Sri Lanka Protesters Call for President to Resign After Cabinet Shuffle

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – After weeks of turmoil over Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and growing resentment against his rule, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a sacrifice to the public, urging nearly his entire cabinet to step down en masse as he pushes reforms. promised.

On Monday, Sri Lankans responded unequivocally, defying Mr Rajapaksa’s state of emergency to stand up for protest rallies. “Gota, go home!” they chanted, repeating a chorus calling on the president to resign and return to the United States, where he holds dual citizenship. They promised to march until he personally left office.

Mr. Rajapaksa and his family are known for not hesitating to use threats and violence to silence critics, dating back to the country’s three-decade civil war that ended in 2009 in which the looming question is whether lord Rajapaksa will withdraw or react with characteristic force.

There are already signs of the latter.

On Thursday, the anger directed at the president reached his doorstep as protests outside his Colombo residence turned violent.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons into the crowd and arrested dozens of people, including journalists.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, said many of those detained were tortured in custody.

Shortly after the protests, the government of Mr. Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on the island, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and making it illegal for people to leave their homes.

Hundreds of people were arrested over the weekend in Sri Lanka’s western province, which includes the capital Colombo, for violating the curfew.

More protesters took to the streets on Sunday; and on Monday, some 2,000 people broke through barricades in an attempt to reach one of the prime minister’s residences, about 200 miles outside Colombo. They were repelled with tear gas and water cannons.

The magnitude and energy of the protests across Sri Lanka suggested that the reshuffle of Mr Rajapaksa’s cabinet has done little to allay demands that he resign.

At least five demonstrations took place in Colombo, while protesters also gathered in the hill town of Kandy, about 90 miles east of the capital; in the tourist-friendly beaches of Galle, about 90 miles to the south; and in Chilaw, about 80 miles to the north, in a province controlled by a former naval commander close to the Rajapaksa.

In Colombo and Kandy, protesters also clashed with security forces outside the residences of several former ministers

“We don’t know who will come to power next, so our future is uncertain. But at least we fight for it. I’m glad so many people are expressing their anger,” said Rashika Satheeja, 42, who works in the advertising industry in Colombo and was one of hundreds who demonstrated in the city’s Independence Square.

The protesters promise to continue.

“The current situation is a complete rejection of the Rajapaksas. The people have no other calling than to ask them all to go, to leave politics, because they have been greedy and incompetent and they cannot govern,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

“It is an uncompromising word from the ground that the rajapaksas must leave,” he said.

At one time, the Rajapaksa’s gained deep support among the Sri Lankans, when the family was credited for ending the civil war in the country and creating an economy that became a model for other countries trying to rebuild.

To the president, the cost of meeting the public’s demands to step down may seem unbearable. In California, where Mr. Rajapaksa lived before returning to run for president in 2019, he is facing civilian charges related to atrocities committed while he was Secretary of Defense during the brutal final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

During his two-and-a-half years as president, he has been given more powers through a constitutional amendment and has halted criminal investigations into himself and his family. But his immunity from prosecution expires the moment he does, analysts say.

“People say, ‘Gota, go home,’ but he can’t go home because there are too many cases against him,” said Murtaza Jafferjee, director of the Advocata Institute, a think tank. all protections.”

But while Sri Lankans have faced power cuts, long lines for fuel and shortages of basic foods such as milk powder and rice for up to 13 hours a day during the hottest time of the year, their resolve will likely only harden, analysts say.

The problem for the Rajapaksas is that there is no easy solution to the economic problems plaguing the island.

The stock market stopped trading after a sharp drop in the benchmark share’s price index on Monday. The Sri Lankan rupee depreciated further, falling 33 percent against the dollar since the beginning of the year. And the government has run out of money to import much-needed goods.

A habit of bad debt that began during the decade-long presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s older brother, had remained largely unresolved by the time two disasters devastated Sri Lanka’s all-important tourist industry: the Easter 2019 terrorist attacks in which more than 250 were killed. people and the coronavirus pandemic.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government responded to the blow by cutting taxes and borrowing even more, adding to the debt his brother had taken on to fund large infrastructure projects that are still unprofitable.

Billions of dollars in debt payments are coming and many analysts predict default. In the meantime, the government is running out of foreign exchange to import essentials like medicines, food and fuel, leading to shortages, prolonged power cuts and unprecedented suffering across the island.

Early Monday, Mr. Rajapaksa invited opposition party members to join his cabinet, but no one took up the offer.

Harsha de Silva, an economist who is seen as a possible replacement for finance minister and member of the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, said he would not join the government until elections could be held.

“I will not accept a ministry without a new mandate. We need a good team for this. We need a new mandate,” he said.

Even Mr Rajapaksa’s political allies have revolted. Several political parties in his ruling coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, have demanded that he appoint an interim government made up of all 11 parties represented in the legislature.

Among them, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party announced it would leave the government on Tuesday.

“From tomorrow we will sit independently in parliament. We hope to be part of an interim government, but we have to decide how to proceed according to the demands of the people,” Dayasiri Jayasekara, the party’s general secretary, said in an interview with The New York Times.

He went on to say that snap elections were not an option given the current state of the economy, as the government could not afford the costs.

“We need to form an interim government and find a solution to economic problems,” he said.

After his initial resistance, President Rajapaksa last month said the government would ask for help from the International Monetary Fund, but any financial assistance would take at least several months to implement, said WA Wijewardena, the former deputy governor of the central bank. from Sri Lanka.

“What needs to be done now, whatever government is formed after the fall of the current government, is to come to the people and tell them the truth,” said Mr Wijewardena. “We are in a lot of pain right now, and that pain has to be borne by all of us, and we have to make sacrifices to rebuild the economy.”

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Emily Schmall from New Delhi.


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