By P.K. Balachandran/The Diplomat
July 12, 2022: Mobs have ended the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-Ranil Wickremesinghe government 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 Wickremesinghe, forcing the hands of the two leaders.
Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have 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 in office despite their manifest alienation from the masses.
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 a maximum of 30 days. Within that time, parliament should elect a president to complete Rajapaksa’s term.
The party leaders rejected Wickremesinghe’s plea that he be allowed to complete critical talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package and secure fuel supplies from various countries. His ministers declined to speak up for him; some declared their intention to resign.
The mob violence was unprecedented because it was the first time that mass anger was directed against the top rulers of the country and not a minority community, such as 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 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 Rajapaksa nor Wickremesinghe was in residence at the time of the attacks, having been evacuated to unknown safe houses by the military.
By Saturday, it was obvious to Rajapaksa 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 a police request to ban rallies near the president’s house. The curfew that the police had instituted on Friday was lifted at 8 a.m. 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 resisted the marchers initially, eventually gave in and allowed the crowd to storm the president’s and the prime minister’s official residences and then attack Wickremesinghe’s personal residence. The army also decided not to act, apparently because officials from Western nations, especially U.S. 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 Rajapaksa 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. Public forces like the “Gota Go Home” agitators, lawyers, Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist clergy members, prominent Muslim leaders, and trade unions were now calling the shots.
The Rise and Fall of Gotabaya
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the younger brother of former President and SLPP supremo Mahinda Rajapaksa. When Mahinda came to power in 2005 on an anti-separatist and Sinhalese-nationalist platform and decided to go to war with the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2006, Gotabaya, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Sri Lankan army, came back from the United States to take charge as defense secretary. After winning the war he shone as secretary of the urban development ministry.
Mahinda was voted out of office in 2015, but the family did not remain sidelined for long.
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 members of parliament, as he believed that professional politicians were 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.
Gotabaya’s initial actions were populist but at the cost of the treasury. He announced tax 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 jihadists.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka, he ordered frequent lockdowns. The economy ground to a halt. Export income and customs duties plummeted. Tourist arrivals fell to a trickle because of expensive quarantine regulations. Remittances from citizens working abroad also thinned. On top of all that, Rajapaksa suddenly slapped a total ban on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which ruined the agriculture sector, affecting 70 percent of the population.
While the import-dependent country was facing a dollar crunch, the time came for paying foreign loan installments. In 2022, Sri Lanka had to pay $7 billion in debts when it had only a little over $1 billion in foreign exchange reserves. In April, Sri Lanka defaulted on loan repayments and sought restructuring of the repayment regimen. Afraid of the IMF’s conditions, the government delayed an appeal to the IMF for a bailout. When Colombo did approach the IMF, the country was down to the dregs, surviving on handouts from India, which between January and June totaled $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 percent.
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’s resignation. But even after this, agitators burnt the houses of the Rajapaksas and 60 other ruling party honchos in the districts.
Enter (and Exit) Wickremesinghe
Following the resignation of Mahinda, 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 as prime minister. Wickremesinghe took up the job on the condition that he be given a free hand, to which Gotabaya agreed.
Meanwhile, the peoples’ woes continued as India had reached the end of its tether as far as 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.
The common demand was for an all-party government and not a patchwork under Wickremesinghe, whose political legitimacy was questioned because he was not an elected MP but a nominated one. He represents 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.
People blindly felt that nothing good could be achieved unless Rajapaksa and 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. The formation of an all-party government will be difficult because the parties in parliament are an extremely disparate lot, each in stiff competition with the other. There is no standout leader to rally the various groups under one umbrella. Given the instability, the IMF package will be delayed, foreign aid may cease, and foreign investment will not come.
In other words, the ouster of Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe is not the end of Sri Lanka’s woes. It may in fact usher in an even more acute crisis in the coming weeks.
P.K. Balachandran is an experienced Indian journalist writing on South Asian affairs from his base in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has written for a number of prestigious publications including The Guardian, The Observer, and the Economist.