Sri Lanka faces protests and economic collapse as Rajapaksa continues to fight

From Catholic nuns to union members, protesters gathered at makeshift sites along Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo’s waterfront promenade, defying a curfew imposed in recent days to force them to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“We need to deliver on our main demand: the president should resign. There will be no agreement or solution until then,” said Hasintha Wijesekara, 39, an environmental scientist and a member of the university faculty union. He and his colleagues took turns keeping vigils at the camp.

rajapaksaThe heir to Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty, he remains in power in the face of a growing protest movement and economic collapse. Last week, he appointed former rival Ranil Wickremesinghe, a man in his seventies, as prime minister in his fifth term in the post, which he is desperately trying to continue. in power.

But the appointment of Wickremesinghe, an unpopular but seasoned politician who is the party’s only MP, did little to appease the demonstrators who had camped on the promenade opposite the president’s office. any effect. Vijay Sekhara said the prime minister “has ample opportunity”.

Former military leaders Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe now need to convince not just Sri Lankans, but donors from China to the IMF, that they can lead the island through the worst in decades. crisis.

Demonstrators’ camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka © Buddhika Weerasinghe/FT

“This time the threat to the survival of the Rajapaksa is real,” said Colombo-based political commentator Kusar Pereira. “They want someone to take over, who can spread the heat and negotiate an exit path for them after a while.”

Sri Lanka, which once enjoyed an Asian economic success story, is on the verge of default after having virtually depleted its foreign exchange reserves, severe shortages of basic commodities and power outages.

Attacks by Rajapaksa supporters on anti-government protesters last week sparked a wave of retaliatory unrest. The sudden resignation of Gotabaya’s cabinet, which included his once powerful brother Mahinda, left the country effectively without a government.

At the time of his appointment, Wickremesinghe quoted Winston Churchill as saying he believed his task was as daunting as that faced by Britain’s wartime leaders.

“Churchill had only four members backing him in 1939. How did he become prime minister? Because of the crisis. I did the same thing,” he told reporters last week.

Sri Lanka, an enthusiastic high-yield bond issuer and participant in China’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure plan, will repay about $8 billion in overseas debt and interest this year, with total foreign credit exceeding $50 billion.However, the Rajapaksa government has only tens of millions of dollars in reserves moratorium on debt repayments last month, and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Wickremesinghe has met a series of foreign ambassadors including China, the United States and Japan after his appointment, as Sri Lanka seeks emergency loans to ease the crisis.

Rajapaksa has said he wants to form a multi-party government to weather the crisis, rather than resign. However, due to opposition boycotts and an entrenched protest movement, the president-prime duo has failed to form a full cabinet and has so far appointed only four ministers, all from Rajapaksa’s party. The island currently does not have a finance minister, although talks with the IMF are expected to last for several months.

“It’s really a poisonous holy grail,” said Razeen Sally, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

“An optimistic interpretation is [Wickremesinghe] is the best choice.He’s a seasoned politician,” Sally added. “A more pessimistic view is that he was prime minister. [before] and has failed. . . What’s different this time? “

The Rajapaksa family has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades, barring opposition between 2015 and 2019. With Mahinda as president and Gotabaya as defense minister, they oversaw a nearly three-year campaign against the Tamil Tigers separatist group in 2009 through a brutal campaign in which both sides were accused of war crimes. The end of the civil war. Rajapaksa disputed the allegations.

Sri Lanka ranks among the upper-middle-income countries thanks to its heavy borrowing from international debt markets for infrastructure-fueled economic growth. Successive governments have refinanced and borrowed more despite warnings about the country’s growing debt.

University lecturer Hasintha Wijesekara at a protest camp outside the presidential office
University lecturer Hasintha Wijesekara at a protest camp outside the President’s Office © Buddhika Weerasinghe/FT

But the island was plunged into crisis after Gotabaya’s 2019 election, when he slashed taxes, imposed a damaging ban on fertilizers and amended the constitution to consolidate power around him. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation by cutting off tourism, an important source of foreign exchange.

“The lower and middle classes are being pushed into a corner,” said Buwanaka Pereira, 26, who has been camped at the protest site for weeks. “Import restrictions hurt them, while tax cuts help the rich.”

The government continued to deny the crisis until protests were forced to make a sudden U-turn in March. Analysts say the island is now at risk of prolonged political instability, which could further dampen its economic prospects.

Low interest rates globally mean “they can borrow without thinking about tomorrow or the day after,” Sally said. “I doubt until the end they thought they could operate from their old playbook.”

The president has turned to tough measures to quell the protests, declaring a state of emergency and ordering the deployment of the military shoot looters.

Eran Wickramaratne, a lawmaker from Sri Lanka’s largest opposition party, said they would introduce a “dissatisfaction” motion when parliament reconvenes on Tuesday. “The Rajapaksa have lost their legitimacy,” he said. “People want a complete break . . . obviously this administration won’t deliver.”

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