Colombo, July 10 (The Citizen): Mobs have ended the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-Ranil Wickremesinghe Raj in Sri Lanka. On Saturday, huge crowds of angry youth stormed the official residences of the President and the Prime Minister and set fire to the private residence of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, forcing the hands of the two leaders.
Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe declared their intention to resign. While the President said that he would quit on July 13, the Prime Minister said that he would quit as soon as the proposed all-party government is formed.
Sri Lankans are amazed that the discredited duo is still sticking to office despite their manifest alienation from the masses and the blows they have received from angry mobs.
Meanwhile, a meeting of all parliamentary parties called by the Speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, had demanded the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister and proposed that the Speaker take charge as interim President for thirty days within which parliament should elect a President to complete the outgoing President’s term. The party leaders rejected Wickremesinghe’s plea that he be allowed to complete critical talks with the IMF for a bailout package and get fuel from various countries. His ministers also let him down by not speaking up for him. Some declared their intention to resign.
The mob violence was unprecedented because it was the first time that anger was directed against the top rulers of the country and not a minority community, Tamils or Muslims. The police and fire services watched as thousands broke iron barricades and occupied the President’s colonial-era mansion and the Prime Minister’s official residence. Later in the night, the mob gleefully set fire to the Prime Minister’s private residence destroying hundreds of books, antiques and paintings collected by Wickremesinghe and his wife, both aesthetes.
It looked as if the Sri Lankan State machinery had crumbled under the weight of the agitators’ numbers as well as the public support they enjoyed. The island nation’s citizens, suffering for months for want of basic necessities like food, fuel and medicines, had tacitly sanctioned destruction and arson directed against political leaders, who were collectively derided as “rogues” who deserved no better.
However, neither President Gotabaya nor Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was in residence at the time of the attacks, having been evacuated to unknown safe houses by the military.
The Build Up
By Saturday, it was obvious to President Gotabaya that the political situation had turned against him irreversibly. The opposition was to organize a huge rally on Saturday in front of his official residence. The first sign of the collapse of the system appeared when the courts refused the police’s request to ban rallies near the President’s house. The curfew that the police had clamped the previous night, was lifted at 8 am on Saturday on the demand of the Bar Council of Sri Lanka. Trains and buses, which were not supposed to run on Saturday, did run, bringing thousands of agitators to Colombo. The police, who were resisting the marchers initially eventually gave in and allowed the crowd to storm the President’s and the PM’s official residences and then attack the Prime Minister personal residence. The army had decided not to act, apparently because Western nations, especially the US Ambassador Julie Chung, had warned against the use of force against “peaceful” demonstrators.
Above all, several members of the ruling coalition led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) demanded the resignation of the President. It looked as if the President had no legs to stand on. His support structure, comprising the ruling party and its coalition partners, the law and order machinery, and the courts, had collapsed. Extra-constitutional forces like the “Gota Go Home” agitators, lawyers, Catholic, Protestant and the Buddhist clergy, prominent Muslim leaders and trade unions were calling the shots.
The common demand was for an all-party government and not a patchwork under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose political legitimacy was questioned because he was not an elected MP but a nominated one. And he represented the United National Party (UNP) which did not have a single elected MP. That Wickremesinghe had the support of the President and the SLPP, the single largest party in parliament, did not matter. He was seen as a “lackey” of the hated Rajapaksas.
Rise and Decline of Gotabaya
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the younger brother of former President and SLPP supremo, Mahinda Rajapaksa. When Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005 on an anti-separatist and Sinhalese-nationalist platform in 2005, and decided to go to war with the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2006, Gotabaya, a retired Lt.Colonel of the Sri Lankan army came down from the US to take charge as Defense Secretary. After winning the war he shone as Secretary Urban Development Ministry.
In August 2019, a series of suicide attacks by Islamic terrorists created a new wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarian nationalism, which demanded a strong leader. The SLPP and its nationalist allies put up Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their Presidential candidate in 2019 on the strength of his war winning ways. He swept the elections.
But the moment he took office, Gotabaya started replacing civilian officials with retired military officers in key posts, causing dismay in the civil service. He cared little for ministers and MPs as he believed that professional politicians are lazy, inefficient and corrupt. Thus, he alienated the entire political class, including his own party men. Even experienced men in the politically savvy Rajapaksa clan could not disabuse him of his notions.
President Gotabaya’s initial actions were populist but at the cost of the Treasury. He announced VAT cuts which reduced revenue. He recruited 100,000 unemployable university graduates to petty government jobs which drained the State’s resources. He also went against the Muslim minority seeing them as terrorists or Jehadists.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka, he ordered frequent lockdowns. The economy ground to a halt. Export income and income from imports (customs duties) plummeted. Tourist arrivals became a trickle because of expensive quarantine regulations. Remittances from citizens working abroad also thinned. On top of all that, he slapped a total ban on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which ruined agriculture affecting 70% of the population.
While the import-dependent country was facing a dollar crunch, time came for paying foreign loan instalments. In 2022, the Sri Lanka had to pay US$ 7 billion when it had only a little over US$ 1 billion. In April 2022, Sri Lanka defaulted on loan repayments and sought restructuring of the repayment regimen. Afraid of the IMF’s conditions, it delayed an appeal to the IMF for a bailout. When it did approach the IMF, the country was down to the dregs, surviving on India’s handouts, which between January and June 2022, totaled US$ 3.5 billion.
Depending entirely on Indian Lines of Credit, the government was unable to meet even the basic expectations of the people – fuel for their vehicles, food on the table, and medicines in State hospitals. Food inflation had hit 56%.
Restive Sri Lankans, mostly the youth, had, by then, started the “Gota Go Home” movement, brazenly blocking the main entrance of the President’s office. The round-the-clock agitation continued for weeks, with the agitators demanding the ouster of the entire Rajapaksa clan. A violent attack perpetrated by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s followers on peaceful “Go Home Gota” agitators on May 9, led to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation. But even after this, agitators burnt the houses of the Rajapaksas and 60 other ruling party honchos in the districts.
Following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, there was a vociferous demand that an all-party government be formed. The President asked the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, to form a government, but Premadasa said that the President should resign first, a condition Gotabaya rejected. He then asked Ranil Wickremesinghe to assume office. Wickremesinghe took up the job on the condition that he has a free hand to which Gotabaya agreed.
Meanwhile the peoples’ woes continued as India had reached the end of its tether as far giving credit went. It was clear that debt restructuring would take time and the IMF’s bailout package, which was tied to debt restructuring, was not expected anytime soon. Most Sri Lankans and the politicians in parliament were of the view that a change of government, with the exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as Wickremesinghe, would help. People blindly felt that something good will come out if only the Rajapaksas and their “lackey” Ranil Wickremesinghe quit. When the duo did not go, but kept saying that they could turn the country around, the agitators decided to abandon non-violence and force the issue.
Sri Lanka’s future is now extremely uncertain for three reasons: Firstly, the formation of an all-party government is difficult because the parties in parliament are an extremely disparate lot, each in stiff competition with the other. Secondly, there is no tall leader to rally the various groups under one umbrella. Thirdly, given the instability, the IMF package will be delayed, foreign aid may cease, and foreign investment will not come. Sri Lanka is in danger of becoming a “basket case”.