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Protests in Sri Lanka Grow Amid Apparent Economic Crisis


Demonstrators celebrate after entering into the Presidential Secretariat, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled from the building. | Image by India Today

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The economic crisis in Sri Lanka appears to have finally forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office.

In response to power outages, shortages of necessities, and rising costs, anti-government protesters have long called for Rajapaksa to resign. However, the former military officer fought the calls for months, using emergency powers to preserve control.

Following violent protests last Saturday, in which protesters reportedly invaded the president’s official estate and set fire to the prime minister’s home in Colombo, the country’s parliamentary speaker said Rajapaksa would resign.

Early on July 6, just hours before he was supposed to step down from office, Rajapaksa departed the nation, most likely traveling to the Maldives.

Later that day, the country descended into an even deeper state of turmoil as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed power, and demonstrators lost patience with the political establishment’s refusal to give in to their calls for a complete overhaul of political leadership.

Even after Wickremesinghe was elected president, protesters did not give up. The gathering in front of his office grew and took control of the building. Another mob took control of the state broadcasting service.

Sri Lanka’s Constitution is quite explicit regarding succession. When a president steps down, the prime minister temporarily assumes his responsibilities. The focus then shifts to Parliament, where members elect a new leader to serve the remaining years of the president’s term.

Jhancasie Chatty, a protest organizer, said, “This is not enough, changing the heads. We want to change the whole system with the Constitution along with the culture of governance where a politician is accountable to citizens. That has not happened so far.”

Wickremesinghe declared a curfew in his first speech as acting president and referred to some protesters as a “fascist threat.” He then announced last weekend that he would resign.

The island country of 22 million is now experiencing political unrest and acts of violence as talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over an economic rescue plan threaten to collapse.

Apparent economic mismanagement by previous administrations has reportedly undermined Sri Lanka’s public finances, leaving the country with national expenditures that are higher than its income and poor levels of products and services.

Deep tax cuts implemented by the Rajapaksa administration immediately after taking power in 2019 worsened the situation. A few months later, COVID-19 broke out.

A significant portion of Sri Lanka’s income was destroyed, most notably in the lucrative tourist sector. Remittances from citizens who were working overseas also decreased as a result of a fixed foreign exchange rate.

From 2020 onward, rating agencies reduced Sri Lanka’s credit rating due to concerns over the government’s finances and its inability to repay significant foreign debt, ultimately shutting the country out of global financial markets.

The government mainly relied on its foreign exchange reserves to maintain the economy, depleting them by more than 70% in just two years.

Previously regarded as a model for a growing economy, Sri Lanka has been ravaged by an apparent energy crisis. Long lines at gas stations, frequent outages, and a shortage of medicine in hospitals have all been caused by fuel shortages.

According to the central bank, runaway inflation could hit 70% after reaching 54.6% last month.

At a forum they organized last Tuesday in Colombo, lawmakers interacted with protesters amid talks of a potential alliance between Dullas Alahapperuma, one of the first members of the ruling party to call for Rajapaksa’s resignation, and Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the opposition who lost to Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s 2019 presidential elections.

A legislator associated with the ruling party, Jeevan Thondaman, questioned if the alliance would win enough support in Parliament or from the general public.

“If we want to go for elections, we need to steady the ship until then. Clearly, [Rajapaksa] will want one of [his] people inside, like Dullas. But I don’t think he has the support in Parliament. And how far the people will accept him is questionable,” he said.     

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