Sri Lanka, a fragile democracy that emerged from a 26-year civil war only in 2009, is on the verge of becoming a captured state, thanks to a concerted power grab by the Rajapaksa family. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president in late 2019, he appointed his brother Mahinda to serve as both premier and Finance Minister. He later relieved Mahinda of the latter role, but replaced him with another brother. A fourth brother is Minister of Irrigation, and Mahinda’s son runs another two ministries. All told, Ministries run by the Rajapaksa family control an estimated 24% of the state budget. And another six Members of Parliament are members of the family. The Rajapaksas have further extended their control by appointing allies (including other family members) to other high-ranking government jobs and leadership roles in state-owned enterprises.
Even more troubling than the extent of the Rajapaska family’s dominance over Sri Lankan government is the way in which the Rajapaksas are using the familiar state capture playbook to ensure that they stay in power:
- One of the hallmarks of state capture is the changing of institutional rules and structures to remove checks on, or oversight of, the government. Bodies responsible for investigating corruption and financial mismanagement are particularly threatening to would-be state captors. Hence it was no big surprise that in October 2020 the Rajapaksas’ dynastical government used its two-thirds parliamentary majority in parliament to push through a constitutional amendment that weakened Sri Lanka’s anticorruption agency, the Bribery Commission, by removing its constitutional status and taking away its power to initiate investigations. That amendment also abolished the national procurement commission and the audit service commission.
- In addition to eroding formal institutional checks and balances, state capture often involves suppressing civil society and the free press. We see this in Sri Lanka as well. One vocal critic of the government and advocate for constitutional governance vhas been in custody since April 2020. Another activist, Asela Sampath, was abducted from his house and allegedly assaulted before being released on bail. Others have been arrested and detained for months on end, apparently for writing critical comments about the government on social media. Civil society organizations receive unannounced visits from military intelligence, or are told that they need to inform the administration before applying for grants. And the Rajapaksa family is using its cozy relationship with media industry owners to muzzle the free press. For example, the president recently pardoned convicted murderer Duminda Silva, and it is suspected this may have been a quid pro quo for favourable coverage from the television and radio empire owned by Silva’s brother.
In short, Sri Lanka is sliding into illiberal authoritarianism. Fortunately, the international community is starting to take notice. The European Parliament, for example, is now urging to use the European Union’s trade leverage to call out assaults on the Sri Lankan government’s assaults on the rule of law and human rights. This is a laudable move, though much more will be needed to counter the efforts of powerful elites, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, to capture the states.