Rajapaksas face ‘Lanka spring’ heat

In Colombo, hundreds of people are camping out and chanting one slogan “Gota Go Home” and the protests are gathering momentum.

Published: 13th April 2022 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th April 2022 08:49 AM   |  A+A-

Sri Lanka crisis

The average citizen appears angry about the high inflation, scarcity of essentials and the disruption to daily life.

Express News Service

COLOMBO:  For many days, despite ongoing protests in various parts of the island calling for the resignation Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a change in the political system, the Rajapaksas maintained stoic silence. There had been no explanation for the economic morass, plans to contain the situation to avert further economic decline or a simple apology as Sri Lankans continue to face their biggest economic crisis since independence. 

The queues are long, tempers short, and essentials are becoming scarce by the day. Despite the silence, the past week saw some dramatic moments, including a spate of invalid resignations by government ministers, the exit of Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister and Ajith Nivaard Cabraal from the post of Central Bank’s governor, two men faulted by the people for causing “system collapse” through corruption and mismanagement of the island economy. As public despair grows, so does resentment towards the ruling family.

On April 11, the unpopular regime put forward their most popular family member, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to make a special address. There were strong expectations that he would announce his resignation and call for a multi-party approach to overcome the current crisis. Instead, there was no admission of mistakes, remorse, an apology or an explanation. 

He used full five minutes to caution the protestors against political elements responsible for previous bloodletting (a reference to the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) and to desist from insulting the armed forces, a reminder of the SLPP’s populist rhetoric that had helped them secure power since 2005, except for the 2015 interlude.

Thushal Wasantha (26), a protestor camping at the Galle Face Green, Colombo’s iconic seafront in front of the Presidential Secretariat, now dubbed the GotaGoHomeVillage, said the PM’s script was old and no longer valid. 

Anger palpable over inflation, scarcity of essential goods

“They (Rajapaksas) have repeatedly won elections playing the nationalist card and repeatedly sold the LTTE’s defeat to win elections. What they have done since 2005 is to divide us along ethno-religious lines and create a family company of sorts to run the country. People have been blinded by their rhetoric but no more.”

In Colombo, hundreds of people are camping out and chanting one slogan “Gota Go Home” and the protests are gathering momentum, with religious leaders, sports personalities and artistes lending support. While anti-Rajapaksa elements call it ‘Sri Lanka’s reawakening’, the silence of the Rajapaksas does not denote absence of hurt. On Tuesday, a counter protest was organised by pro-Rajapaksa groups led by prominent campaigners and a wave of social media posts discrediting the protests.

As people queue up to buy their fuel and turn away from retailers with disappointment due to essentials being in short supply, the average citizen appears angry about the high inflation, scarcity of essentials and the disruption to daily life. “They can feed their children as they have ill-gotten wealth. But we are finding it difficult to have a single meal a day,” said Sumana Weerapperuma (43), a farmer from Horowpathana. The public anger is so sharp that it fails to take into account the multiple contributors to the island’s economic collapse.

“This country was into heavy borrowing for years. Covid, increasing debt, high interest borrowing from China, reduction in remittances, all play a role in the downturn. But the Rajapaksas cannot ignore their complicity in what we are going through. They ruined the national economy, appointed political stooges to manage the economy and overlooked technocrats and since their ascension, we have only seen grand corruption and nepotism. This is the result of Rajapaksa misrule and corruption,” said Pragathi Samaraweera (24), a university student reading for an economics degree. “Can you explain the opulence? Where was this wealth until the tsunami funds were misappropriated?” she added. At the Galle Face Green, protesters are calling for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in unison, but they also call for more.

They are calling for a united Sri Lanka where communities can co-exist, a complete change in the system, multiple audits on personal wealth and corruption probes against Rajapaksa family members and key Rajapaksa associates.

“The Rajapaksas took a leaf out of colonisers’ book. They too practiced the divide and rule theory and rode to victory on a populist wave. They put Sinhalese against Muslims and Tamils, sewed mistrust among communities, taught us to suspect and fear each other and made this country unsafe for minorities, both ethnic and religious. Now we are asking all of them to go, to hand over the country back to us, the people. But the first demand is the exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” said Anwar Munsoor (31), a young father of two, who stands at the sea front protest venue, his face wreathed in a smile.

“We are asking for the country we want, we can build, not what their political leaders want,” he said.
April 14 is a special day for Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Hindus. It marks the dawn of a new year. On Thursday, the protest venue will turn into a grand celebration of unity in diversity. “We will herald the Sri Lankan new year, with all communities present. And we will ask our president to go home and make it auspicious,” said Andre Fernando (50).

(The author is a Colombo-based senior journalist and lawyer)


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