26 September, 2023


Sri Lanka’s Dynastic Politics And Comrade Number Eleven (XI)

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Charitha Ratwatte

Dynastic politics

When President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, visited India, an Indian Doordharshan television newsreader kept referring to the President as “President Eleven Jinping!”

Either the newsreader had an irrepressible sense of humour, or whole episodes of human history that passed that worthy by; she did not know that Latin was no longer the ‘lingua franca’ of the world and ‘Xi’ was pronounced somewhat like ‘Shki’ in English, rather than the numerical 11! Definitely Gibbon’s monumental work ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ was not on that worthy’s school reading list! Doordharshan promptly fired the lady.

But in this era of dynastic politics, one can sympathise with the reporter for taking refuge in numbers, when confronted with ‘Xi’. After all it was not so long ago that the Pol Pot Regime in Khmer Republic had their leadership cadres classified as Brother Number One, Brother Number Two, etc.!

Certainly, looking around the Asian region, dynastic politics in India – the Ghandis, Mulayam Singhs, Laloo Yadavs and the dynasties of Mumbai and Tamil Nadu, the Bhuttos of Pakistan, the two Begums of Bangladesh, the dynastic politics of Lanka, the Gayooms of the Maldives, the Razak family in Malaysia, the Marcos and their successors in the Philippines, the Lee family in Singapore, the Park family in South Korea, the Kims in North Korea, the list goes on and on.

One can forgive that Indian television reporter for surmising that Jinping was 11th among the dynastic leaders in the People’s Republic of China who called the shots! The names are so repetitive that giving them numbers is the only way to bring in a semblance of coherence to the system! Even Pol Pot seems to have had common sense!

The fact is President Xi is a virtual dynastic ruler, what the Chinese Communists call a “Princeling”. His father Xi Zhongxun was a hero of the Chinese Revolution. He was one of the first generation of Chinese Communist leaders. A guerrilla fighter in the 1930s, Xi Number One became a Deputy Prime Minister under Mao, but was purged in the 1960s and spent years under house arrest until he was rehabilitated in 1978.

Xi Number One is credited with having helped launch the Shenzhen Economic Zone. Three years after Xi Number One died, a granite statute was erected in 2005. In 2013, which would have been Xi Number One’s 100 birth anniversary, three books were published about him. A six-part television documentary was shown on national TV. A symposium was held in Beijing on his life and two commemorative postage stamps were issued. Some dynasty!

Lankan dynastic tendencies

The Lankan situation has also dynastic tendencies. A look at the progeny and other relatives of Parliamentarians who are in the Provincial Councils, the Pradeshiya Sabhas and the other local government authorities will clearly indicate the seriousness of the issue. It is reported that out of the 34 Members of the Uva Provincial Council elected recently, 17 are relatives of those already in politics.

But this is nothing new. Sri Lanka has a long history of political dynasties. The late respected Sam Wijesinha, one-time Secretary General of Parliament, once quoted British political commentator Paul Johnson on the politicians of former British colonies, to the effect that ‘the former Colonies became prey for the great human scourge of the 20th century – the professional politician.’ In truth Johnson should be paraphrased to read as ‘the great human scourge of the 20th century – the professional political dynasty’!

A cursory glance at the Sri Lanka situation will, without doubt, elicit sympathy for the “President Eleven Jinping” error.

Rajapaksa political dynasty

Let’s start with the current dispensation – the Rajapaksa political dynasty in Giruwa Pattuwa in Ruhunu starts with D.M. Rajapaksa, member of the State Council, the fabled ‘Lion of Ruhuna’. With his sudden demise in 1945, D.A. Rajapaksa, his brother, was elected uncontested to the State Council.

D.A. Rajapaksa’s eldest son, Chamal, is the present Speaker of Parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa, another son of D.A., is the President of the Republic. Another son of D.A., Basil Rajapaksa, is the Minister of Economic Development. President Mahinda’s son, Grandson of D.A., Namal, is also a Member of Parliament.

The Speaker’s son, Shasheendra, another grandson, is the Chief Minister of the Uva Province. D.M. Rajapaksa’s son, Lakshman, was elected to Parliament in 1947. Another of D.M.’s sons, George, was elected to Parliament in 1960. George’s daughter, Nirupama, is a Member of Parliament.

Ratwatte political dynasty

Another dynasty, which established itself in the political firmament in Sri Lanka, is the descendants of Ratwatte Dissawa of Matale, who was a signatory to the Kandyan Convention of 1815.

Adigar Sir Jayatilaka Cudah Ratwatte was the first Buddhist Member of the Executive Council at the time Ceylon was a British colony and a nominated member of the Legislative Council. He was elected uncontested to the Balangoda constituency in the first State Council in 1931. He was also the first Mayor of the Kandy Municipal Council.

