Sri Lanka: Why the Philippines Offers a Warning for What Might Come Next

Yves here. I am in no position to forecast what might become of Sri Lanka. But it is true that longstanding leaders/ruling dynasties that suddenly lose power have many high level retainers and hanger-ons. If they are not purged, they will scheme for the return of the old regime.

By Rashmee Roshan Lall, who writes on international affairs. She has lived and worked in eight countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, Haiti and Tunisia, has a PhD, blogs at and is on Twitter @rashmeerl. Originally published at openDemocracy

Sri Lanka’s dramatic demonstration of people power – forcing a despised president to flee the country – has rekindled memories of a similar peaceful uprising on another island nation, the Philippines.

But thoughts are also turning to the sobering denouement of that public protest in Manila nearly 40 years ago.

In Sri Lanka, as with the Philippines in 1986, a largely non-violent uprising has driven out a leader whose family had wielded power for a couple of decades.

In both countries, the world watched as crowds surged into the opulent presidential palace, gawping at the luxury amid which their leader lived.

As with the Marcos political dynasty in the Philippines, Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksas are accused of enriching themselves at the expense of their country.

And now, some supporters of Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family are hoping the parallels with the Philippines go even further.

Tharaka Balasuriya, a minister in Rajapaksa’s government and a member of parliament belonging to Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, recently told the BBC: “We saw what happened in the Philippines, Marcos’s son has returned to power… So at some time, someone from the Rajapaksa family could come back to power. So I would never say never…I wouldn’t bet against it.”

Balasuriya is referring to the success of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the former dictator, who was sworn in as the Philippines’ 17th president last month, in a remarkable reversal of the disgrace that had dogged the family’s name.

In May, Marcos Jr, who goes by the nickname ‘Bongbong’, won a landslide election victory, with his political allies also securing control of the other legislative chambers.

Some analysts agree that there are profound and occasionally troubling similarities between Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political scientist at the University of Colombo, told openDemocracy that “there are some similarities in what happened in the Philippines in 1986”, even though “the Philippines under Marcos was a much more repressive dictatorship, with open support from America”.

Sri Lanka, he added, “is a peculiar case of autocracy of an executive authoritarianism under a so-called executive president, yet with institutions of democracy (elected Parliament, a multi-party system, free and fair elections, relatively untainted judiciary and media) functioning side by side.”

“The current situation in Sri Lanka seems exactly like the Philippines,” Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, told openDemocracy.

Swain, who has long focussed on the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka and the poisonous brand of majoritarian Sinhalese politics brought in by the Rajapaksa family, says it is sensible to be cautious about future developments.

“For the time being, the ‘revolution’ has been successful, that’s all one can say right now for Sri Lanka. Remember, [in the Philippines] the son [of dictator Marcos] is back. So, all one can say is, the Rajapaksas are gone… for now.”

He added that the Marcos family’s stunning political rehabilitation must surely offer hope – and possibly even a template for action – to fallen autocratic dynasties everywhere, not least in Sri Lanka.

The reference is to the Marcos family’s refusal to abandon the Philippines’ politics for too long after the uprising. Bongbong Marcos, for instance, returned to frontline politics in the family stronghold of Ilocos Norte after his father’s death in exile in Hawaii in 1989. Even his mother, Imelda, the former first lady who is infamous for her 3,000-pair shoe collection, twice ran unsuccessfully for president in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the Marcos era has been inaccurately portrayed on social media channels as a period of economic growth and glorious certainty. The country has been described by a senior Facebook executive, global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbath, as “patient zero” in the global disinformation epidemic.

In Sri Lanka, the myth-making about the Rajapaksas may have already begun. Balasuriya has questioned whether the current economic crisis is the result of the Rajapaksa family’s alleged dishonesty. Instead, he said, Rajapaksa could perhaps be blamed for no more than a series of unfortunate policy decisions such as cutting taxes.

Days after Rajapaksa’s 14 July resignation, his party praised him for “ending terrorism”, saluted his “service as a war hero” and blamed the “complex challenge” of the COVID-19 pandemic for the worst economic crisis in the country since independence in 1948. The party has also lauded him for stepping down as president, stating that “the relinquishment of political power is rarer than anything else”.

There are signs, too, that the Rajapaksas will not easily give up on their place in public life. The former president’s resignation letter, which was read out in Sri Lanka’s parliament on Saturday, struck a defiant rather than despairing note and hinted at a possible return. “I served my motherland to the best of my ability, and I will continue to do so in the future,” he said.

A return to the political arena was also hinted at by Namal Rajapaksa, the former president’s nephew and son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother, during a recent interview.

He described his family’s current predicament as a “temporary setback”. Namal, whose father Mahinda resigned as prime minister in May, having also served as president from 2005 to 2015, added: “This is a rough patch, so face it and move forward.”

