What is happening in Sri Lanka is an example of how authoritarian leaders will cling on to power by trying to give the impression that they still have the support of most of the people. In this case, the current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was easily voted into office on the strength of his reputation as a ‘strong man’. This was because as defense minister when his brother was president, he unleashed the military in an extremely brutal crackdown on the separatist movement of an ethnic Tami minority. That elimination of the separatist threat made him a hero in the eyes of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, especially since the victims of that assault were largely Tamils. Then in April 2019, a terrorist cell of suicide bombers exploded bombs in eight locations including three luxury hotels and three Catholic churches, an act of senseless violence that saw large numbers of casualties.
Rajapaksa used that horrific event as the springboard for his presidential candidacy later that year, running on a platform of being a tough guy who could solve all the country’s problems. As we have seen in Russia, Hungary, and Trump in the US, that message has considerable appeal with certain segments of the population and later that year he easily won the presidency and his party won a big majority in parliament.
Flush with what he clearly saw as a sweeping mandate, he did what authoritarians do, dismantle checks and balances on the system and treat the country as his personal fiefdom. He and his family and cronies are accused of siphoning off to their private coffers vast sums of money. He appointed one brother as prime minister and three other brothers and a nephew as cabinet ministers, and made all manner of decisions that were, to put it mildly, not carefully thought out for their consequences, such as abruptly banning the import of all fertilizers (which cratered agricultural yields), using foreign currency reserves to support a fixed value of the Rupee (which rapidly depleted the reserves), giving a massive tax cut (which reduced revenues by around 30%), and then authorizing the printing of money to make up the shortfall (which caused inflation to spiral). Then the country was hit with external shocks such as the pandemic and the drop in tourism that was exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict that resulted in a drop in foreign currency earnings.
This convergence of factors has resulted in immense hardships for people due to the shortage of fuel, medicines, and basic food items and the country has seen a wave of mass protests the likes of which have never been experienced since independence in 1948, calling for the president and the entire government to resign. And that is saying something since the country has seen decades-long violence due to two insurrections and a civil war. There have been weeks of protests around the country with people camping outside the presidential office in the heart of the capital city Colombo, essentially shutting it down. Then on Thursday, there was a general strike across the country of workers in most sectors.
Through it all, Rajapaksa has remained defiant, the only concessions being that he has created a new cabinet in which only one brother remains as prime minister. He, Trump-like, apparently claims that these protests are being orchestrated by his enemies and that he is confident that his supporters are still with him and that he would easily win re-election. That is hard to believe, given the widespread nature of the protests that has brought together pretty much every sector, cutting across the normal ethnic and religious divides. Many of the protestors say they voted for Rajapksa but have become disillusioned with him. And even the middle classes, who normally do not take part in mass street protests, have joined in.
(As an aside, I was startled to see one protestor interviewed on the streets identified with the name (at the 0:15 mark) Joseph Stalin! I have never heard of anyone having the last name Stalin in Sri Lanka and wonder whether he was using it as an alias, though it would be a strange choice.)
The country is reduced to going around with a begging bowl, appealing to international agencies and other countries for loans to take it through the crisis. It is not clear what demands those entities will make on the government but you can be pretty sure that they will make some, since the country has already defaulted on past loans. There has been a recent report that the prime minister may resign, which may be due to external pressure. [UPDATE: The president has reportedly agreed to remove his brother from the post of prime minister.]
But the president seems determined to stay in office, maybe because once they leave the privilege of their position, there will be no defense from the anger of the people. That, as always, is the problem for authoritarians. There is often no easy exit once they have lost favor, which is why so many of them choose exile to live off their ill-gotten gains. That may well turn out to be what happens in Sri Lanka.