Adigar Ratwatte’s eldest son, A.C.L. Ratwatte, M.B.E. was also elected Mayor of Kandy. Adigar Ratwatte’s nephew, W.A. Ratwatte, was elected to Parliament to represent the Haputale seat. W.A. Ratwatte’s son, Milroy Ratwatte, was Mayor of Badulla. Adigar Ratwatte’s brother, H.L. Ratwatte, was elected to Parliament from the Kegalle and Mawanella seats.

H.L.’s son, Anuruddha Leuke Ratwatte, the Adigar’s nephew, was a member of the Kandy Municipal Council and elected to Parliament in 1989. Anuruddha’s eldest son, Lohan, is a Member of Parliament from the Kandy District and another of Anuruddha’s sons, Mahendra, is currently Mayor of Kandy.

Adigar Ratwatte’s brother Barnes was appointed to the Senate of the Parliament of Ceylon in 1947. Clifford, son of Barnes Ratwatte, was elected to Parliament in 1960 from the Balangoda electorate. His wife, Mallika Ellawala Ratwatte, was also elected to Parliament from the Balangoda set in 1966, when her husband was disqualified on an election petition.

Bandaranaike political dynasty

The Bandaranaike dynasty in Sri Lanka politics, begins with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, son of Maha Mudliyar Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. S.W.R.D. was elected uncontested to the Veyangoda seat in 1931 elections.

After his assassination while being Prime Minister in 1959, his widow Sirimavo Ratwatte Bandaranaike, daughter of Barnes Ratwatte, entered politics and was elected to the Senate of the Parliament in 1960. She later contested and won the Attanagalla seat. Her daughter Chandrika was successively Chief Minister of the Western Province (1993), Prime Minister in 1994, and President of the Republic. Sirimavo’s son Anura was elected to Parliament in 1977.

Aluwihare political dynasty

The Aluwihare dynasty traces its lineage back to a General in Rajasinha the 2nd’s army, Wannisekera Mudiyanse Aluwihare. His descendant, Wannisekera Bandaranayake Wasala Mudiyanse Ralahamilage Uda Walauwe Bernard Herbert Aluwihare (B.H. Aluwihare – the first Asian Bachelor of Civil Laws from Cambridge University), was elected from the Matale constituency to the 1936 State Council and later to Parliament.

In 1961 his nephew, Alick Aluwihare, was elected to Parliament. Alick Aluwihare’s son, Ranjith, was elected to Parliament and the Central Provincial Council. Another son, Wasantha, was the Chief Minister of the Central Provincial Council.

Senanayake political dynasty

The Senanayake dynasty from Botale, Mirigama, hails back to Don Spater Senanayake, who was made a Mudaliyar in recognition of his work in the Temperance Movement. His son, F.R. Senanayake, was a member of the Colombo Municipal Council.

Don Spater’s youngest son, D.S. Senanayake, was first elected to the Legislative Council as the member for Negombo in 1924. D.S. was elected to the first State Council from the Minuwangoda electorate. D.S. was independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister. D.S.’s son Dudley was elected to the second State Council from the Dedigama electorate, he was also Prime Minister.

F.R. Senanayake’s son R.G. was elected to the State Council in 1944, to succeed Siripala Samarakkody, his brother-in-law, to the Narammala seat. At one time he represented two constituencies in Parliament – Dambadeniya and Kelaniya. Rukman Senanayake, son of Dudley’s brother Robert, was elected to Parliament in 1973. Ruwan Wijewardene, son of Robert’s daughter Ranjini, is a currently a Member of Parliament.

Jayewardene political dynasty

The dynasty of Don Adrian Wijesinha Jayewardene, who was a Mudaliyar serving the British colonial administration. The first member of his family to enter politics was Hector Alfred Jayawardena, who was a member of the Colombo Municipal Council.

His brother E.W. was also a member of the Colombo Municipal Council. Another brother, Theodore Godfrey, was elected to the Legislative Council in 1933. E.W. Jayewardene’s son, J.R. Jayewardene, was elected to State Council in 1943 from the Kelaniya electorate. Later he was a Prime Minister and the first Executive President of Sri Lanka.

Wijewardene political dynasty

The descendants of Don Philip Wijewardene have also played a role in Sri Lanka’s dynastic politics. His wife, Don Helena Wijewardene, was a benefactor of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. The wife of a descendant, D.C. Wijewardene, Wimala Wijewardene entered Parliament in 1956 from the Mirigama electorate.

