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Jan 23, 2015 4:13 AM

Sri Lanka's once-powerful ex-president faces backlash

The Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) Their friends have deserted them. Their houses have been raided. Their power near-absolute on this island nation just a month ago has melted away, replaced with talk that some family members could face charges of corruption or murder.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family brothers, nephews and cousins who have dominated Sri Lanka for nearly a decade are suddenly portraying themselves as victims.

"My family is in politics since 1931 and for the first time they have raided my home," Rajapaksa told reporters after police entered his private home in the southern town of Hambantota just days after the Jan. 8 election upset, in which he lost to former ally Maithripala Sirisena.

"Is this good governance?" the former president demanded.

The police, who were looking for high-end sports cars and a private plane the family is believed to own, said they found nothing suspicious at the house. But authorities say the investigations have barely begun.

The new government, with help from the International Monetary Fund and Indian Central Bank, is trying to track down several billion dollars of foreign assets allegedly being held by top officials of the previous regime, Cabinet Minister Rajitha Senaratne said Thursday. So far, prosecutors have not filed formal charges against the family, but some people have filed police complaints against them.

Few people expected such a reversal back in November, when Rajapaksa called the election with two years remaining in his second term. Nearly everyone expected him to easily win another six-year term.

Rajapaksa had built up immense power during his nine-year rule and had clear dynastic ambitions. He was popular among the country's ethnic Sinhala majority, and some supporters hailed him as a king and savior for defeating the 25-year ethnic Tamil insurgency in 2009.

But Sirisena attacked the president's family relentlessly, accusing them of nepotism and corruption, and Tamils turned out to vote against Rajapaksa. Those factors, along with the country's rising living costs and promises of good governance under a new government, lifted Sirisena to victory by a small margin.

Rajapaksa's defeat has emboldened once-frightened Sri Lankans to speak out against the family. Former ministers, long angry at how he had given relatives many key positions, have turned against him.

Mervyn Silva, a childhood friend of Rajapaksa and former Cabinet member, has filed a police complaint accusing one of the ex-president's brothers of murder.

According to Silva, former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a prominent newspaper editor shot dead by gunmen on motorcycles as he drove to work in January 2009. His newspaper, the Sunday Leader, had been highly critical of the government's conduct in the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, and reported on alleged human rights violations and government corruption.

"When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me," Wickrematunge wrote in his final editorial, which was published posthumously and was addressed to then-President Rajapaksa. "We both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name."

Silva also says that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was behind the "white van abductions," a string of kidnappings that terrified the family's critics. During and after the civil war, scores of journalists, suspected rebel sympathizers, rights activists and government critics were grabbed by unknown men, blindfolded and forced into white vans. Some were beaten and later dumped by roadsides. Many simply disappeared.

Silva told reporters he had given evidence to the police proving that "Gotabhaya is the author of the white van culture."

The new government took journalists to see the elaborate furnishings bought at state expense for the official presidential residence, with state television cameras lingering on images of air-conditioned bathrooms with video screens built into the walls.

Basil Rajapaksa, another brother of the former president and onetime economic development minister, has faced repeated allegations in the media of misusing state money and resources. But Basil, who also holds U.S. citizenship, is believed to have left the country days after his brother lost the vote.

The Rajapaksa brothers could not be reached for comment.

Sirisena's government has also told police that the former president summoned police officers, military chiefs and the attorney general on the night of the election to discuss ways to declare a state of emergency and halt the count when it appeared he might lose.

Rajapaksa has insisted there's no truth in those accusations.

"I deny in all possible terms reports of attempts to use the military to influence election results," he said in a Twitter message.

The former president still has a base of support, especially in the Sinhala community, which would be deeply suspicious of any moves to give any autonomy to Tamil areas in the north and east.

Sirisensa's government has already taken steps to reverse some of Rajapaksa's policies, notably trying forge reconciliation with the Tamil minority, which felt neglected and left behind economically.

It has appointed a civilian as governor of the Tamil-majority Northern Province, pushing aside a former military officer. It has also allowed free access to blocked websites, including some linked to remnants of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

In a speech made in his home village soon after his defeat, Rajapaksa sounded defiant. He said Sirisena had won because of votes from "Eelam," the Tigers' name for their dreamed-of homeland.

"I don't consider this a defeat," he said. "I have faced worse defeats."


Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this story.


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