Sri Lanka is still reeling from the consequences of a 25-year-old civil war between the ethnically, linguistically, and religiously different Sinhalese and Tamils. The war, which terminated in 2009, remains an unhealed wound for many whose loved ones went missing, killed, or displaced. Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is also distrusted by many who harbour resentment towards him over accusations of his war crimes during the civil war when he was the defence secretary. However, Sri Lanka’s recent economic crisis has brought the union of previously divided groups under one Sinhalese flag as protests rage on against the government, which is governed by the Rajapaksa brothers, for their ill-advised decisions leading to a mismanagement of Sri Lanka’s economy and the Covid-19 pandemic. Civilians’ anger and disappointment are directed towards the government’s inaction as Sri Lankans have had to endure months of food, fuel, medicine and essential depletion, as well as frequent power outages, with no hope for amelioration in sight.
Starting in 2019, Sri Lanka suffered from a catastrophic economic recession that crippled its economy, being one of the worst since the island’s independence in 1948. This is attributed to many factors, such as policy changes and tax cuts, and was only worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result of the crisis, inflation rose to 17.5% as of February 2022. This coincided with multiple other negative events, such as a shortage of electricity. The recession also created a trade deficit and a lack of foreign currency to import goods into the nation. This led to the cancellation of exams due to paper shortages and even caused shortages in medicine and medical equipment, forcing hospitals to reuse syringes and cancel surgeries.
In total, Sri Lanka owes an estimated $50 billion to foreign creditors. Without the ability to pay for fuel imports, power shortages have emerged, and many foreign investors have pulled out of the country, removing vital capital from the country. The effect of this can be easily seen if one takes a walk through any city in the nation, where many shops and businesses have been forced to close, resulting in a rise in unemployment and a fall in tax revenue to the government; which further fuels the fire plaguing Sri Lanka.
Covid-19 pandemic effects
Sri Lanka’s situation was only made worse by the Covid-19 outbreak, virtually annihilating the country’s tourism industry, which was one of the island’s prime sources of income. The pandemic was a kick to the already down industry that was shaken after a series of bombings in churches occured in 2019. Consequently, hotels and tourist attractions suffered from a lack of international visitors.
The pandemic also brought forward nationwide lockdowns, crippling the country’s already fragile economy as productivity fell as workers were confined to their residences. Furthermore, hospitals became immensely overwhelmed, having to care for a huge amount of infected patients, while trying to manage the shortages caused by the economic recession that started a year prior.
Over these two years, Covid-19 has resulted in around 16,500 deaths. About 660,000 people were infected, leading to a lack of space in hospitals, as the demand for care skyrocketed. One can only imagine the great distress laid on the citizens who had to cope with one crisis after another.
Who Is the Rajapaksa Family?
The Rajapaksa clan has always been a prominent name in Sri Lanka. Originating as a rural land-owning family from Hambantota, the family has long been a rural elite ever since pre-independence Sri Lanka, with powerful ties branching across the island. Although they were never in the political spotlight, D. A. Rajapaksa, who is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s father, was a parliamentary representative for Hambantota. Their political affiliation grew when Mahinda Rajapaksa was successfully elected as Prime Minister in 2004 after being an opposition leader. Nevertheless, Mahinda Rajapaksa was embroiled in numerous accusations regarding his election win, among which was misappropriation of the 2004 tsunami funds, manipulation of votes and the involvement of proxies to prevent the exercise of Northern voters’ franchise. However, those propagating these assertions were labelled as “traitors”.
With promises of terminating the protracted war and outliving the Rajapaksa legacy over that of the Bandaranaikes’ political clan, Mahinda won the 2005 presidential polls a year later by calling for an election boycott of the militant group, Tamil Tigers. The Rajapaksa family was soon accused of nepotism after Mahinda Rajapaksa brought in his brother Gotabaya as defence secretary and his other brother Basil as senior advisor, both of whom were also American citizens at the time. Many also protested against the financial control that one family had over the entire Sri Lanka as well as the expanding militarisation, with the appointment of retired military officers as governors and the increasing involvement of Rajapaksa’s family members in both public and private services.
During Mahinda’s tenure as president, the Tamil Tigers revoked their demands for the North to be an independent state and requested instead more autonomy in alignment with the terms of a Norway-sponsored ceasefire, a peaceful agreement which would have ended the civil war. However, it is reported that the Rajapaksa brothers decided to oversee a military operation against the Tamil Tigers instead, leading to the abductions and disappearances of thousands of citizens. Gotabaya was particularly highlighted as being implicated in the 2009 White Flag Incident, whereby Tamil Tigers and their families carried a white flag in surrender but were gunned down by the military. The Rajapaksa brothers deny these accusations of the shoot-to-kill order and refuse to take responsibility for the disappearances of the thousands of Sri Lankans.
