Friday briefing: How one family’s disastrous reign dragged Sri Lanka to the brink

In today’s newsletter: The south Asian country entered a state of emergency this week after ousting the ruling Rajapaksa family. Nimo Omer explains how Sri Lanka got here

While much attention has been lavished on the chaos of the British government, a more serious defenestration was under way in Sri Lanka this week. The country entered a state of emergency, and its president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country after civilians stormed his palace. The videos of people jumping into his pool and petting his pedigree dogs are astonishing.

Sri Lanka’s escalating political and economic crisis has made life on the small island almost impossible. It’s a country on the brink, with no clear sense of what comes next. On one hand this could lay the foundations for radical positive change; on the other it could be the start of a long, bloody conflict between the government and the people.

To get to grips with how Sri Lanka came to this point, I spoke to Hannah Ellis-Petersen, the Guardian’s south Asia correspondent, who is on the ground in Colombo. First though, the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Ukraine | A Russian missile attack in Vinnytsia has killed at least 23 people and wounded dozens more, in what President Zelenskiy has called an “act of Russian terror”.

  2. Monarchy | It has been revealed that the Queen qualifies for significant exemptions under law. 160 laws have got personalised exceptions for the Queen.

  3. Strikes | Widespread industrial action continues over the summer, as train drivers at 14 operating companies are set to strike in July and August.

  4. US | Donald Trump intended to declare himself the winner of the 2020 election prematurely by “taking advantage” of his early lead in the electoral college, a recording of former adviser Steve Bannon revealed.

  5. Conservatives | Attorney General, Suella Braverman, was knocked out of the Conservative leadership race after receiving only 27 votes in the second round. Rishi Sunak continues to lead with 101 votes.

In depth: A crisis years in the making

Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a presidential election rally in October 2019.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a presidential election rally in October 2019. Photograph: MA Pushpa Kumara/EPA

The political upheaval we are witnessing in Sri Lanka did not happen overnight. “This is a historic problem that leaders have turned a blind eye to for decades,” says Hannah Ellis-Petersen.

The country was thought to be one of south Asia’s great success stories: the streets are clean, the infrastructure is impressive, and healthcare and education are free. “The problem is all of this costs money,” Hannah explains, and the government was relying on foreign loans to keep the country running. We are now witnessing the fallout from this, in a crisis that has been years in the making. Here’s a guide to what brought Sri Lanka to this point – and where it goes from here.


1 An unstable government

Since achieving independence from British colonial governance in 1948, Sri Lanka’s government has been structured with both a prime minister and a president. The prime minister is the head of government and the most senior member of parliament. But the real power lies with the president.

One family – the Rajapaksas – has dominated the Sri Lankan political sphere, concentrating power in the hands of a few senior officials – who all happen to be related. Unsurprisingly, this has led to problems over the past two decades, including political violence against minorities and accusations of rampant corruption.


2 Economic crisis

The problems in Sri Lanka are systemic, says Hannah, and longstanding. “Through a series of terrible financial decisions and mismanagement of the economy, the government has spent all of the money the Sri Lankan government had, and in particular spent all of the dollars,” Hannah says. This is a problem for Sri Lanka as it relies heavily on imports. With no cash left, importing basic necessities like food, fuel and medicines has become difficult – “there are some products that have gone up five times in price”, Hannah adds.

After defaulting on its foreign debt for the first time since achieving independence, the Sri Lankan government halted the sale of fuel for non-essential vehicles for two weeks. It is the first time a country has restricted fuel sales since the 1970s. Citizens have also been faced with daily power outages, schools have closed and people are forced to work from home in an attempt to conserve energy.

“It’s important that we understand that it’s not just Covid-19 or the war in Ukraine, or global inflation,” Hannah says, explaining that while these external factors have exacerbated the problems in the country, Sri Lanka’s difficulties are largely the consequence of reckless spending and endemic corruption.


3 A doomed dynasty

At the heart of it all is the Rajapaksa family. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president, was a popular figure when elected in 2019. At that stage “it was genuinely unfathomable to think that the Rajapaksas would ever fall; they seemed untouchable”, says Hannah. Before a few resignations in April, Gotabaya and his brothers, Mahinda and Basil, were running the country with an iron fist. They appointed sons and other family members into government positions, and this nepotism created the perfect conditions for corruption to fester.

Basil, until recently the country’s finance minister, has been accused of lining his own pockets through huge infrastructure projects which are said to be completely useless; and in 2016 Gotabaya was charged in a corruption case. (The charges were eventually dropped on the grounds of immunity after he was elected president.) In only three years, the Rajapaksas have shifted greater political power to the president, further limiting his accountability for political or economic decisions.

But these protests have created a “political awakening”, Hannah says. “People don’t just want Rajapaksa to go or even for his family to go – they want the whole political system to be overhauled.”

4 What next?

The people of Sri Lanka aren’t just complaining about their conditions – they have clear demands too. A resignation and a unity government that includes all political parties to help solve the economic crisis – and then eventually a general election.

The protesters will not fade away – when resignation looked unlikely, protesters set the prime minister’s residence on fire. This mounting pressure and constant threat of escalation have led to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official resignation.

This is a positive sign, however the country is not out of the woods yet. The now acting president, Ranil Wickremesinghe – also the current prime minister, who has been involved in government for more than two decades himself – has given the military free rein to “restore order and peace”. Such a directive would be concerning anywhere, but under a government that already stands accused of human rights abuses and war crimes, it felt ominous.

