Has the Rajapaksa family become so detested that they have inadvertently united Sri Lankans, achieving what years of statecraft could not? So nepotistic is the government – it included eight members of the family until the cabinet quit this week – that the anti-government protests that have swept the country are entirely focused on the Rajapaksas, a clan that has been prominent since before independence and has dominated the island’s politics for decades.
With nine ministerial portfolios between them, the Rajapaksa family controlled nearly a quarter of the state budget, the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice noted last year. In 2013, it counted 29 members of the extended family in senior positions within politics, the civil service, media and industry. Accordingly, the anti-government protesters have focused on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, the prime minister. ‘Gota, go home!’ crowds have chanted, urging him to step down and return to the US, where he holds dual citizenship (but where he also faces two lawsuits over alleged atrocities committed while he was defence secretary during the civil war’s bloody conclusion).
‘The current situation is a complete repudiation of the Rajapaksas. The people have no other call than to ask them all to go, to leave politics, because they have been greedy, incompetent and they cannot govern,’ Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, told the New York Times. ‘It’s an uncompromising word from the ground that the Rajapaksas must go.’
The spark for the furious protests has been an ever more dire economic crisis: fuel shortages have left people sweltering without fans during 12-hour power cuts and struggling to charge mobile phones. Street lights have been switched off to save energy and hospitals have had to cancel operations. Soaring prices have put fruit out of reach for many, with long queues for cooking gas and milk powder. People cannot find essential medicines and water supplies have been interrupted. Nearly half of young people and a majority of those with a degree now say they would like to emigrate. The central bank floated the currency last week, which led to its devaluation by 36% and a further jump in prices.
Sri Lanka’s problems began several years ago, as foreign loans swelled to fund grandiose infrastructure projects. Nothing better summed up the overweening ambition and utter incompetence of the Rajapaksa government than the Hambantota port project. Built by the Chinese with costly loans and based on dubious projections, the Sri Lankan government ended up owing state-controlled Chinese firms $8bn and eventually handed over the port, on one of the world’s key maritime trade routes, as well as 60 square kilometres of land, to Beijing for 99 years in 2017. By the following year, Sri Lanka had revenues of $14.8bn but owed $12.3bn in debt repayments to various lenders around the world. Now Sri Lanka has a total debt of $45bn, according to the World Bank. With payments of about $7bn due this year but foreign reserves of less than $3bn, it is expected to default.
Last year’s decision to ban artificial fertiliser (out of a desire to shift to organic farming) threw Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector into chaos. Though the move was reversed after seven disastrous months, it led to a sharp drop in crop yields and prices soared, adding to the country’s economic problems and contributing to food shortages. The cost of some staples, such as rice, rose by nearly a third.
Protests mounted last month, with the main opposition party rallying tens of thousands of people outside the president’s office on 16 March to demand that he step down. On 1 April Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and a curfew, but even the enforced resignation of all 26 cabinet ministers, including another brother, Basil, the finance minister who had negotiated a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, on 3 April failed to pacify an increasingly angry population.
Days later his ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party lost its majority when 42 MPs crossed the floor of the 225-seat parliament (the SLPP won 145 seats in the 2020 general election). He then had to revoke the state of emergency as he could no longer get it passed by parliament.
On 4 April police fired tear gas and water cannon as about 2,000 people pulled down barricades in an attempt to storm the residence of the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in Tangalle, 200km south of the capital, Colombo. The Hindu noted that the area has been considered a stronghold of the Rajapaksas.
The collapse of support, and the depth of anger, is an extraordinary turnaround from 2020, when the SLPP-led alliance won nearly two-thirds of the vote. Or from 2010, when Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential elections decisively, buoyed by his success in bringing the civil war to a brutal conclusion, (though at the cost of 40,000 civilian Tamil deaths, according to the United Nations).
In a sign of how broad the opposition to the Rajapaksa government has become, MA Sumanthiran, the Tamil National Alliance MP for Jaffna, called for a civil disobedience campaign, telling The Hindu: ‘As the party that represents the majority of the Tamil-speaking people in the north and east, we are joining hands with whoever comes forward on behalf of the people to lead this effort to defy the law, to defy the authorities when they misuse the law in the civil disobedience campaign.’ Gotabaya Rajapaksa is so far refusing to step down. But with even nuns demonstrating on the street and calling for him to go, it seems unlikely that he can cling to power much longer. ‘We don’t know who will come into power next, so our futures are uncertain,‘ one protester declared to the New York Times. ‘But at least we are fighting for it.’