimes, not least his shadowy connection to Wickrematunge’s death, which has been under toothless investigation for years.

The story of the Silvas is illustrative of a larger structure of corruption and violence that Sirisena’s investigations, by narrowly focussing on the Rajapaksas, risk leaving intact. Families connected to the former president were long able to intimidate critics with white van abductions—common political modus operandi in Sri Lanka—while their playboy sons terrorized Colombo nightclub-goers. Malaka Silva, for instance, is infamous for his 2014 assault of a couple in a Colombo club, and stories of his sexual intimidation of women are commonplace. Many Colombo residents—including some lawyers and policy analysts—believe that white van abductions have decreased since Sirisena took office. A recent report by the International Truth and Justice Project, however, found that the phenomenon has far from ceased.

The investigation that could deliver a satisfying blow to Rajapaksa’s legacy and Colombo’s culture of elite violence is the murder of Wasim Thajudeen. But it is also vulnerable to political interference. A well-known rugby player on local and national teams, Thajudeen was found dead in a burning car in central Colombo in May 2012. The incident was quietly filed away as an accidental crash, but was reopened as a murder case as soon as Mahinda Rajapaksa left office. In August 2015, amid public commotion, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) exhumed Thajudeen’s body and found that it showed signs of torture.

The Rajapaksas could be held responsible for the deaths of many Sri Lankans, from journalists like Wickrematunge to the 40,000 civilians (almost all Tamil) killed at the end of the war. But the Thajudeen case provides a unique opportunity: he was well-liked, and was named the “Most Popular Rugby Player” in 2008. Unlike Wickrematunge and the Tamil civilians, Thajudeen’s life was no source of political tension for the Rajapaksas and the Colombo ruling class. His death was not tied to a political cause; he was killed, rumour has it, because he was friendly with a woman desired by one of the Rajapaksa sons.

The mystery of Thajudeen’s seemingly brutal murder has captured the imagination of the Sri Lankan press and public—in December, it even provoked a fistfight on the floor of the parliament, during which Rajapaksa supporters hurled death threats at an opposition MP who had brought up the case following a speech by Namal Rajapaksa. Both Namal and Yoshitha Rajapaksa are rumoured to have been involved in the murder. A Rajapaksa bodyguard known as Captain Tissa was reportedly seen at the crash site by several eyewitnesses. However, the investigation hit a glitch when the CID declared that it would have to send camera footage of the crash site overseas for analysis. After a month of murky delay, the footage was sent to Canadian experts on 1 March 2016.

Tracing Thajudeen’s murder to its origin would involve a public exploration of Colombo’s heart of darkness, to an extent that Sri Lanka has not seen before. The case is now so well known that a failure by the Sirisena administration to follow through could lead to serious public disillusionment—already, many weary Colombo insiders have begun to doubt the endurance of the investigation. The judiciary is more independent now than it was under Rajapaksa, but the Sri Lankan police are not above politics, and whether they will be swayed by the pressures of Sirisena or by the numerous bureaucrats, military leaders, and elected officials who are still beholden to Rajapaksa, remains to be seen. The Thajudeen case is a ticking bomb underneath the former ruling family, and more serious than any of the financial charges of the past month.

Sirisena has also faced criticism for the slow pace of his investigations. The president defended himself on the grounds that however inevitable the Rajapaksas’ guilt may seem, the independence of his inquiries must not sacrificed for political expediency. Given Sri Lanka’s history of executive interference in the judiciary, Sirisena’s apparent detachment is a respectable step forward. Sri Lanka’s justice system under Sirisena will be considered effective based not only on the results it yields, but also on the legitimacy of its process. Until a Rajapaksa prosecution occurs, however, Sirisena’s progress is likely to be seen as merely symbolic.

Two weeks ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his plans to split from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sirisena’s ruling party and his own lifetime affiliate, to found a new political party. He intends to test the new party in local government elections this June and use it, presumably, to make a second pass at a political comeback. “Arrest my sons, my wife, my brothers. I will not be moved,” Rajapaksa told reporters amid the storm of Yoshitha’s detainment and his announcement of his new party. “All these things will only strengthen the Rajapaksa brand.”

This appeal may yet work for many voters, for whom Rajapaksa is still the victor of Sri Lanka’s war and the symbolic lion of the state. By allowing Rajapaksa to turn himself into a victim, Sirisena might be rolling out the carpet for the former president’s political return. Sirisena’s honeymoon period as the president is over, and the future of his party will depend greatly on how he handles the Rajapaksas’ fate. If the investigations succeed too quickly, Rajapaksa can dismiss them as illegitimate and fire up his base. If they drag on too long, Sirisena could squander the political will and public hope he has ridden for the past year.

“2016 is the year of showing results,” the president declared in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, his first in-depth international television appearance. Sirisena has cast his dragnet and is trawling the river; he must now decide what to do with the bodies that have floated to the surface.

Sarah Stodder is a freelance writer based in New York. You can read more of her work in San Francisco magazine. She is on Twitter as @SarahStodder.

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