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Lavish projects and meagre lives: The two faces of a ruined Sri Lanka

As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst-ever economic crisis, with people waiting hours for fuel and cutting back on food, nowhere is the reckless spending that helped wreck the country more visible than in Hambantota, the Rajapaksa family's home district in the south

By Mujib Mashal and Skandha Gunasekara
Published: May 30, 2022

Lavish projects and meagre lives: The two faces of a ruined Sri LankaA line for gas at a station near the residence of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former prime minister of Sri Lanka, in the town of Tangalle, May 18, 2022. A frenzy of building on borrowed money in the Rajapaksa family’s home district illustrates the hubris and mismanagement that led the country into economic collapse. Image: Atul Loke/The New York Times

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — The international airport, built a decade ago in the name of Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa family, is devoid of passenger flights, its staff lingering idly in the cafe. The cricket stadium, also constructed on the family’s orders, has had only a few international matches and is so remote that arriving teams face the risk of wildlife attacks.

And then there is the port, the biggest of all the monuments to the Rajapaksas, a white elephant visited almost as much by actual elephants as by cargo ships before it was handed over to China in the face of impossible debt.

As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst-ever economic crisis, with people waiting hours for fuel and cutting back on food, nowhere is the reckless spending that helped wreck the country more visible than in Hambantota, the Rajapaksa family’s home district in the south.

This enormous waste — more than $1 billion spent on the port, $250 million on the airport, nearly $200 million on underused roads and bridges, and millions more (figures vary) on the cricket stadium — made Hambantota a throne to the vanity of a political dynasty that increasingly ran the country as a family business.

The frenzy of building on borrowed money, with little hope of immediate return on the investment, was in essence the payoff for the family’s triumphant declaration of victory in 2009 after a three-decade-long civil war against the Tamil Tigers, an insurgency that had taken up the cause of discrimination against the ethnic Tamil minority.

With Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, then at the peak of his powers, he did what many nationalist strongmen do: erect tributes to himself. Cash wasn’t a problem at the time, as Sri Lanka was finding international goodwill after ending the war and China was emerging as a willing lender around the globe.

That’s now all gone. Sri Lanka is an international basket case whose foreign reserves — which once stood at more than $6 billion under the Rajapaksas — have dwindled to almost nothing. The collapse is partly a result of the loss of tourism during the pandemic, a problem made worse as war has kept away many of the Russians and Ukrainians who used to visit in large numbers. But the family’s economic mismanagement and denial of festering problems have also contributed mightily.

With food prices rising, electricity often cut and lifesaving medicines scarce, protesters have pushed Rajapaksa, 76, out of his latest position — prime minister — and are demanding that his brother Gotabaya, 72, give up the presidency.

This month, after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters attacked peaceful protesters in the capital, Colombo, angry residents in Hambantota went after the symbols of grandiosity and privilege that dot the district.

Local citizens who might once have supported the Rajapaksas for their ardent Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism now swarmed the family’s mansions, pelting them with stones and smashing windows. They destroyed monuments built in the Rajapaksas’ honor and set ablaze the homes of supportive lawmakers accused of amassing wealth and hoarding fuel as the nation suffered.

Just outside the private residence of Rajapaksa, the Carlton House, they tied ropes to a gold-colored statue of his father, D.A. Rajapaksa. When they couldn’t drag it down, they dug under its feet until it collapsed. And around the corner from the family’s sprawling ancestral estate, they torched the museum memorializing the resting place of the patriarch and his wife.

“I am very sad about it,” said Kapila Gamage, a 42-year-old mechanic and supporter of the Rajapaksas. “Whatever the politics, they shouldn’t have done this to their parents’ resting place.”
As he spoke down the road from the Rajapaksa estate, Gamage was waiting for the electricity to come back on so he could complete a welding job. Such struggles are the one thing that unites supporters and opponents of the Rajapaksas amid the economic crisis.

Padma Wijeyawickrama, 53, has been making and selling curd for more than 20 years in Hambantota. While her husband is out grazing their 15 cows, the mother of two stacks the clay pots of curd at her feet on her scooter and drives to the town market to sell them.

Before the economy crashed, she would sell 30 to 40 pots a day. That number has since dropped to about 20, as people have saved for other necessities. Most days in recent weeks, she has come back with half of her stack of 15 unsold.

She was clear about who was to blame: the Rajapaksas.

The family has been a political presence in Sri Lanka for much of the seven decades since the country gained independence from Britain. While the father, D.A. Rajapaksa, was a prominent lawmaker in the 1950s, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who cemented the family as a dynasty that would rule Sri Lanka for much of the past 20 years.

The youngest member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament in 1970, he was seen as a “political artist” who could cast himself as both a man of the people and an assertive leader.

But in recent years, age and illness seemed to be catching up with Rajapaksa. That exposed a fact that the post-civil war triumphalism and lavish spending had papered over: He and his family were inexpert stewards of the government, especially on economic issues.

“If you are investing in debt, you should really be looking at return — and quick return. You can’t do all your long-term, hard infrastructure projects on debt,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a former banker turned state minister of finance. “We completely overleveraged ourselves, and the returns are not there.”

When the Rajapaksas were out of the government from 2014 to 2019, Wickramaratne said, officials found that the reckless spending had worsened the long-standing structural problems of Sri Lanka’s economy: a budget deficit and a balance-of-trade shortfall.

After the Rajapaksas returned to power in 2019, they orchestrated a complete takeover: Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president, Mahinda Rajapaksa became prime minister, and many other family members took Cabinet seats or other senior positions.

With their power consolidated, they announced broad tax cuts — rapidly undoing the work of aligning Sri Lanka’s spending more with its means — and made a disastrous decision to ban chemical fertilizers in hopes of turning the country toward organic farming.

“The present crisis, I would say, is a crisis of governance,” Wickramaratne said. “The twin deficits we have always had — it’s just that the governments have managed it.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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