Colombo, July 9: Saturday was a day of rapid political changes in Sri Lanka. Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that they would resign as per the wishes of the parties represented in parliament. The President had told parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena that he would resign on July 13.
An all-party meeting called by the parliamentary Speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, demanded that both President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe resign.And according to Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem, it proposed that Speaker Abeywardena be the Interim President till parliament elects a President.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe subsequently said that he would be caretaker Prime Minister till an all-party government is formed and a successor is elected. However, by 9.50 pm. neither the President nor the Prime Minister had resigned.
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 courts had 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 to run on Saturday ran, bringing thousands of agitators to Colombo. The police, who were resisting the marchers initially, even firing tear gas shells, gave in soon 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. It is said that this was partly because there was no command from the top and partly because 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) also 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 agitators who had come under a single “Gota Go Home” flag. The amorphous crowd included lawyers, Catholic and Protestant clergy, Buddhist clergy of the highest rank, Muslim leaders and trade unions were also chanting “Gota Go Home”.
They were demanding 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 having been washed out in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
That Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had the support of the SLPP, the single largest party in parliament, did not matter to the other political parties or even to the masses. They just considered him to be grossly lacking in legitimacy. It did not take long for the agitation (called Aragalaya in Sinhalese) to launch a “Go Home Ranil” campaign.
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. He fought the war efficiently and vanquished the Tiger chieftain Prabhakaran. After the war, he showed his civil administration skills as Secretary, Urban Development Ministry.
In August 2019, a series of suicide attacks by Islamic terrorists created a new wave of Sri Lankan or Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarian nationalism, which demanded a strong leader. The SLPP and its nationalist allies put up Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their 2019 Presidential candidate 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 officials in key posts in various ministries, causing much 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 baseless notions.
President Gotabaya’s initial actions were populist. He went against the Muslim minority seeing them as terrorists or Jehadists exacerbating the Sinhalese-Buddhist-Muslim divide. He announced VAT cuts which reduced revenue. He recruited 100,000 unemployable university graduates to petty government jobs which only drained the resources of the State.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. He closed down the country with frequent lockdowns, listening to the scary predictions of medical unions. As a result 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, the country defaulted on loan repayments and sought the 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% with Prime Minister Wickremeisinghe predicting a food crisis stretching from August 2022 to 2023.
Restive Sri Lankans, mostly the youth, had by then, started the “Gota Go Home” blocking the main entrance of the President’s office. The 24-7 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 on that very day. In the night of May 9, hoodlums burnt the houses of the Rajapaksas and other ruling parties 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. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had sworn that he would not leave office as a “failed President” rejected the demand and asked Ranil Wickremesinghe to assume office. Wckremesinghe 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. Debt restructuring would take time and 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, though no one could tell how. People blindly felt that something good will come out if only the Rajapaksas and their “lackey” Ranil Wickremesinghe left.
When the duo did not go but kept saying that they could turn the country around, the agitators decided to storm the official residences of both the President and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s private residence was set on fire. Sensing the public sentiment, the police wisely withdrew, and the army stayed in the barracks abandoning their Supreme Commander to his fate.