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27 April 2022

Sri Lanka on the brink

Growing protests and an economic crisis are presenting a serious challenge to the rule of the Rajapaksa family.

By Himal Kotelawala

COLOMBO — If anyone had said just a few months ago that thousands of ordinary Sri Lankans would soon take to the streets demanding the resignation of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even the most partisan of pro-opposition pundits would have rolled their eyes. If they had said that citizens with no party affiliation would soon be pitching tents right outside the president’s office so they could have a kip after a long day of shouting “go home, Gota”, the opposition leader Sajith Premadasa himself would have given them a wide berth.  

Yet thousands of ordinary Sri Lankans are now doing exactly that as the country grapples with the worst economic crisis in its 74-year post-independence history. Though the government blames the Covid-19 pandemic and its toll on tourism and foreign remittances, opposition politicians and economists argue that politically motivated tax cuts, general mismanagement and a disastrously loose monetary policy are the real causes. There is growing consensus that excessive money printing by the central bank under the Rajapaksa administration has triggered an erosion of Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves, leading to a severe shortage of US dollars needed for fuel, medicine, food and other essential imports. Scheduled power outages that keep businesses and households in the dark for hours at a stretch, and long queues for petrol, diesel and cooking gas, have become commonplace. Yet these are “minor” inconveniences, analysts warn, compared with the grim fate that awaits Sri Lanka’s more disadvantaged communities as food inflation skyrockets and hospitals begin to run out of medicines.

What began as pockets of protest on street corners and outside fuel stations has now expanded into a sea of people gathering each day at the picturesque Galle Face Green in the capital, Colombo, by the presidential office, clamouring for its occupant to resign. Referred to as Gotagogama (Gota Go Village) — complete with Google Maps pin, website and its own makeshift library — the Occupy-style protest site has grown in size and strength over recent weeks. It has taken on a carnival atmosphere with food trucks, poetry readings, music and street theatre performances attracting ever larger crowds. Branches of Gotagogama have cropped up in different cities around the country, demanding that the president, along with his brother (the current prime minister and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa) and the rest of the government — more than a few of whom happen to share the ruling siblings’ last name — step down immediately.  

A former military man, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now 72, served as defence secretary while his brother, now 76, was president during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which came to a bloody end in 2009 with a campaign of total annihilation against the separatist Tamil Tigers. In the immediate wake of the war, both men were widely viewed as heroes. However, in 2015 the elder Rajapaksa was voted out of office amid accusations of corruption. Then, following the devastating 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks, which killed more than 200 people, Gotabaya was elected president with more than 52 per cent of the vote having promised to usher in an era of “prosperity and splendour”. Now, as the economy continues to freefall, Sri Lankans are facing the opposite of that grand vision. 

The protests are increasingly in danger of giving way to violence. In early April the president tried to squash the demonstrations by declaring a state of emergency and banning social media; after international backlash, the orders were reversed and protests have continued. On 19 April a protester in Rambukkana, a small town in the central district of Kegalle, was shot dead by police who claimed he was among a group of men trying to set fire to a tanker carrying fuel — a claim contested by many, including activists and popular media networks. The incident was widely condemned, and the police chief himself was summoned to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to record a statement.

As the protests continue, the opposition is collecting signatures for a no-confidence motion against the government. Some prominent members of the government have also called for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation to make way for an interim government, turning their back on the very man who made their political fortunes. Despite the people’s unrelenting demand for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, however, MPs have refrained from doing the same; impeachment is not being seriously discussed at present.  

Governing the country through the worsening crisis will be an unenviable job. Analysts warn that any government is likely to find it difficult, if not impossible, to quell growing unrest as prices inevitably rise further and International Monetary Fund-prescribed austerity measures kick in. And even if the Rajapaksas are ousted, there is little guarantee that they wouldn’t return to power one day. The myth of them as hyper-competent politicians may have shattered, but Sri Lankan memories are notoriously short and the family have proven themselves to be effective campaigners.  

Yet Sri Lanka is changing, in ways that were once unthinkable. Political consciousness is at an all-time high. Ideas of accountability, social justice and national unity are becoming mainstream and being embraced by a youth that is far savvier and more open-minded than the generations that preceded them. Of course, not everyone is optimistic. Old challenges remain, not least the deep divisions between Sri Lanka’s majority and minority ethnic communities. Wounds that have festered for years don’t heal overnight. Yet it’s clear that the Sri Lanka that emerges out of this crisis will be fundamentally different from what it is now. Whether it is for better or worse — and how heavy the price will be — is less clear.   

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