With the reputation of being from a “war-winning” family and his own reputation as being strict on security, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also grew in popularity, successfully winning the 2019 presidential elections. His brother Mahinda, dubbed as “The Terminator”, also won the elections the following year and assumed the role of Prime Minister. However, as their economic management decisions were reportedly coming undone, the Rajapaksa family was involved in several corruption scandals. Basil Rajapaksa, who served as the Minister for Economic Development, was charged for misappropriation of state funds in a public housing construction case. Gotabaya was accused of fraudulence in arms deals and purchase of military aircrafts. Mahinda’s son Namal, who was the Minister of Youth and Sports, was also arrested for money laundering and misappropriating funds in a $650-million apartment project. As Sri Lanka’s economic crisis continues spiralling downwards, Sri Lankans have directed their anger towards the Rajapaksa family who have been blamed for fiscal policy errors, significant tax cuts, and increased rates of money printing despite IMF’s warning about economic implosion; decisions that have been cited as the source of Sri Lanka’s economic downfall.
Explosive Response From Citizens
From severe food, fuel, and essential shortages due to stalling of foreign imports, to 13-hour daily nationwide blackouts, rising living costs, high inflation rates, suspension of medical surgeries and shortages of medical supplies, Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis has incited an explosive reaction from its citizens who have had to endure the consequences of this crisis for months on end. Protests began to spread across the country as public sentiment rose to anger. One of the first protests was demands for fuel for private vehicles after the announcement from Sri Lanka’s main fuel retailer regarding the shortage of diesel for public transport. These protests were peaceful and resulted in main road blockages in several towns by motorists, who were urged by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to leave and only return once imported diesel was ready for distribution.
After hours of queueing for supplies of fuel, gas and milk powder due to shortages, Sri Lankans took their distress and disappointment to the streets, in what is now known as the Kohuwala protests. What started as a candlelight vigil consisting of approximately 6 people on the 1st of March soon grew into larger acts of protest, with silent vigils conducted in major towns filled with Sri Lankans holding up sign boards, that although spoke of various messages, resonated one unanimous theme: the people’s sufferings from the economic crisis and a plea for reactive action. However, the people’s pleas seemingly fell on deaf ears with a lack of response from MPs, leading to an increase in unorganised and non-partisan protests that amassed hundreds of citizens.
On the 16th of March, thousands of protesters gathered outside the office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo to demand his resignation as they cited their economic woes as the result of his poor governance. Although previous protests and candlelight vigils were not politically affiliated, this protest was led by the Opposition Party—the Samagi Jana Balawegaya or United People’s Force—with the crowds displaying anti-government signs in the first step towards their campaign for the government’s removal.
A pivotal moment for the protests was on the 31st of March, which marks the day that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residential quarters in Mirihana were stormed by protestors dissatisfied with the government’s inaction and demanding the president’s resignation. This was the first protest to turn violent, with two military buses and a police vehicle set on fire, as well as toppling of walls and attacks on officers and troops using bricks. The scene was filled by firings from security forces into the crowds using tear gas and water cannons, though the usage of either live rounds or rubber bullets remains uncertain. Approximately 54 protesters who were labelled as “organised extremists” by authorities were detained, and one man was critically wounded in the aftermath. The protest was reportedly rallied by unidentified social media activists whose main focus was the removal of the entire Rajapaksa family from governance. Following this, the capital was placed under curfew and expanded the no-go zone.
As the protests persisted and grew widespread, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on the 1st of April. The president’s declaration led to the invocation of the tough laws, which enabled military forces to arrest and imprison citizens without trials for an extended period. Soldiers were deployed to various areas for crowd control and were seen to be armed with automatic assault rifles. The following day, a 36-hour nationwide curfew was declared to be effective immediately by authorities and was to be lifted on the 4th of April, aiming to reduce the number of rising protests. The sudden announcement of the curfew led to hordes of panic buying from grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as the stalling of public transport resulting in some Sri Lankans having to sleep in the streets after working.
Amidst the ongoing curfew on the 3rd of April, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission announced a nationwide social media block, which was imposed temporarily by the government’s Defence Ministry. Nevertheless, citizens were quick to utilise VPNs to continue their online campaign, which was trending under the anti-government hashtags “#GoHomeRajapaksas” and “#GotaGoHome”. The ban was lifted 15 hours after following a ruling regarding its illegality by Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Council. With ongoing protests despite the curfew, 26 ministers ended up resigning from the cabinet, with the exception of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the 5th of April, the newly elected finance minister Ali Sabry resigned after a day of being elected and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition lost its majority in parliament, leading to the president’s revocation of the curfew.
On the 9th of April, thousands of protesters consisting primarily of youths gathered at Galle Face, Colombo, in one of the largest street protests. Despite adverse weather conditions and internet outages due to a mobile phone jammer, protesters remained at Galle Face day and night under the hashtag #OccupyGalleFace and refuse to leave until the president’s resignation. The protestor’s area has since been named GotaGogama, where they have set up a camp with free food, water and toilets as well as a medical camp in support of the demonstration. GotaGogama has become a significant landmark for citizens to voice out their concerns in hopes of change, and has garnered support from citizens across the country.
