COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – After weeks of upheaval over Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and growing resentment at his rule, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a public sacrifice, calling on almost his entire cabinet, including several family members, to resign en masse while promising reforms.
On Monday, Sri Lankans responded in no uncertain terms, defying Mr Rajapaksa’s state of emergency by turning out to protest rallies. “Go on, go home!” They chanted, repeating a chorus urging the President to resign and return to the United States, where he has dual citizenship. They promised to march until he personally left office.
Mr Rajapaksa and his family have been notoriously reluctant to silence critics with threats and violence dating back to the country’s three-decade civil war that ended in 2009. Now, widespread disregard for his government’s stay-at-home orders has led to a showdown in which the looming question is whether Mr Rajapaksa will pull out or respond with characteristic force.
There are already signs of the latter.
Anger directed at the president reached his doorstep on Thursday as protests outside his Colombo residence turned violent.
Police used tear gas and water cannons against the crowd and arrested dozens of people, including journalists.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International said many of those arrested were tortured in custody.
Shortly after the protests, Mr Rajapaksa’s government imposed a state of emergency on the island, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and making it illegal for people to leave their homes.
Over the weekend, hundreds of people were arrested for violating the curfew in Sri Lanka’s Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo.
Even more protesters took to the streets on Sunday; and on Monday about 2,000 people broke through barricades trying to reach one of the prime minister’s residences, located about 125 miles outside Colombo. They were repelled with tear gas and water cannons.
The scale and energy of the protests across Sri Lanka suggested that Mr Rajapaksa’s cabinet reshuffle did little to ease calls for his resignation.
At least five rallies were held in Colombo, while protesters also demonstrated in the hill town of Kandy, some 90 miles east of the capital; on the tourist-friendly beaches of Galle, about 90 miles south; and at Chilaw, some 50 miles north, in a province ruled by a former naval commander near the Rajapaksas.
“We don’t know who will come to power next, so our future is uncertain. But at least we fight for it. I’m glad so many people are expressing their anger,” said Rashika Satheeja, 42, who works in advertising in Colombo and protested among hundreds at the city’s Independence Square.
The protesters vow to carry on.
“The current situation is a total rejection of the Rajapaksas. People have no other appeal than to ask everyone to leave politics because they were greedy and incompetent and unable to govern,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Political Alternatives.
“It is an uncompromising word from the ground up that the Rajapaksas must go,” he said.
The Rajapaksas once enjoyed widespread support among Sri Lankans as the family was celebrated for ending the country’s civil war and creating an economy that has become a model for other nations striving to rebuild.
Well, for the president, the cost of meeting the public’s demands for his resignation seems prohibitive. In California, where Mr. Rajapaksa lived before returning to run for president in 2019, he faces civil charges related to atrocities committed while he was Minister of Defense during the brutal final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
During his two-and-a-half years as president, he gained greater powers through a constitutional amendment and dropped criminal investigations against himself and his family. But his immunity from prosecution goes the moment he does, analysts say.
“People say, ‘Gota, go home,’ but he can’t go home because there are too many cases against him,” said Murtaza Jafferjee, director of the Advocata Institute, a think tank. “If he is no longer head of state, all protective measures will be removed.”
Although the people of Sri Lankans endure power cuts for up to 13 hours a day, long queues for fuel and shortages of staples like powdered milk and rice during the hottest part of the year, their resolve is likely to only harden, analysts say.
The problem for the Rajapaksas is that there is no easy solution to the economic problems plaguing the island.
The stock market stopped trading after the leading index fell sharply on Monday. The Sri Lankan rupee continued to depreciate, losing 33 percent against the dollar year-to-date. And the government lacks the money to import urgently needed goods.
A habit of bad debts that began during the decades-long presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s older brother, had largely gone untouched when two disasters wiped out Sri Lanka’s vital tourism industry: the 2019 Easter terrorist attacks that killed more than 250 people Life came to people and the corona pandemic.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government responded to the beatings by cutting taxes and borrowing even more, adding to the debt burden his brother had taken on to fund large infrastructure projects that are still not profitable.
Billions of dollars in debt are coming due and many analysts are predicting a default. Meanwhile, the government has insufficient foreign exchange to import essentials like medicine, food and fuel, causing shortages, prolonged power outages and unprecedented suffering across the island nation.
Early Monday, Mr Rajapaksa invited members of the opposition party to join his cabinet, but none took up the offer.
Harsha de Silva, an economist seen as a possible replacement for finance minister and member of the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, said he would not join the government until elections could be held.
“I will not accept any service without a new mandate. For that we need a real team. We need a new mandate,” he said.
Even political allies of Mr. Rajapaksa have rebelled. Several political parties in his ruling coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, have called for him to appoint an interim government composed of all 11 parties represented in the legislature.
Among them, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party announced it would quit the government on Tuesday.
“From tomorrow we will sit independently in Parliament. We hope to be part of an interim government, but we have to decide how to work according to people’s demands,” Dayasiri Jayasekara, the party’s general secretary, said in an interview with the New York Times.
He went on to say that early general elections are not an option given the current economic situation as the government cannot afford the costs of a general election.
“We must form an interim government and find a solution to the economic problems,” he said.
After his initial opposition, President Rajapaksa said last month that the government would seek help from the International Monetary Fund, but any bailout would take at least several months to execute, said WA Wijewardena, the former deputy governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank.
“What should be done now, whatever government is to be formed after the current government is overthrown, is to come to the people and tell them the truth,” Mr Wijewardena said. “We are in great pain now and that pain must be borne by all of us and we must make sacrifices to rebuild the economy.”
Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Emil Schmal from New Delhi.