The crisis in Sri Lanka keeps escalating by the hour. After more than a month of protests in which people across the country called for the removal of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother the prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the government over the fact that they had created a massive economic crisis that had led to daily hours-long power cuts, high inflation, and shortages of imported fuel, medicines, and certain foods, events took an even more serious turn on Monday.
Up until then, the demonstrations had been widespread but largely peaceful, with demonstrators setting up tent-city encampments in Colombo called ‘Gota Go Gama’ and ‘Mynah Go Gama’ (‘Gama’ is Sinhala for ‘town’ and a ‘Mynah’ is a small bird and is a recently coined derogatory nickname for the prime minister, so you get the sentiment being expressed by the names) and marching in many parts of the country and organizing successful general strikes that brought the country to a standstill. But on Monday, Mahinda (who has a larger base of support than his brother Gotabaya because he has been in Sri Lankan politics longer, was a former president, and opened the doors for his brothers and the rest of the Rajapaksa clan to occupy many sectors of the government) seemed to have decided to launch a counter-offensive. He had thousands of his supporters from various parts of the country bused into Colombo to his official residence Temple Trees where he and some supporters in parliament gave defiant speeches vowing to fight the protestors. After that session, his supporters went out into the streets and violently attacked the protestors, destroying the two tent cities, the banners, and all the other items that the protestors had with them.
This tactic, of the government bringing in bus loads of their supporters from other parts of the country, firing them up, and letting them loose on their political opponents to intimidate them, is a long-standing practice in Sri Lanka. The police and security forces tend to take a hands-off approach towards these gangs since they are well aware that these groups are acting on behalf of important government figures, and hence there is little or no restraint on their actions and they often resort to violence.
But this time, the tactic backfired spectacularly because the Rajapaksas seem to have underestimated the depth of opposition. The surprise attack on the protest camps resulted in them being initially overrun by Rajapaksa’s supporters, but the demonstrators came back in larger numbers and attacked the thugs and set fire to the buses and other vehicles that had brought them. Some of the thugs and vehicles were even thrown into the Beira Lake that is in the heart of the city (this can be seen at the 13:00 minute mark in the video below). In addition, enraged mobs all around the country attacked those politicians who are identified with the government, especially those who had recently been vocal in their support, vandalizing and setting fire to their homes, offices, and vehicles. They also broke through the gates of Temple Trees while the prime minister was in residence and police had to fire tear gas and warning shots to get them to disperse. The president then declared a state of emergency and imposed a nationwide curfew but the crowds seem to be largely ignoring it.
Inevitably, there have been deaths, injuries, and arrests.
Five people have died, including a ruling party MP, and more than 190 injured in violence in the capital.
Just outside the capital in the town of Nittambuwa, police said thousands of protesters surrounded the car of an MP from the governing party. He opened fire, killing one man. The MP himself was later found dead, as was his bodyguard, AFP reports citing police.
Another MP in the southern town of Weeraketiya also opened fire on protesters at his house, killing two and wounding five others, according to AFP.
Mobs set fire to several properties of ruling party politicians and local government officials were attacked, reports said.
That brief summary does not do justice to the extent of the mayhem. Below is a Sri Lankan TV station news program which aired dramatic and unedited raw video of the chaos. It is an hour long but even if you watch the first few minutes, it will give you a good sense of the pandemonium that can be unleashed when pretty much an entire country takes to the streets to protest an unpopular government.
Here is a shorter video that shows the pro-Rajapaksa forces attacking the encampments.
The actions of the pro-Rajapaksa forces in attacking the protest camps created even more outrage against the government, with religious leaders and all manner of professional organizations of nurses, doctors, lawyers, university faculty, and trade unions (and even the country’s cricket heroes) swiftly and strongly condemning the actions, so that later in the day, about 12 hours after his defiant speech declaring that he has never run away from a challenge, Mahinda resigned as prime minister. His brother the president has declared a state of emergency giving him wide powers and a nationwide curfew was declared but that has not dispersed the crowds.