Her daughter’s husband C.R. Beligammana was elected to Parliament from Mawanella in 1952. Another descendant, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was elected to Parliament in 1977 and was a later a Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition.

Kotalawela political dynasty

The descendants of John Kotalawela, a retired Police officer and entrepreneur, have also been a part of Sri Lanka’s dynastic politics. The eldest son, Sir John Kotalawela, entered the State Council in 1931 from the Kurunegala seat. He later was Prime Minister.

Another relative, Sir Henry Kotalawela, was a member of the Badulla Local Government body for many years and in 1921 was elected to the Legislative Council to represent Uva. In 1931 he was elected to the State Council from Badulla constituency.

Sir Henry’s eldest son, Gladwin Kotalawela, entered Parliament in 1955 from the Buttala electorate. Sir Henry’s younger brother, Jack (J.C.T.) Kotalawela, was elected to Parliament in 1947 as the second member of the multi-member constituency of Badulla.

Sir John Kotalawela’s first cousin, George Kotalawela, was appointed by the Supreme Court to the Bandaragama seat and declared to be the representative for the Bandaragama constituency, after the earlier elected incumbent who defeated him at the elections was unseated on an election petition. The other MPs would refer to him in jest as Hon. Member for the Supreme Court in Hulftsdorp! Sir John’s younger brother, Justin, was elected to the Senate in 1947.

Panabokke political dynasty

The Panabokke dynasty has also played a role in Sri Lanka’s politics. T.B. Panabokke was born in 1846, to Loku Nilame Panabokke and Hulangamuwa Kumarihami of Elpitiya, Gampola. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1887.

His son, Sir Tikiri Banda Panabokke, was also appointed to the Legislative Council in 1921. In 1931, he was elected to the State Council form the Gampola constituency. In 1940, he was appointed Maha Adigar. He was posted to India as Ceylon’s representative. Sir Tikiri Banda’s son, Theodore Braybooke Panabokke, was elected to Parliament in 1952 from the Galaha constituency. He later, in the footsteps of his father, was High Commissioner in India

Ellawala political dynasty

William Ellawala Rate Mahaththaya was nominated to the Legislative Council in 1889. One of his descendants, Nanda Ellawala, was elected to Parliament in 1970 from the Ratnapura constituency. His son, Nalanda Ellawala, was elected to Parliament in 1994. His mother and widow of Nanda, Suranganie, was elected to Parliament from the Ratnapura District in the year 2000. Nanda’s brother, Mohan Ellawala, was elected to the Provincial Council of Sabaragamuwa Province and also served as Chief Minister of the Province.

Even in colonial and independent Ceylon and independent Lanka, family dynasties, have played an important role among those who ruled us at various levels. The dictionary meaning of dynasty is ‘a series of rulers of a country who all belong to the same family,’ the example given is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India.

With the limited time and resources, it was not possible to detail all dynastic rule claimants in local politics in Lanka. The interconnections of families make the research even more complicated.

The point of departure for the whole exercise was the point that one could, for good reason, have sympathy for someone who thought providing a numerical guide to help to sort out the complexity, like Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – especially a news reader, who would have come across so many repetitions of the same family name. Imagine the relief – at last someone has had the wizard idea of giving consecutive numbers!

Voting for members of same family

Why do voters, even in populist democracies, take refuge in voting for members of the same family? In autocratic dictatorships, one can understand family rule and the only way out is death either by natural causes or otherwise.

The examples are numerous – General Park in South Korea, Bhutto in Pakistan, the Bangladeshi Begums – husband and father respectively, General Zia in Pakistan, the infamous ‘Kathmandu solution,’ etc.

Feudal antecedents definitely have a role. Competence, maybe; certainly the Lee family in Singapore will make a claim for that. Trust, may be. Caste, regional, religious, loyalties? Yes, in societies in which such factors still pay a role. Brand recognition, the ease of marketing a known name? Yes, even in this age of digital marketing.

But in societies where political parties and membership thereof play an important role? Maybe keeping power in the family and keeping other unconnected aspirants out is a strategy? Harking back to the ‘good old days’ when a family member ruled? Maybe, up to a point. Possibilities of making money through corruption, due to lax governance and sharing the spoils, with an extended family? Definitely, a possibility. But the destruction of the edifice is contained within the corrupt structure, the issue of greed and disputes over the division of the spoils.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

In mature liberal democracies, with a free media, an independent judiciary , the Rule of Law, good governance and accountability, an autonomous public service, politicians who have term limits, where fundamental human rights are protected, these institutions, laws and principles are the ‘guardians’ who ensure that the franchise is not abused by dynastic rule and corruption.

