Lush Projects and Meager Lives: The Two Faces of a Devastated Sri Lanka

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — Built ten years ago in the name of Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa family, the international airport has no passenger flights and staff hangs idly in the cafe. The cricket stadium, which was also commissioned by the family, has only hosted a few international matches and is so remote that oncoming teams are at risk from wildlife attacks.

And then there’s the port, the greatest of all monuments to the Rajapaksas, a white elephant frequented almost as much by real elephants as by freighters before being handed over to China on an impossible debt burden.

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

This massive waste — over $1 billion spent on the port, $250 million on the airport, nearly $200 million on underutilized roads and bridges, and millions more (figures vary) on the cricket stadium — turned Hambantota into a throne for 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 investment, was essentially the reward for the family’s triumphant declaration of victory in 2009 after a three-decade civil war against the Tamil Tigers, an uprising that caused discrimination against the ethnic Tamil minority.

With Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, then at the height of his powers, he did what many nationalist strongmen do: pay tribute to himself. Cash was not an issue at the time as Sri Lanka found international goodwill after the war ended and China emerged as a willing lender around the world.

That’s all gone now. Sri Lanka is an international basket case whose foreign reserves – which once amounted to more than $6 billion under the Rajapaksas – have dwindled to almost nothing. The collapse is partly the result of the loss of tourism during the pandemic, a problem that has been exacerbated as war has kept away many of the Russians and Ukrainians who used to visit in droves. But the family’s economic mismanagement and denial of lingering problems have also contributed greatly.

With food prices soaring, electricity cuts frequently and life-saving medicines in short supply, protesters have pushed Mr Rajapaksa, 76, from his last post – prime minister – and demand that his brother Gotabaya, 72, relinquish the presidency.

After Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters attacked peaceful demonstrators in the capital Colombo this month, angry residents of Hambantota went after the symbols of grandeur and privilege dotted around the district.

Local citizens who had once been able to support the rajapaksas because of their fervent Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism now swarmed the family’s mansions, pelting them with stones and breaking windows. They destroyed monuments built in honor of the Rajapaksas and set fire to the homes of supportive lawmakers accused of accumulating wealth and hoarding fuel while the nation suffered.

Just outside Mr. Rajapaksa’s private residence, the Carlton House, they tied ropes to a gold-colored statue of his father, DA 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 set fire to the museum commemorating the resting place of the patriarch and his wife.

“I’m 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 with their parents’ resting place.”

As he spoke along the road from the Rajapaksa Estate, Mr. Gamage waited for the electricity to come back on so he could get a welding job done. Such a struggle is the only thing that unites supporters and opponents of the Rajapaksa during the economic crisis.

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

Before the economy collapsed, she would sell 30 to 40 jars a day. That number has since fallen to about 20 as people have been saving for other necessities. Most days in the past few weeks, she’s come back with half of her stack of 15 unsold.

“This is the hardest time we’ve been through,” she said.

The loss of income has led to a change in diet: their meat consumption has fallen from three or four times a week to once. During her shopping, she can only buy half of what she did in the past.

It was clear to her who was to blame: the rajapaksas.

The family has been politically present in Sri Lanka for much of the seven decades since the country gained independence from Britain. While the father, DA Rajapaksa, was a prominent legislator in the 1950s, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who turned the family into a dynasty that would rule Sri Lanka for the past twenty years.

As the youngest member of the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1970, he was seen as a ‘political artist’ who could present himself as both a man of the people and an assertive leader.

But in recent years, age and illness seemed to catch up with Mr. Rajapaksa. That revealed a fact that post-Civil War triumphalism and lavish spending were over: he and his family were incompetent administrators of government, especially in the economic field.

“When you invest in debt, you really need to look at returns — and fast returns. You can’t do all your long-term, hard-core infrastructure projects with debt,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a former banker turned finance minister. We have completely overloaded ourselves and the return is not there.”

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

After the Rajapaksas returned to power in 2019, they staged a complete takeover: Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president, Mahinda Rajapaksa became prime minister, and many other family members took cabinet seats or other high-ranking positions.

With their power consolidated, they announced wide-ranging tax cuts — quickly undoing the work of aligning Sri Lanka’s spending more with its resources — and made a disastrous decision to ban chemical fertilizers in the hopes of helping the country. change to organic farming.

“The current crisis, I would say, is a governance crisis,” said Mr Wickramaratne. “The twin deficits we’ve always had — only the governments have made it happen.”

The effects of the economic mismanagement are evident throughout Hambantota.

At the airport, which for a while was used to store grain, the only outsiders are the crews of occasional cargo flights or groups of curious villagers who travel around to see the complex. The cricket stadium, where the scoreboard clock hangs sometime in the afternoon, was at one point rented out as a wedding venue to generate some income. It has a capacity of 35,000, more than the entire population of Hambantota, 25,000.

KG Gamini Srianand, 68, the mayor of Hambantota and a member of the Rajapaksas party, said Mahinda Rajapaksa had done more than his predecessors to develop the district.

“But these mega-projects were meaningless,” he said. “In this region, elephants still cross the roads and people still grow paddy rice for their livelihood. So these projects were superfluous.”

Kanchana Niroshani, 47, a neighbor and friend of Mrs. Wijeyawickrama, the curd seller, agreed with the mayor’s view that the legacy of the Rajapaksas in Hambantota was not all bad.

“They’ve done a lot – they’ve won the war, they’ve built roads,” said Ms Niroshani.

But what about economic hardship, Mrs Wijeyawickrama asked.

Ms. Niroshani’s husband works for a leasing company whose customer base has declined, and the family’s rice yield has been cut in half this year due to fertilizer restrictions.

“The fertilizer ban has really hit us hard,” she said, nodding in agreement with her friend. “In a few days we may run out of food.”

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