A President’s Downfall, Nepotism And A Ghost Town In Sri Lanka

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was credited with defeating Tamil guerillas, lost his bid for reelection in 2015. Now, his local fiefdom is suffering.

With only about 11,000 residents, Hambantota has the quality of a ghost town
With only about 11,000 residents, Hambantota has the quality of a ghost town
Antoine Harari and Matteo Maillard

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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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