Some Sri Lankans say that the Rajapaksas may even be helped in the short term by newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe, to whom Gotabaya controversially bequeathed the responsibilities of his office when he fled the country. The Rajapaksas’ party, which has the largest number of seats in the legislature, backed Wickremesinghe as its candidate.

But for now, Sri Lanka’s politically powerful house of Rajapaksa has undoubtedly been humbled. Just as the Philippines’ “bloodless revolution” was once seen as the “world’s bright spot”, Sri Lankans’ restraint and resolve in dealing with allegedly corrupt and populist leaders are being praised.

Even so, for many Sri Lankans, there may be a lingering fear that the Philippines will serve as a model for another ‘son rise’ in the east.

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  1. spud

    “But it is true that longstanding leaders/ruling dynasties that suddenly lose power have many high level retainers and hanger-ons. If they are not purged, they will scheme for the return of the old regime.”

    good statement. its why bill clinton and his people must pay a price, otherwise we will get hillary, obamas wife or their kids again. let alone summers, sperling, furman etc. type of trash.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I think the return of Marcos is one of the most depressing political stories of the year, although I’m not sure it can be put down to old Marcos retainers still being around. From what I can understand, it seems to have been something of a reactionary vote against the chaos of the last few years, despite voters being given a relatively good choice (there is a very vibrant youthful progressive political movement in the country, albeit one that can’t muster up enough votes to be able to take power). It may be a case of choosing the devil you know.

    1. Daniil Adamov

      So in their eyes this progressive movement was also a devil? I sincerely wonder why.

      My admittedly ill-informed impression was that he was more of an heir to Duterte than to the old Marcos.

    2. philexp

      “Chaos of the last few years” means the Duterte presidency? All the Duterte supporters I know voted for Marcos and Duterte’s daughter who is the new VP. The Marcos campaign’s disinformation campaign was hugely successful. The press jumped on board too, with the exception of Rappler which is under constant attack. Though accurate information about the previous Marcos era is available online most Filipinos get their news from Facebook and Youtube. Red tagging, labeling the opposition communist, is a favorite tool of the oligarchic ruling political class here yet Bong Bong Marcos promises stronger ties with China. No one sees the dichotomy. Marcos’ first executive act was to abolish the Presidential Anti Corruption Commission and transfer those duties to the Deputy Executive Secretary.

  3. spud

    Oliver Cromwell showed the russians and the chinese how to do it, and still retain power to shape their lands for centuries to come.

    the french had a orgy of violence because the aristocracy was allowed to stay on to long and refused real change till it became intolerable.

    that orgy was not a movement that was organized, and france today still pays that price.

    we let our elites off of the hook, they keep coming back. at least we should drag their names through the mud repeatedly. we have plenty of ammunition from 1993 onwards. even Matt Stoller is amazed at what was done from 1993-2001, i am not amazed at all, i watched every last thing that was done, bill clinton never slept.

    if we do not drag their names through the mud repeatedly, then they come back quickly till someday it becomes intolerable, and we go the french route.

    1. Daniil Adamov

      “Oliver Cromwell showed the russians and the chinese how to do it, and still retain power to shape their lands for centuries to come. ”

      As a Russian I’d much rather he hadn’t. There’s not a family here that didn’t lose someone to “the Russians” you are thinking of. Also, “retain power to shape their lands for centuries to come”? That may be a rather early judgement, hardly more than a century has passed for us and even less time passed for the Chinese.

      1. spud

        yet how many russians died under the czars? they affected almost every russian family for centuries.

        gorbachev and yeltsin were czarists, how many russian families were victims in the 1990’s?

        “The fact that Yeltsin pressed ahead with his “reform” shows that he was prepared to gamble with the lives of millions of people that economic “shock therapy” would be a quick success.

        This gamble has already been lost. The scope of the economic collapse since New Year has dashed any prospect that food intake will begin to recover before malnutrition-related diseases start showing a steep increase.

        Russians in January were starving on the products of last year’s more or less standard harvest. But with production of agricultural inputs, from tractors to fertilisers, now collapsing, there are serious doubts that large areas of “

  4. LovellCN

    The main driver of Marcos dynasty rehabilitation was that socio-economic conditions did not get better for the average Filipinos after they were ousted. The country was placed under the GATT-WTO neoliberalized regime making life even harder for farmers, fisherfolks, and laborers. It took less than a generation for them to make a full political comeback. Now the grandson is a congressman, the daughter is a senator, brother-in-law is the House Speaker, and the son is the President.

  5. Daniil Adamov


    Is the most important issue in Sri Lanka whether some of its future presidents will bear the surname Rajapaksa or not? Do they have no one else on that island who could be just as bad or worse?

    If they manage to recover from the crisis and make serious reforms, the threat posed by this legacy will be of minor importance. If they continue to suffer the same issues that lead to it, then a Rajapaksa or anyone else could take them for the same ride again.