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has resigned amid mass protests at the government’s handling of a deepening economic crisis.
The move came as the island was placed under curfew after violent clashes between Rajapaksa supporters and anti-government protesters in Colombo.
In a nation facing a crisis of economic uncertainty, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation was no surprise. There had been days of speculation he’d go – after reports his brother had told him he needed to quit.
In the last few days Mahinda Rajapaksa held on, with the view that as the more popular of the brothers, he shouldn’t be the one to go – but in the end he was.
The president has not been seen in public since demonstrators tried to storm his house on March 31 though he has appeared on TV and is tweeting. Under the Sri Lankan constitution, the president is the one who has the most power. It seems like he has sacrificed his brother to try and appease the protestors but they have been demanding that he go too. This is a spectacular fall from grace for the two brothers who were elected to office with large majorities from the majority Sinhala population as recently as November 2019.
How will this end? As with any chaotic political situation where large numbers of people have taken to the streets, that is impossible to say with any certainty. The president seems determined to stick it out. One can understand why. Once he loses the trappings of office, he will be at the mercy of a large and angry population. His brother Mahinda, who arguably is more popular than him, ventured out in public two days ago to visit a major Buddhist shrine and was jeered and heckled by crowds, so Gotabaya can be under no illusions about what awaits him if he becomes an ordinary citizen. He may only leave office if the security forces tell him that they are unable to control the protests if he remains in power. When there is a general popular uprising that is spread over large parts of the country, then the security forces get spread exceedingly thin and cannot maintain control and risk being overwhelmed. If the security leaders do tell him that, where he and all the members of his large extended family who are accused of looting the nation’s coffers will go for safety is anybody’s guess.
If they leave, who will replace them? That too is up in the air. Most of the political leaders in the opposition are themselves damaged goods, having held power before and not achieved much. Sometimes chaos and a leadership vacuum throws up new leaders but they can often have authoritarian tendencies too.
The situation looks extremely bleak.
Mano, thanks for the update. In Europe, news about Sri Lanka are sparse.
wionews.com, based in India, covers the region a lot better.
I don’t want to not comment as if I don’t care, I do care, but I’m not sure what the best solution is. NPR reported on this, and a comment was made that Sri Lanka’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and remittances from abroad, both seriously affected by COVID-19. In that case, the grifting by the Rajapaksa family is a drop in the bucket. I would support some kind of international COVID relief, but I am also becoming very anti-airplane in order to fight climate change, so I think Sri Lanka needs to find a cash source that doesn’t require lots of airplanes.
Mano Singham says
You are right that the structural problems run deep and will outweigh any loss due to corruption. But estimates suggest that the corruption loss is not small either. One estimate puts it at $19 billion. Given that the total foreign debt is $51 billion, that is not a drop in the bucket. During the brief time they were not in power from 2015-2019, investigations were said to have found that the family had stashed $2 billion in Dubai alone. One has to treat these numbers with some skepticism since Sri Lanka is a country were rumors run rampant and quickly become disconnected from any facts.
But the numbers are outweighed by the symbolism. Even if the actual figure is smaller, that is enough to enrage people to think that a few are amassing great wealth at their expense while they have to stand in line for hours to get basic essentials.
Fair enough. And if the Sri Lankans do a full Mussolini treatment on the whole family, I won’t lose any sleep over it. But, even if they recover every dollar stolen (which they can’t), at some point they are still going to run out of cash, and then what do they do?
Mano Singham says
There is no getting away from the fact that whoever is takes the helm, it is going to be a long and painful road to recovery.
ardipithecus @#2, thanks for the info.
Meanwhile in the Philippines, the son of the astoundingly corrupt and vicious Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos has just won a landslide victory in the Presidential election. Of course he’s not responsible for his parents’ crimes, but his campaign was based entirely on a farrago of blatant lies about how wonderful life was when they were in power. People en masses can be astonishingly stupid. I really think the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party would have a good chance of winning election in many countries.