Yet Hannah remains optimistic: “My hope is that this upheaval could really positively change the island. After the end of the civil war, there were no efforts of reconciliation, accountability or unity. And this finally, 13 years later, might be the thing that does that,” she says. “But it relies on politicians being admirable and doing the right thing.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • The photos of Kerby Brown surfing on monstrously large waves are breathtaking. Kieran Pender spoke to Brown about the thrill and catharsis of extreme sport. Nimo

  • Pamela Hutchinson offers a wonderful glimpse at the debauched golden age of Hollywood, before the Hays Code ushered in censorship, when women were allowed to be lusty, lascivious and larcenous to their hearts’ content. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • As the 30 year anniversary of Mary J Blige’s debut album approaches, Alexis Petridis gives us what we all want, a comprehensive ranking of the 20 best songs of her career. Nimo

  • The world is suffering from the global rise of temperatures. This interactive guide to the effects of extreme heat does a wonderful job of showing the worldwide consequences of the climate crisis, from wild fires in Spain to roads melting in China. Toby

  • After two years of little to no travel, most people are understandably very excited to finally holiday. To maximise your chance of having a good time, Jay Rayner argues that it’s time to get the itineraries out. Nimo


Euros | In the women’s euros, France beat out Belgium, 2-1, and secured their place in the knockout stages of the European Championships.

Cricket | England won by 100 runs in their match against India, with Reece Topley coming out as the player of the moment.

Golf | Despite a slow to start to the Open in St Andrews, Rory McIlroy took centre stage, shooting a six-under-par 66. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, didn’t perform as well as he would’ve hoped, shooting a six-over 78.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 15 July 2022
Guardian front page, 15 July 2022 Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian leads today with “Jail water firm bosses over pollution, says watchdog”. The Mirror sounds a “Red hot alert” as it warns that “A&E docs fear 40C surge”. The Sun personalises that story with “Vardy bush fire terror” as it reports Rebekah Vardy and family are holidaying in part of Portugal where there are fires. The Tory leadership rages on other fronts. “Knives out for Penny! ‘Not up to job’ say rivals” – that’s the Express. The Daily Mail says critics have put “Mordaunt under the microscope”. The Times has “Boost for Truss in bitter struggle with Mordaunt” while the Telegraph says “Frost urges Badenoch to stand down for Truss”. “Tory rivals turn on Mordaunt as favourite faces TV trial” – that’s the i, while the Metro goes with “Penny’s in heaven” saying she has edged ahead of Liz Truss. The Financial Times’ splash is very much a Financial Times splash: “Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan results set grim tone for Wall St”.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

Olympic champion Mo Farah, who revealed this week he was trafficked to the UK as a child.
Olympic champion Mo Farah, who revealed this week he was trafficked to the UK as a child. Photograph: Kristina Varaksina/BBC/Atomized/Red Bull Studios

The Real Mo Farah (BBC One/iPlayer)
The big reveal of this heartbreaking documentary is that the great British sporting icon was trafficked to the UK as a child, and the most touching scenes come when we meet the women who raised him; his mother, Aisha, and aunt Kinsi, who gave him a proper home in London. It’s story that is resonant and profoundly topical. – Stuart Jeffries

Black Midi – Hellfire

Black Midi’s third album is nothing if not wildly eclectic. There are sleazy-sounding arrangements with tango-esque rhythms; luscious, cinematic strings; ranting spoken-word passages delivered in mannered voices; discordant piano chords; florid cocktail-lounge piano .. and that’s just the opening five minutes. But for all its take-it-or-leave-it bullishness, it’s possible to feel equivocal about Hellfire, which is teeming with clever ideas. – Alexis Petridis

The bad boy of tennis is watchably if uncritically celebrated in this documentary portrait by Barney Douglas. McEnroe is an engaging raconteur, but I would have liked to hear more about his later career – and wondered if anyone was going to compare him with that other celebrity bad boy New Yorker with a formidable dad: Donald Trump.

Who Killed Daphne?
Widely available, episodes weekly
When Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb, there was no doubt she was targeted. Stephen Grey investigates the case, with input from Galizia’s son, Matthew. Grey uncovers corruption and abuse – and speaks to suspect George Degiorgio, who has since confessed to carrying out the hit. – Hannah Verdier

Today in Focus

Mick Swinhoe (third right) talks to Iryna Starkova and her family as they settle into their new home in Caldecote near Cambridge.
Mick Swinhoe (third right) talks to Iryna Starkova and her family as they settle into their new home in Caldecote near Cambridge. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Is Britain’s Homes for Ukraine scheme working?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a massive humanitarian crisis and led to millions of people fleeing their country. Some have made their way to the UK as part of the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. But is it working as intended?

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings cartoon
Ben Jennings cartoon Illustration: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Composite of Brisbane pub choir and Kate Bush.
Composite of Brisbane pub choir and Kate Bush. Composite: ZIK Images / Getty Images / Jacob Morrison

Kate Bush hasn’t been far from the headlines recently, since Stranger Things propelled the 1985 hit Running Up That Hill to the top of the charts. But I challenge even those sick of the sound of that song not to crack a smile at the sight of hundreds of Australians performing this wonderful arrangement of the tune by founder and director of the Pub Choir, Astrid Jorgensen, in Brisbane. Even Bush was a fan, writing to Jorgensen to say how much she loved it.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.


Nimo Omer

The GuardianTramp

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