  6. Smith, M.J.

    Sorry, but this is nothing but lazy journalism and a slur on the good people of the Philippines, who rejected Marcos’s opponent by a 2-1 margin.

    My wife is Filipina, and her brother has served many terms as mayor of a small village in Samar. They experienced first hand the political corruption, graft, and violence that continued to plague their country even after the feel-good Yellow Revolution of 1986. Turns out the sainted Aquino family has the moral scruples of a Mafia clan. Tit-for-tat political assassinations are so common in my brother-in-law’s province that the local capital, Calbayog City, has been nicknamed “Kill-bayog.” Many of these killings are tied to Aquino’s Liberal Party. Politics is still blood sport in the Philippines.

    And the people are sick of it. It’s no surprise that Duterte left office with a 70% approval rating.

    For all his many faults, Duterte was not corrupt, and his political agenda served the working class instead of the 1% and their PMC acolytes. One small example: prior to Duterte, my wife could not clear customs in Manila without multiple shakedowns by airport personnel. This is no longer the case.

    The author implies that those 30 million Marcos voters were stupidly voting against democracy, instead of for a government that serves regular people. This is basket-of-deplorables arrogance on a Clintonian scale.

    One thing the author does get right—there has been a wealth of disinformation about the Philippines. But his sole source for that claim—“ a senior Facebook executive, global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbath”—tells us all we need to know about who is spreading the disinformation. It’s the same narrative generated by our own power elites and spewed by corporate media. Case in point—Maria Ressler, Nobel Prize winning “journalist.” Celebrated in the West for her political persecution by Duterte, her Nobel credentials curiously fail to mention that her work is funded by NED, your favorite CIA regime change cut-out.

    As a long-time subscriber, I dearly love the unique perspectives NC delivers, especially from those on-the-ground around the world. I have had to ditch many a lazy generalization about foreign climes and peoples, and am grateful for that. All I’m saying is, please be careful when posting about the Philippines. The “information environment” is as treacherous there as anywhere these days.

    1. LovellCN

      It was Fidel Ramos, the West Point trained 5-star general, also known as Amboy (American boy), who fully gave the country away to the neoliberal coyotes.

    2. hk

      My understanding is that the Aquinos are the “real” political dynasty in the Philippines, a wealthy and powerful family going back to the Spanish colonial era?

  7. Dave in Austin

    As democratic politics has become less about organizing and being supported by long-term political party activists and elected officials and more about brand recognition, many Presidentail systems heve fallen into the “Children of…” syndrome.

    In the first 150 years, the US had one- minor- political dynasty, the Adams. By the time mass media arrived (papers and radios) we got got FDR, Senator Robert Taft and Adali Stevenson running for President. Now we get the Kennedys, Gores, Bushes and Clintons plus a whole host of second and third generation “Brands” in in the Senate, House and Governorships. Overseas we get everone from Trudeau to Mussolini’s granddaughter going into the family business.

    Parlimentary systems seem to have less of this, I assume because as was true in the old US system, the decisions are being made by voters who actually know and have worked with the candidated in real life.

  8. sbarrkum

    Machiavellian Politics makes Ranil Wickremasinghe 8th President of Sri Lanka

    First a huge kudos to Mahinda Rajapakse’s Machiavellian political maneuvers.
    Impressive, within the law, and constitution. No violence, no bloodshed. Very democratic..

    When the undemocratic mobs invaded the official President and PM residence, the two brothers Gota and Mahinda resigned.
    No bringing out military to defend their position.
    On July 9th it looked like the end of the road for Rajapakses.

    Then because of the President Gotabya resigning parliament had to elect a new President.
    Then the second phase of political maneuvers and Ranil Wickremasinghe contested for President.
    Ranil Wickrmasinghe a many time PM, who was not even elected as MP this time around in 2019 elections.
    The SLPP the Mahinda faction voted en masse for Ranil.
    So now Ranil Wickremasinghe the suave elite west liberal leaning is the all powerful Executive President.

    In many ways the natural heir to his Uncle JRJ’s authored all powerful Executive Presidency.
    At that time (1980’s) the UNP and Urban Elite, were all gaga about the Executive Presidency.
    In the following years Ranil was the golden boy who would continue the West Liberal Tradition.
    The Tamil and Muslim Parties fawned over him.
    All ignored Ranils underhand brutal ruthlessness in fighting the JVP in 87/89.
    (I did not know I had just left the country, after fighting my internal battles of alcoholism).
    Of course Like Peter denying Christ, now many urban elites deny ever supporting Ranil in the past three decades.
    Now they are also busy scrubbing ther FB pages of Aragalaya participation.

    Anyway the Western Liberal Elite Dog of War has been unleashed and is the all powerful Executive President.
    Can it become any Machiavellian than that.

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