Mahinda may have gone, but his shadow looms large over Lankan politics

While a section of the party is furious with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for 'betraying' his brothers Mahinda and Basil, his loyalists insist the two should keep out of politics

Even as economic situation in Sri Lanka worsens, political games within the SLPP factions continue unabated with the Rajapaksas at the centerstage. File photo

Since the resignation in ignominy of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s prime minister in May, cracks are visible within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), with some targeting their anger against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A section of the party is furious with Gotabaya, blaming him for betraying his brothers Mahinda and Basil. The President’s loyalists, meanwhile, are insisting that the two top leaders need to stay out of politics, given the damage they have done.

Even as the country’s economic situation worsens, political games among various factions of the SLPP are continuing unabated, with the Rajapaksas at the centerstage.

On May 18, Sri Lankans marked the 13th anniversary of the end of the country’s brutal civil war. If Mahinda still had been prime minister, he would have undoubtedly entered parliament that day to a standing ovation from the government benches. He may even have made a speech about how he gave political leadership to the armed forces to completely destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Also read: 13 years too late: As ethnic fault lines blur, what it means for Sri Lankan Tamils

Low-key presence

Yet, on this year’s anniversary, he made a humiliatingly low-key entrance and left quickly. There was no speech. “He should be entering this House like a lion,” remarked an ex-government member of parliament (MP) now sitting with the opposition. “But he walked in like a cat and scurried away like a mouse.”

The day of the anniversary was also the first time the former strongman had been seen in public since May 9, when his supporters attacked peaceful protesters camped outside his official residence – Temple Trees – and beside the Presidential Secretariat at Colombo’s popular Galle Face promenade.

Since the day he stepped down as prime minister, Mahinda, along with wife and family, took shelter at a heavily guarded naval base in Trincomalee in the country’s east. His whereabouts were publicly disclosed by the country’s defence secretary after rumours circulated that he had fled to India, prompting the Indian High Commission in Colombo to issue a strong denial. The former PM has since left the naval base but has kept a low profile even after May 18, with authorities refusing to disclose his current whereabouts for “security reasons.”

Mahinda had been under increasing pressure to step down in the days leading up to the events of May 9, even from within his own government, including his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yet the elder Rajapaksa resisted until the end.

Mahinda’s bid to ride the crisis

On May 9, he met parliamentarians, local council politicians and supporters loyal to him at Temple Trees. The belief was that he would announce his resignation at the meeting. What happened was the complete opposite. Speaker after speaker from the SLPP called on him to stay on. Videos from the meeting that went viral on social media show some speakers openly calling for attacks on the protesters.

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When Mahinda addressed the meeting, there was no announcement of stepping down. Things unraveled quickly after that. Supporters poured out of Temple Trees, many having armed themselves with wooden clubs. They first attacked protesters who had set up camp across the road, savagely beating both men and women and tearing down the makeshift camp. They then marched to Galle Face, about 3 km from the site. Police were waiting for them with water cannon trucks and tear gas, but astonishingly, used none. Instead, officers tried to form a human chain to prevent them from going further. The mob simply went around them.

The attack at Galle Face was even more savage. For more than a month, protesters had camped outside the President’s office. calling on him to step down, even naming the camp as “Gota Go Gama” (Gota Go Village). Attackers went on a rampage, beating anyone they could find, tearing down tents and burning everything. Police finally intervened by firing tear gas indiscriminately into the tent city, hitting attackers and protesters alike.

If the prime minister’s supporters believed that dismantling the protest sites by force would end the campaign to force his and the president’s resignation, they were terribly mistaken. Many people who saw the attack unfolding live on television were outraged.

Soon, vehicles carrying supporters who had come to Temple Trees were being attacked all over Colombo. Vigilante mobs also took to the streets in other parts of the country, stopping vehicles to check if they were carrying the premier’s supporters. Those identified were pulled out and beaten, and their vehicles set alight.

A violent outlet of frustration

The unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters acted as a spark that set much of the country aflame. In it, the frustration that had been building over the past several months as the country staggered under an unprecedented economic crisis finally found a violent outlet. By that afternoon, mobs were attacking and setting fire to residences and properties belonging to pro-government MPs and local council representatives.

Throughout the night of May 9 and through to May 11, despite a nation-wide curfew, nearly 80 residences of mainly government MPs were attacked. Many local council representatives allied to the government also had their houses torched. The violence only subsided after armed forces were deployed with orders to shoot rioters.

The violence left at least 10 people dead, including a government MP and two policemen. More than 230 others were injured. More than 1,500 have been arrested in connection with the violence so far.

A separate probe is underway regarding the attacks on protesters. Two government MPs and several local council representatives are among those arrested and remanded. This probe, conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) however, has come under fire from many quarters given that several key figures, including former ministers allegedly connected to the attacks, are yet to be arrested. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was questioned by detectives for several hours last week over the incidents. It was also revealed in court that he had still not surrendered his passport despite a court order.

Activists and opposition politicians have compared the speed with which police have carried out mass arrests regarding attacks on properties of pro-government politicians with the attacks on protesters, pointing out that just over 20 have been arrested in connection with attacks where hundreds were involved. The failure to arrest some key suspects has also caused concern on political interference over the probe.

Wickremesinghe’s moves

Since taking office as replacement to Mahinda, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has managed to entice some members from the opposition to join the new cabinet. On May 31, the new government announced that it will raise several types of taxes that had been slashed when Gotabaya came to power in 2019. A media release from the prime minister’s office noted that the introduction of this low tax regime caused “an annual loss of around LKR 600 billion – 800 billion in tax revenue to state coffers.”

Also read: Lanka crisis: Court bars ex-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa from travelling overseas

Wickremesinghe is also trying to push through a new constitutional amendment that will curb presidential powers. Discussions on the draft 21st amendment to the constitution are currently ongoing and the amendment is expected to be approved by the cabinet next week.

A contentious clause in the draft, which seeks to reinstate a bar on those holding dual nationalities from holding public office, is already threatening to divide the SLPP as it will mean the end of the parliamentary career of SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa – widely seen as the brains of the Rajapaksa family.