Corruption, incompetence and greed led to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s downfall – and it’s a story we’ve heard before

History repeats itself as the recent fall of shamed Sri Lankan president echoes that of the Chongzhen Emperor at the end of the Ming dynasty

By Wee Kek Koon

Sri Lanka has been reduced to financial ruin and political chaos by the Rajapaksa clan, whose members ran the country like their own family business for years. The Rajapaksas, who rose to prominence after the end of the 26-year civil war in 2009, had run the beautiful island nation into the ground through a combination of mind-boggling incompetence and venality.

On July 9, then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence in the capital Colombo, shortly before demonstrators stormed the compound. In photographs and video footage seen all over the world, ordinary Sri Lankans, most of whom were suffering the effects of a collapsed economy, availed themselves of the swimming pool and stately rooms of the president’s house in a visible gesture of defiance against Rajapaksa and his rapacious family.

When the rebel armies, led by stablehand turned rebel leader Li Zicheng, breached the walls of Beijing, the capital of the Ming dynasty, in the spring of 1644, the Chongzhen Emperor was sipping his wine. He said to his attendant eunuchs, “How my people will suffer!” When one of his attendants urged him to surrender, Chongzhen stabbed and killed him with his sword.

He then ordered his men to take the heir apparent and another two of his sons and flee the capital. Determined that the rebels would not defile his womenfolk, he forced Empress Zhou to take her own life, and cut down the Honoured Consort Yuan, and his daughters Princess Changping – who was in her teens – and the six-year-old Princess Zhaoren.

Sword in hand, he said to Changping: “Why did you have to be born in my family!” before hacking off her left arm. Miraculously, Changping survived the sword attack, as did Yuan, though both died in the months that followed.

When dawn broke the following day, the palace bell summoned the emperor’s ministers and officials to court for their daily audience. With the city burning outside the palace walls, no one came. With a eunuch in attendance, Chongzhen took to the hillock behind the palace, where he hung himself from a tree. He was 33.

Chongzhen’s body was found two days later by the rebels, who then placed the sarcophagus containing his body and that of his empress, outside the eastern gate of the palace. Those who had formerly served the now ended Ming dynasty were allowed to pay their respects to their dead sovereign and his wife, but not many came.

“Of the ministers who came, 30 kowtowed and wept, 60 kowtowed but did not shed a tear, and the rest filed past with scorn in their eyes.”

To the very end, even in his suicide note, Chongzhen blamed his ministers for misleading him and ruining the 276-year Ming dynasty. While Chongzhen had good intentions in reviving his country when he ascended the throne at the age of 16, he did not have sufficient self-awareness regarding his own limited intelligence and abilities.

Worse, he refused the advice and help from his more capable ministers and military commanders.

Soon after the Ming dynasty fell, the Manchus in the northeast took advantage of China’s domestic strife and, with the help of Han Chinese collaborators, breached the Great Wall, eventually founding China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

At the time of writing, former Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was holed up somewhere in Singapore, having arrived on July 14 as a ‘tourist’ on a social visit visa, from where he emailed his resignation as president to Sri Lanka’s parliament.

Unlike Chongzhen, he has managed to stay alive but in all likelihood, it will be a life lived in abject disgrace.




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