In a wide ranging Colombo datelined story published on Thursday, The Guardian, the widely respected British newspaper, has laid bare the inside story of Sri Lanka’s current predicament in a report headlined “‘The family took over:’ how a feuding ruling dynasty drove Sri Lanka to ruin.”
Written by Hanah Ellis-Peterson the report offers damning quotes from several former cabinet ministers who voted for the 20th Amendment enhancing President Gotabaya Rajapaksas powers but now publicly rue what they have done. It also quotes media and advertising magnate, Dilith Jayaweera, described as a “close friend of the president.”
The former ministers quoted in the report are Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Messrs. Udaya Gammanipila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Charitha Herath, who has played important roles in the administration and now heads COPE is also quoted.
Jayaweera figures early in the narrative. Although no friend of Basil Rajapaksa, he had invited the latter to his plush office for dinner. As they ate, Dilith had fired some questions. The report quoted him saying, “Basil couldn’t answer even my basic questions. He was giving very lousy answers – that we’ll find money from here, from there, saying it would all be fine to pay our debts. I saw then he really didn’t understand the economy at all; that it was done, dusted, finished for us.”
Godahewa has some interesting things to say as illustrated by the following quotation.
“As soon as Gotabaya took office, “the family took over; he was dancing only to their tune. Basil loyalists were given the key cabinet portfolios and the family parachuted in PB Jayasundara, a bureaucrat who had a decades-long relationship with Mahinda and Basil, to become secretary and economic adviser to the president. Jayasundara had once been barred from holding public office, but that was later overturned.”
“Gotabaya had no political experience and knew nothing about economics; he depended entirely on PB Jayasundara to run the economy,” said Charitha Herath, an SLPP MP who sat on several parliamentary finance committees. The problem was, he was giving very bad advice.”
This is what Gammanpila has said: “”I submitted 11 cabinet papers warning about the impending crisis. But whenever we raised an economic issue, Basil felt we were interfering with his work and he got offended. He repeatedly said that everything was fine. But in my assessment, he doesn’t have even a basic understanding about economics.” He also says: “”Basil was the true power. Gotabaya didn’t know how bad things were and Mahinda was getting old and not in the best health, he was just the figurehead. Everything was controlled by Basil.” He has further said, “This was a time bomb that had been accumulating for several decades now. Everything was built with borrowed, not earned, money.”
Basil Rajapaksa had declined to be interviewed for this article and his close aides had refused to speak on the record.
Vasudeva Nanayakkara says that the president accepted whatever proposal Basil put before him. Also that “”The relationship between Gotabaya and Mahinda had always been very cordial, very loving and paternal. But towards the end, as Gotabaya told Mahinda in so many words to step down, it was very, very bitter.”
The Guardian report says those on the inside say Mahinda agreed to resign on three or four occasions, but would then return to his inner circle – including his wife and two sons who were in politics – to be persuaded he did not need to go. “This kept on happening for about two weeks,” said Godahewa. Frustration and anger grew between the two brothers.
It further says that as reports of the May 9 attacks reached Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was at home in Colombo, he exploded in anger. The night before, having already had concerns about the gathering, he had given instructions to the chief of police to be ready with officers, teargas and water cannon.
“The president was screaming over the phone to the senior DIG, asking why the hell haven’t you prevented these people entering Galle Face,” said Godahewa, who was holed up at Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home for two days as it all took place. “He was shouting: ‘I’m the president, you do what I say, somehow stop these people.”
It further says that by the time the police resonded, the spark had already been lit with the worst violence in decades engulfing the country.Gotabaya also appeared to have lost control of the military, who failed to intervene, many said out of fear by top brass that they would be held accountable if anyone was killed.
“I saw how much the president pleaded with the army chief to take action, saying: ‘Send troops, do something,’” said Godahewa, whose own house was burned down. “The president was so frustrated because everybody’s house was burning and the army was not stopping them.”
But, according to police and ministerial sources, the police chief held back from taking action against the mobs attacking Galle Face, having been told by his seniors that this was a family matter between Mahinda and Gotabaya and it was safer for police to not be seen to take sides.