Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was credited with defeating Tamil guerillas, lost his bid for reelection in 2015. Now, his local fiefdom is suffering.
HAMBANTOTA — This city in southern Sri Lanka has a port, a cricket stadium, and an airport. But with only about 11,000 residents, Hambantota feels like a ghost town. There is also a conference center built in 2013 with capacity to hold up to 1,500 people. It's named after Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015, and is a native of the Hambantota district. Rajapaksa's military defeated the Tamil rebel group LTTE in 2009 after a long civil war, but went on to lose the 2015 presidential election.
Hambantota's conference center has not been used in four years. The center's roughly 50 employees, including 25 security guards, kill time as best they can. They show us the vast rooms that stay desperately empty.
The city is a symbol of nepotism and power held by the Rajapaksa family. Mahinda's two brothers controlled the army and the finances Sri Lanka. But after Rajapaksa lost power to the new president Maithripala Sirisena, the local swanky projects were left to die.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium, which was constructed for the Cricket World Cup, hasn't been used in two years. The seats are coated in dust and the walls are covered in pigeon droppings. About 20 kids play soccer on the grounds. More than 20% of this agricultural town's population is under the line of poverty — they haven't benefited from these projects.
The photos of the former president that were once mounted all over the region have disappeared.
"There are more than 45 investigations against the Rajapaksa family. But the Hambantota projects are by far the worst. He left the country's economy on its knees," says Rajit Keerti Tennakoon, director of the NGO Human Rights Research.
Even though the Rajapaksa lost the elections, he remains popular among conservative Sinhalese in the country.
"Cult of personality"
"Mahinda Rajapaksa created a cult of personality. He is certainly one of the most charismatic politicians in the last 40 years. Despite the criticism about his management of the country and accusations of corruption, he remains very popular," says Nishan de Mel, an economist for think-tank Verité Research.
Famous for his booming style, the "father of the nation" as he likes to be called, is dressed in simple Sri Lankan attire when we meet him. "The new government does nothing to develop the country. They stopped all the investments that I had started. The people are displeased," says Rajapaksa.
When we ask him if he regrets the Hambantota projects and the Chinese investment he sought, he responds: "I think this government is closer to the Chinese than I was. I made commercial deals that always benefited the country. The Chinese government lent money for the port. I proposed it to other people but nobody wanted to invest because of the war."
"For the good of the people"
"When I learned that I had lost the elections, I immediately left for my home in the south. I was thinking about retirement. But, when I arrived, I saw thousands of people waiting in front of my door. That lasted three months. I think that this fervor is unique in the world. I have to go back for the good of the people," says Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa's son, Namal, hopes to continue his legacy. Youngest member of the family to have been elected to parliament at the age of 23, Namal became the governor of the Hambantota province like his father and grandfather.
Namal, who was educated in Britain, was arrested and imprisoned briefly last year for money laundering. Like his father before him, he declares himself a defender of human rights. Malinda Rajapaksa's political career took off in 1989 when he denounced at the United Nations in Geneva the violence committed by the government of the time.
Namal brushes aside accusations of war crimes committed by the army under the Rajapaksa administration against the Tamil population as well as charges of corruption. "Our enemies accuse us of possessing $18 billion in an account abroad. Even Trump who is the president of the United States only has 2.5. It's ridiculous," he says.
An admirer of the new American president, Namal adds, "The international community doesn't understand anything. The best example is the last American election. Donald Trump campaigned with nationalist arguments but he is not racist. People just didn't understand him."