Alongside the ongoing demonstration at GotaGogama, a nationwide general strike was also held on the 28th of April, with thousands of trade union members joining in solidarity to pressure the removal of the government by joining the protests at GotaGogama. With businesses and banks shut down, Sri Lanka came to a standstill as its citizens came together for change. Many voiced their disappointment towards the government, one of whom is Ruchira Ashan, a 27-year-old mechanic:
“We voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but he has destroyed our country.”
On the 6th of May, a state of emergency was once again declared following a second strike. The situation soon escalated on the 9th of May, a day which is now termed Black Monday, after pro-government supporters assaulted anti-government supporters at the MynaGoGama protest site and proceeded to move on to the GotaGoTama protest site at Galle Face without much intervention from authorities. The government loyalists also allegedly attacked nearby businesses that were selling national flags to protesters. These attacks were reportedly carried out following a meeting with government supporters at Temple Trees where Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed the crowd and stated that “he was willing to make any sacrifice for the people”. Following these attacks, at least 10 people were killed, and over 150 people sustained injuries and were hospitalised. The government soon dispatched troops who intervened using water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The violence that erupted led to an indefinite nationwide curfew to be reimposed. On the same night, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tendered his resignation after receiving backlash from citizens for “instigating violence against peaceful protesters”.
Despite his resignation, retaliatory violence persisted, with protesters attacking residences and properties of ruling party Ministers, MPs, and local government members, as well as the destruction of properties and monuments owned by the Rajapaksa family, including the Rajapaksa museum and wax statues of the Rajapaksa parents. Despite the curfew, the continuity of the violence resulted in Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry announcing a shoot-to-kill order to security officials for anyone involved in looting or “causing harm to life”. The attacks on the Rajapaksa’s official residences also led to the evacuation of Mahinda Rajapaksa amidst the protester’s storming.
A group of representatives at the Galle Face protests drafted a joint declaration coined as ‘Aragalaya’ or “Struggle” on the 13th of May, in which 8 demands were put forth:
- Resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa;
- Formation of an interim government limited to 15 ministers remaining for 18 months;
- Amendments to Sri Lanka’s Constitution (i.e. repealing the 20th Amendment, which enhances the president’s executive powers);
- Implementation of a relief budget and social security net for communities affected by the economic crisis;
- Audit of current elected officials;
- Transparent surveillance of crimes;
- The Right to Life as the citizens’ fundamental human right;
- Fair and independent elections.
On the 24th of May, a protest was held outside the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Colombo as citizens called for the arrest of Johnston Fernando, Sri Lanka’s former Highways Minister. The minister had been brought into the headquarters for questioning following allegations of his involvement in the government-backed violence on the 9th of May. Most of the protestors had been present on Black Monday, and many were spotted still donning bandages and casts from the attacks.
International protests have also erupted in support of Sri Lankans’ plights, across countries like the United States, Australia, and even Malaysia, with both Sri Lankans and other nationalities sending out a message that Sri Lanka does not stand alone. Today, Sri Lanka’s protests still continue as they await the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the formation of a new government to take control of the crisis and provide aid to the sufferings of vulnerable communities.
Political Response from Government
In response to the heated protests against the handling of the economic crisis and Covid-19 pandemic, nationwide curfews were installed, and the country saw a rise in police patrols in the streets. A state of emergency was declared, and the government attempted to clamp down and pacify the increasingly-upset crowd. This, however, would be unsuccessful in deterring the determined population.
As of the 9th of May, Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has resigned from office after encouragement from his brother, the president. This did not pacify the protesters, however, and soon after the Rajapaksa’s have allowed more concessions in the forms of decentralising power and returning it to parliament.
The decision has led to the dissolving of the government, and a new replacement will be created to maintain order and lead the nation in these trying times. This is one of the many actions undertaken by the government to appease the disgruntled public; among others are the government inviting prominent protest members to join in on discussions about reforms, and offering to form a united government with the opposition parties. However, both protesters and opposition members have refused these offers, and it seems they desire more extreme changes to the country’s political system.
Meanwhile, protests continue to rage around the country as unsatisfied citizens demand the total end to Rajapaksa rule in the nation. The police force in the country has taken severe measures to control the protests, and violence has broken out on the streets.
After suffering an economic recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, the people of Sri Lanka have endured in the darkest of hours. Here at Echo, our hearts reach out to those less fortunate than us.
As the sun rises on a new season for Sri Lanka, will the new government be successful in leading the country out of the recession? And what does the future hold for the Rajapaksa brothers? Only time will tell.
Written by: Julia Rosalyn and Matthew
Edited by: Maki