COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — When guests sat down for a banquet dinner at the grand home of the colonial-era Sri Lankan president last summer, the talk quickly turned serious.
The country’s energy minister, Udaya Gammanpila, addressed members of the ruling coalition, defending a small hike in fuel prices intended to address the critical shortage of dollars the island nation needed to supply fuel, medicine and other resources. import supplies.
The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brother Mahinda, the prime minister, had come on board with the measure after a year of discussion. But another relative—Basil, the finance minister, one of the five rajapaksas in the cabinet—had other ideas.
Before the guests made their way to the dance floor, Basil Rajapaksa stood up to declare that Sri Lanka was not really suffering from a currency crisis, according to Mr Gammanpila and another attendee. Criminals, he claimed, were funneling dollars out of the country’s banking system. Give him two weeks, he said, and he’d sort it out.
He wouldn’t. Nearly a year later, Sri Lanka is in economic ruin, with scarce basic foodstuffs, hospitals running out of medicine, and fuel lines stretching into blocs as the country’s foreign reserves run low. The wave of anger that now grips the country is both about the family dynasty ruling Sri Lanka and the economic disaster. Once empowered by a triumphant Buddhist Sinhala nationalism after a brutal civil war, the Rajapaksas have been undone by what their own allies call incompetence and denial.
Now that dynasty, which has dominated the country for the better part of two decades, is on the brink of an end, with most of the family in hiding on a military base and only the president clinging to power. Last to go: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the patriarch and prime minister, who was evacuated from his home this week after causing clashes that killed eight people across the country.
Energy Minister Gammanpila said the Rajapaksas – especially Basil, a shadowy power broker before he became Finance Minister – should have seen the disaster coming.
“Basil was unwilling to accept that this financial crisis will lead to an economic crisis, and unless we resolve it, it will lead to a political crisis,” he said.
“He checked everything,” added Mr. Gammanpila, a sentiment echoed by other officials and diplomats, “and knew nothing about it.”
That Sri Lanka was heading for an economic crash had become increasingly clear to analysts in recent years. They warned that the country’s balance of payments and macroeconomic trends are not aligned.
Over a period of decades, the small island nation of 22 million people had built a bloated state sector, robust social welfare programs that exceeded the country’s resources, a large military and an extensive array of post-war construction projects. When economic growth slowed, it continued to borrow to pay.
Economic stress intensified as pandemic travel restrictions dried up tourist dollars. Then came a disastrous ban on chemical fertilizers as the Rajapaksa government pushed for organic farming at a time when climate change was already a threat to crops and food security.
As it became clearer that the government needed help from financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Rajapaksa lagged behind. Accustomed to easy loans from allies like China, they were disheartened by the strict expectations associated with such packages, officials and diplomats said.
The economic collapse sparked an ongoing protest movement. At the main protest site, along the scenic Galle Face, which overlooks the Indian Ocean from the capital Colombo, protesters have increasingly raised issues that most ethnic-majority Sinhalese once shied away from.
Many have described the root of the crisis as the impunity enjoyed by the political and military elite following a civil war filled with allegations of crimes against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The end of the war led to a majoritarian triumphalism, exploited by the Rajapaksas, which concealed the deeper economic problems and evaded reconciliation.
Members of their own party say the Rajapaksas, buoyed by war and ethnic nationalism, felt a right that was all the more striking in light of their weak governance.
Among the protesters were VGN Damayanthi, 45, and her husband, NP Wickramarathna. When the economy collapsed, she said, they lost their family business, a small takeaway restaurant that employed 15 people, and sold their house. Now they live off the money they get from selling their car.
What worried them most was the future of their three children, the oldest of whom will soon graduate with an IT degree.
“Some of this was because of Covid,” she said, “but a lot of this was this family.”
Protests against the Rajapaksas have been peaceful for weeks and many protesters and analysts were surprised when the president, who had been accused of abuses as defense minister during the civil war, reacted with restraint.
But the anger reached a head on Monday when the Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned what was intended as a concession to the protesters — his resignation — into a conflagration that his brother struggles to contain.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters marched out on buses to his residence and attacked peaceful protesters who had camped there for weeks due to heat and monsoon rains.
The attack unleashed a wave of anger and violence, with mobs setting fire to dozens of homes belonging to ruling party members. In Colombo, some of the prime minister’s supporters had to jump into a lake and flee to safety on swan boats.
“The president had seen it on television,” said Nalaka Godahewa, a former minister who was with Gotabaya Rajapaksa when his brother’s supporters marched on the protesters.
“When I came in, he yelled on the phone to the Inspector General of the Police – why did you let these people in,” he said. “But by then the people had come in, so he ordered him to use water cannons, rubber bullets or whatever force he had to chase them away.”
mr. Godahewa, whose house also burned down, said he spent much of the night at the president’s residence when anarchy struck. At Temple Trees, the old colonial compound where the prime minister lives, protesters broke through the gates and broke in.
The president is said to be furious: He was on the phones to let the military control a mess unleashed by his brother, while also helping that same brother evacuate with his family.
Officials and members of the ruling party said in interviews that the episode was indicative of the rift between the two brothers and their circles. (Members of the Rajapaksa family, as well as their official representatives, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, a former president described as increasingly weakened by those who have seen him in recent months, felt sidelined by a younger brother he believed had become president. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the 72-year-old president, tried to make his own way after realizing that his brothers had taken advantage of his political inexperience to conduct disastrous policies in his name.
The prime minister’s supporters, Charitha Herath, a lawmaker from the ruling party, said †thought they could get rid of these protests and prove to the president that he was not acting, but it backfired.”
In the days since, the president tightened the curfew and ordered security forces to shoot at sight to stop vandalism and arson. In a televised address on Wednesday, he condemned the attack on the protesters and the violence that followed, and vowed to curtail his own sweeping powers. He also announced a new prime minister, bringing back Ranil Wickremesinghe for the sixth time.
Whether the president can hold out for the remaining two years of his term in office may be determined by the military’s support.
A former army colonel, Mr. Rajapaksa, has protected the military, shielded officers from war crimes investigations and rewarded loyalists with soft civilian jobs.
Hemasiri Fernando, a former defense minister, said the military had calculated its own interests and that the economic crisis was too widespread, affecting the families of military personnel, for officers to blindly support the president despite public anger.
“They understand the hardship, because they have to deal with it too,” Fernando said.