© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People chant slogans against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and demand the resignation of politicians of the Rajapaksa family, during a protest amid the country’s economic crisis, at Independence Square in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 4, 2022. REU
By Devjyot Ghoshal and Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) – In 2020, Mahinda Rajapaksa won the election to become prime minister of Sri Lanka, serving under his brother and president Gotabaya. In 2021, another brother, Basil, was appointed finance minister, tightening the family’s grip on power.
Less than a year later, the country’s famous political dynasty was in trouble, as protesters took to the streets to demand that before the economic crisis hit, the president’s resignation.
“Gota go home!” Hundreds of people chanted along a tree-lined avenue in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo this week as cars drove past, honking their horns in support.
From coastal towns in the south to the Tamil-speaking north, more than 100 protests have broken out across the island nation since last week, according to research group WatchDog.
The unprecedented wave of spontaneous protests reflects public anger at rising inflation, fuel shortages, power cuts and what they see as mismanagement by the authorities. with the crisis made the crisis worse.
“Sri Lankans are very, very patient. You really have to push them into a corner before they react,” said Chantal Cooke, a protester, holding a banner demanding Rajapaksas’ resignation.
In parliament, too, the family is losing its footing.
Basil resigned on Sunday along with other members of the cabinet and on Tuesday at least 41 lawmakers left the governing coalition, leaving the government with a minority in the 225-member lower house. and open up the possibility of a motion of no confidence.
“The longer the crisis dragged on, the worse the Rajapaksa family got,” said political analyst Kusal Perera, who has written a book about Mahinda, the former president.
The president’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the crisis and calls for him to step down.
But head of government and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said Gotabaya, now 72, has been tasked with running by 6.9 million voters, numbers that have backed him in the presidential election next year. 2019.
“As a government we are clearly saying that the president will not resign under any circumstances,” Fernando told parliament on Wednesday. “We will face this.”
Graphics: Protests spread across Sri Lanka over the economic crisis – https://sphinx.thomsonreuters.com/graphics/?#/graphic/byprjbegrpe
The fifth of nine siblings born into a political family in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-dominated south, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa joined the Sri Lankan army in 1971 and participated in campaigns against the army. Tamil uprising during the country’s 26-year civil war.
In 2005, years after retiring and emigrating to the United States, Gotabaya returned to Sri Lanka and joined Mahinda’s government as defense minister, overseeing the devastating end of a killing civil war from 80,000 to 100,000 people in general.
The United Nations has accused both sides of war crimes during the conflict and Gotabaya faces civil prosecution for alleged wartime atrocities. He maintained his innocence and the case was dismissed due to political immunity.
Riding a wave of nationalism following deadly attacks by Islamist militants earlier that year, Gotabaya came to power in 2019 with a landslide mandate.
Months later, the Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna party led by Rajapaksa crushed the opposition in parliamentary elections, making his brother Mahinda prime minister.
“We will make sure (Sri Lanka) does not disappoint during our tenure,” Mahinda said after his victory in 2020. The island nation was on the verge of crisis.
Debts and Debts
Historically, Sri Lanka has had a weak financial background, where spending outstrips income.
Some critics say the weakness increased when Gotabaya enacted deep tax cuts shortly after taking office, just as the COVID-19 pandemic further dented a tourism-dependent economy.
Despite calls from some experts and opposition leaders, the government has refused help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for months, even as the financial crisis unfolded. Worse, leaving foreign exchange reserves unsettlingly low.
They stood at around $2.31 billion in February, while Sri Lanka faces about $4 billion in debt for the rest of the year.
After changing its stance, Sri Lanka will begin negotiations with the IMF this month.
In a televised address in mid-March, Gotabaya said he understood the pain ordinary Sri Lankans were facing, with imports stalled due to a lack of foreign exchange and soaring inflation.
“I am well aware of shortages of essential items and price increases,” he said. “I’m also aware of problems like lack of gas, lack of fuel and power cuts.”
However, he distanced himself from the problems, saying: “This crisis is not of my own making.”
For some protesters and opposition politicians, that has changed little.
“The red line has been crossed. Public confidence in this government has dropped to absolute zero,” said Udaya Gammanpila, a former minister in the Rajapaksa government.
Back in the streets of Colombo, outside a theater named Mahinda Rajapaksa, protester Cooke said Rajapaksas had to go.
“People aren’t going to settle for anything other than they all leave,” she said. “They want them all out.”