Power is constrained by legal and moral checks and balances imposed by standards of conduct which go to the very moral fibre of the nation. Where these safeguards have been thrown asunder, unlimited power can only result in Lord Acton’s oft-repeated dictum: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Even dynastic rulers, operating in a straight jacket of governance, imposed by the legal principles and institutions, which constitute the ‘guardians’ enunciated above, can be honest rulers who are of benefit to the nation. Of course, human nature being what it is, there will be aberrations, but the system of governance imposes checks, balances and accountability.

President Xi Jinping

To come back to Comrade Number Eleven – President Xi Jinping – whose visit to South Asia sparked off this whole discussion. He hails from a People’s Republic of China, where the madness unleashed by the charismatic despot, Mao, left the nation so traumatised that his successors swore that never again would a single person hold such unlimited power. One of the successors, Deng Xiaoping, extolled the role of a collective leadership. Big decisions should be made by consensus. This collective approach helped restore stability to Communist Party autocratic rule in China after Mao’s death. However, Comrade Number Eleven, President Xi – the word Comrade is now out of the Communist Chinese lexicon, one recalls the days of Comrade Mao – is dismantling this collective approach.

President Xi is now the most powerful leader China has had since Deng, possibly since Mao. The future of China and most of us depends on how President Xi wields this power. Comrade Mao pushed China to the brink of social and economic collapse. Deng steered China back on to the right economic path, but failed to institute political reforms. If President Xi uses his power to reform the way power operates in China, it would do the nation great service.

Positive signs

There are some positive signs. President Xi has declared that market forces should play a decisive role in the economy. October’s annual meeting Communist party’s Central Committee will have as its central theme the establishment of the Rule of Law. President Xi has said he wants the Courts to help him to ‘lock power in a cage’.

Xi has initiated a massive drive against corruption among party cadres, which is said to be now almost a constraint to young people taking to public service through the Communist party. Earlier it was a sure way to get rich. Now entrepreneurs are doing better! Witness Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

Deng Xiaoping once said that ‘economic reform would fail without political reform’. President Xi seems to be heeding those words. If “Comrade Number Eleven” pulls off his coup, the Middle Kingdom will be great again, as in the time of the Sun dynasty, when Admiral Cheng Ho visited Galle with a fleet of massive seagoing sampans and left behind a plaque in Tamil, Mandarin Chinese and Persian, which lays down rituals to be followed and donations to be made to a Buddhist temple as gratitude for a safe arrival. It also prescribes donations to Islamic and Hindu institutions.

The slab was discovered on Cripps Road in Galle town in 1911, by a British Colonial Provincial Engineer H.F. Tomalin, being used a pedestrian access to a house over a road side drain. Cripps Road is situated in an area which was called ‘Cheena Koratuwa’ – Chinese Quarter – probably where Chinese traders who came with the South West Monsoon winds spent time until the North East Monsoon began, to take them home. The Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China then will be a meritocracy in the style of the great Sage Confucius and dynastic rule will have no place.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Fascinating article. Thank you.

  • 3

    Interesting article and analysis, Charitha. Thanks.

    • 2

      Dr RS,

      I am sure you will be interested in this as well –
      1 Sri Lanka’s north is under military occupation
      2 Mahinda Samarasinghe, the President’s envoy, says the military is not involved in civilian life
      3 The decreasing circles of accountability in Sri Lanka
      5 Nepotism in Sri Lanka

  • 4

    I always enjoy reading this writer because he perhaps is one of the most widely read I see and uses that reading well to make his points. (I have a Hong Kong colleague called Xi whom I am giving the first few paras of this article to.)

  • 2

    There are many other political dynasties in Sri Lanka including Tamil and Muslim families. It just seems to be a very common thing.


  • 2

    Very good article. Indeed, the triter seems to have done quite some research to write it.

    I read in today’s Daily Mirror a remark in passing, paralleling the governance styles and deeds and misdeeds of King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa and those of the current rulers of Medamoolana.

    I invite Charitha to do a comprehensive article on this topic for CT.

  • 1

    Can any one tell me the significance of Tamil on the plague and no Sinhala? Thanks.
    Penultimate paragraph
    “Deng Xiaoping once said that ‘economic reform would fail without political reform’. President Xi seems to be heeding those words. If “Comrade Number Eleven” pulls off his coup, the Middle Kingdom will be great again, as in the time of the Sun dynasty, when Admiral Cheng Ho visited Galle with a fleet of massive seagoing sampans and left behind a plaque in Tamil, Mandarin Chinese and Persian, which lays down rituals to be followed and donations to be made to a Buddhist temple as gratitude for a safe arrival. It also prescribes donations to Islamic and Hindu institutions.”

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