In the small fishing town of Tangalle, 200 km from Colombo, Carlton, the ancestral home of Sri Lanka’s ruling family, was once overrun with adoring visitors whenever Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited.
The mood has changed.
“In 2009, when he ended the war against the LTTE and came here, we were proud. We went to Carlton and as we do for the Buddha, we did the same for him,” said Roshan, a tuk-tuk driver waiting for passengers at the local market.
“But if I meet him now, I’ll say, ‘thank you so much for finishing the war, but if you can’t do anything now, please give the job to someone better,'” he said. 39 year old man. father of one.
Explain the dollar squeeze that led to crippling shortages of basic necessities and an unaffordable rise in prices, Roshan said, “When I have 2 kg of rice at home and 1 kg exceeds, I know that I have to buy 1 kg to replace it. But they waited until all the dollars ran out.
Until a few months ago, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone with a low opinion of Rajapaksas in this family pocket borough. In 2015, after Mahinda’s shock defeat in the presidential elections, tearful supporters welcomed him to this village and pledged to bring him back to power. But it seems that even here people have lost patience.
Last week, about 200 local students weren’t as polite as Roshan in expressing their displeasure. Shouting “Go Gota Go” against Mahinda’s brother, President Gotabaya, they marched down the road towards Carlton. They broke through the yellow barricades and rushed towards the house until police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.
Today, Carlton is guarded by a detachment of armed police, as well as the Special Task Force, an elite anti-terrorist paramilitary force, with barricades ready.
Hambantota district, which includes Tangalle, sent three Rajapaksa in Parliament – Namal, the son of Mahinda, his brother Chamal and his nephew Ajith – and three others from the same group. He gave Gotabaya 66% of the vote in the 2019 presidential election. But today, the discontent of the first family is all too evident.
“I also voted for the Rajapaksas,” said a woman queuing outside the government-run Sathosa fair-price store in the town of Hambantota in a brave bid to stock up for the local New Year on 14 april. “We have to manage with the little we get,” she said.
“No feelings for New Years,” said a teenage girl at the store. His mother’s face creased at the mention of Rajapaksa. “It’s sad. I voted for them and look what they did to us,” she said, pointing to her meager purchase of rice.
Milani Hareem, who contested the Hambantota city council elections as an opposition candidate, said many of Rajapaksa’s supporters were rethinking their choice.
“It’s their stronghold. There will always be Rajapaksa supporters here. But now, with the country in this situation, they see the anger of the people and they don’t want to be seen on the wrong side. We cannot predict how they will vote if an election is held, but the Rajapaksas are not as popular right now,” said Hareem, who is from the Malay Muslim community, a small ethnic group with a strong presence in Hambantota.
“People have now understood that you cannot run a country by dividing them on language, race and religion,” she said. Unlike other parts of the country with a large Muslim population, Hambantota has not seen a community incident, she said.
The town of Hambantota, 40 km from Tangalle, is the district headquarters, where the Rajapaksas first displayed their bias towards expensive infrastructure projects that would turn into white elephants and drain the country’s resources.
Hareem recalled how Mahinda Rajapaksa said he would build a city that would be “no less than Colombo”, but ended in unnecessary expense.
Among them is the controversial international port of Hambantota, which the government ended up leasing to its Chinese builders to repay construction loans. Also on this list are Mattala airport and a convention center, which was built to host official functions but is now mainly rented out for weddings.
Perhaps the most used of all these infrastructure projects is the Chinese-built four-lane highway linking Colombo to Hambantota and the International Cricket Stadium, where matches are regularly held.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party member Sithy Sabeena Rezik, who participated in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections as partners in the alliance of Rajapaksas, said she is now telling her supporters that the SLFP is no longer part of the reconciliation.
“We are powerless to do anything for people right now. I feel really guilty about this. We can barely show our faces to our supporters,” she said.
In Tangalle, in response to the protests, Rajapaksa supporters were seen near Carlton holding signs saying, “We want Gota”. But Roshan, the tuk-tuk driver, is not impressed: “These are people who have been hired by the Rajapaksas. They have no choice but to show their support.