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With Sri Lanka in ruins, the Rajapaksa family is fleeing

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – As guests sat down for a banquet dinner at the lavish colonial-era home of the Sri Lankan president last summer, the little conversation quickly turned serious.

Addressing members of the ruling coalition, the country’s energy minister, Uday Gammanpila, defended a slight increase in fuel prices aimed at addressing the serious shortage of dollars needed to import fuel, medicine and other necessities for the island nation.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda came to the measure after a year of discussions. But another member of the family – Basil, the finance minister, one of the five royalty in the cabinet – had other ideas.

Before the guests went to the dance floor, Basil Rajapaksa stood up to announce that Sri Lanka was not really suffering from a foreign exchange crisis, according to Mr Gummanpila and others present. The perpetrators claimed that dollars were flowing out of the country’s banking system. Give him two weeks, he said, and he’ll fix it.

He does not. Almost a year later, Sri Lanka is in the throes of an economic catastrophe, with shortages of basic foodstuffs, lack of medicine in hospitals and lines of fuel for blocks as the country’s foreign reserves run out. As much as the ruling family in Sri Lanka is concerned about the economic woes of the dynasty, there is now a wave of outrage in the country. Once empowered by victorious Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism after a brutal civil war, Rajapaksa has been called incompetent and denied by his own allies.

Now, the dynasty that has ruled the country for more than two decades is on the brink of extinction, with most families hiding militarily and only the president in power. Last to go: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the patriarch and prime minister, who was evicted from his home this week after clashes erupted that left eight people dead across the country.

Energy Minister Gummanpila said that the Rajapaksas – especially Basil, the shadow power broker before he became the finance minister – should see the calamity coming.

“Tulsi did not want to accept the fact that this economic crisis leads to economic crisis and political crisis until we can resolve it,” he said.

“He controlled everything,” Mr Gummanpila added, a sentiment echoed by other officials and diplomats, “and he knew nothing.”

In recent years, it has become clear to analysts that Sri Lanka is moving towards an economic revolution. He warned that the country’s balance of payments and macroeconomic trends were not aligned.

Over the course of decades, the small island nation of 22 million people had built a flourishing state, a country stronger than its means, built a wide range of social welfare programs, large military and post-war construction projects. As economic growth slowed, so did borrowing to pay off.

Economic tensions escalated as epidemic travel bans dried up the tourism dollar. Then came the catastrophic ban on chemical fertilizers, as the Rajapaksa government pushed for organic farming at a time when climate change was already threatening crops and food security.

When it became clear that the government needed assistance from financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, Rajapaksa withdrew. Used to take easy loans from allies such as China, they feared the harsh expectations that would come with such packages, officials and diplomats said.

The economic downturn gave rise to continuous protests. At the main protest site, with gorgeous gale faces overlooking the Indian Ocean from the capital Colombo, protesters increasingly addressed issues that many ethnic-majority Sinhalese had at one time shunned.

Many have described the root of the crisis as the impunity suffered by the political and military elite in the aftermath of the civil war, with allegations of crimes against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The end of the war marked the beginning of majority conquest, the exploitation of which the monarchy hid deep economic problems and bypassed reconciliation.

Members of his own party say that the monarchists, provoked by war and ethnic nationalism, felt more and more empowered in the face of their weak rule.

Among the protesters were VGN Damayanti, 45, and her husband NP Vikramarathana. When the economy crashed, she said, she lost her family business, a small takeaway restaurant that employed 15 people, and sold her home. Now they are living on money by selling their car.

What worries her most is the future of her three children, the eldest of whom will soon graduate with an IT degree.

“It simply came to our notice then. It was a family affair,” she said.

Protests against Rajapaksa have been peaceful for weeks, and many protesters and analysts have been surprised by the president’s restrained response to allegations of misconduct as defense secretary during the civil war.

But the anger escalated on Monday when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to give protesters a waiver – his resignation – turned into a delusion that his brother was struggling to control.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

The attack sparked a wave of anger and violence, with mobs burning dozens of homes belonging to members of the ruling party. In Colombo, some of the prime minister’s supporters were forced to jump into the lake and flee safely in swan boats.

“The president had seen it on television,” said Nalka Godahewa, a former cabinet minister who was with Gotabaya Rajapaksa when his brother’s supporters marched on protesters.

“When I entered, he was shouting at the Inspector General of Police on the phone – why did you let these people in,” he said. “But by then the people had entered, so he ordered them to use water cannons, rubber bullets, whatever force they had to flee.”

Mr Godahewa, whose house was also destroyed by fire, said he had stayed at the presidential residence for several nights after the chaos escalated. The protesters broke through the temple tree, the old colonial compound where the prime minister lived, and forced their way inside.

The president was said to be furious: he was using the phones to control the disturbances caused by his brother’s army, and was helping to get the same brother out with his family.

Officials and members of the ruling party said in an interview that the episode was a sign of a rift between the two brothers and their circle. (Members of the Rajapaksa family, as well as their official representatives, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, a former president who has been described as increasingly weak by those who have seen him in recent months, felt ignored by his younger brother, who thought he was running for president. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, was trying to find a place for himself when he learned that his brothers had taken advantage of his political experience to carry out destructive policies in his name.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. They thought they could get rid of the protests and prove to the president that they were not working, but they did.

In the days that followed, the president tightened the curfew, ordering security forces to shoot at the scene to prevent vandalism and arson. In a televised address on Wednesday, he condemned the attacks on protesters and the ensuing violence, and vowed to step down. He also announced the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new Prime Minister for the sixth time.

Whether or not the president can last for the remaining two years of his term is determined by how much the military supports him.

Former Army Colonel, Mr. Rajapaksa has defended the army, protecting officers from war crimes investigations and providing attractive civilian jobs to loyalists.

Hemasiri Fernando, a former defense secretary, said the military had calculated its own interests, and the economic crisis was so widespread that it affected families in the military, forcing officials to turn a blind eye to the president’s support despite public outrage.

“They understand the difficulty, because they are also facing it,” Mr Fernando said.

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