‘I screamed and cried’: how Sri Lankan protesters unseated their president

Read Time:6 Minute, 30 Second

The Guardian

For more than three months, Eshan Dias has spent every night living in a makeshift tarpaulin tent in the centre of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. Through boiling heat, monsoon rains and shortages of food and water, he and hundreds of others refused to move from this site on Galle Face Green, which became the defiant heart of the anti-government movement demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Late on Thursday night, a crowd came roaring into his tent. They had succeeded; Rajapaksa, who had already fled the country in the dead of night on Wednesday, was stepping down. By Friday morning he was officially president no more.

“It was so emotional, I just screamed and cried,” said Dias. “For more than three months we have been living here, fighting for political change. Bringing down Gotabaya is not the end of our struggle – we have so much more to do to change this country – but it’s a huge triumph.”

An anti-government slogan written on a window near the President’s House who fled to Singapore through the Maldives following months of anti-government protests. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

The demise of the regime of President Rajapaksa, once seen as one of Asia’s most powerful strongmen, is unprecedented in the history of Sri Lanka. He is the first president to be unseated midway through his term by a mass uprising, and the scale and scope of the protests that toppled him – spanning across religions and ethnicities – are unlike anything to have previously emerged in Sri Lanka, which remains starkly divided down ethnic lines.

Many see it not just as a defeat of the president but the whole Rajapaksa family, who have been the most powerful political dynasty in Sri Lanka for two decades. President Rajapaksa, along with his brother Mahinda, who was president between 2005 and 2015 and then prime minister in this regime, Basil, who was finance minister, and several other Rajapaksas who held cabinet and secretary posts, are collectively accused of bankrupting the country by concentrating power within their family ranks and then engaging in widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, a militarisation of government and divisive, racist politics.

“The Rajapaksas were venal and corrupt, their regime has nothing to commend itself,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Protesters take a selfie as they leave government buildings after military troops reinforced security at the parliament, 14 July. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

“They engaged in public spending and vanity projects like there was no tomorrow and they brought in their extended family to run the government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not a politician. He had no experience in government and therefore he had a very limited vision for the country. They became the epitome of a decrepit system of governance.”

The reign of the Rajapaksas began in 2005 when Mahinda, the most popular of the brothers, was elected president. He became a hero among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority for bringing the three-decade civil war with Tamil separatists to an end, but made himself a permanent enemy in the eyes of the Tamil minority for the brutalities that were committed in the final phases of the war, where tens of thousands were killed, and even more disappeared in the aftermath. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary and head of the armed forces, has been accused of war crimes and of being personally implicated in the killings of journalists and the enforced disappearances and “white van abductions” of Tamils, activists and opposition politicians.

“The legacy of the Rajapaskas is one of crushing minorities, war crimes and crushing of dissent as well as the daylight robbery of the Sri Lankan people,” said Ruki Fernando, a human rights defender.

It was during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime that the widespread corruption allegations began to emerge, connected to vast deals with foreign companies, leaving no one in the family untouched. A confidential 2007 cable leaked in the WikiLeaks trove from the US embassy in Colombo made a special mention of younger brother Basil Rajapaksa who “has no close advisers and more enemies than friends in Sri Lanka because he makes a habit of trying to ‘buy people’. He earned the nickname ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ for demanding a ten percent commission on every project.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2014 election, in part due to corruption allegations, but so powerful was the family’s continued influence over politics that all attempts to hold them accountable for corruption or war crimes came to very little.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa waving to supporters during a party convention held to announce Gotabaya’s presidential candidacy in 2019. Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election win in November 2019 came off the back of a wave of majority Sinhalese Buddhist ultranationalism that the Rajapaksa family were famous for fostering. In April of that year, Sri Lanka had suffered terrorist attacks at the hands of Islamist suicide bombers, and the family played on nationalism and fears around security, earning him 6.9m votes – a huge majority in an island of 22 million people. In November, his brother Mahinda was appointed prime minister.

Yet a series of critical errors – from drastic tax cuts, reckless borrowing, a misguided fertilisers ban, a catastrophic mismanagement of the country’s finances as well as accusations of continued widespread corruption by the family– resulted in Sri Lanka grappling with the worst economic crisis since independence; and it was this that would prove to be the Rajapaskas’ undoing.

A majority of those who started to take to the streets in April, initially to protest over fuel and food shortages, were the Sinhalese Buddhist community who had voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yet as the protests grew, many described a political awakening taking hold in the country. Protesters went beyond demanding that the Rajapaksas step down, and instead began to call for an end to the divisive, ultranationalist politics they had fostered for so long, as well as concrete changes to the constitution, including the abolition of the executive presidency entirely.

“We are working for the change of an entire system, for political, social, economic, spiritual change and that’s not over,” said Catholic priest Jeevantha Peiris, one of the prominent members of the clergy involved in the protests.

“In the past three months we have gone through teargas attacks, surveillance, travel bans, death threats, some of our friends are in prison. But this is the first time in the history of Sri Lanka that all these different groups were able to dialogue together and that’s been beautiful.”

Many of those camped out on Galle Face Green say that they will continue to stay put in their tents, even though Gotabaya Rajapaksa has stepped down, as the job of holding the rest of their politicians to account has not stopped. A new president is due to be chosen by MPs on 20 July, and there is already controversy over the candidates likely to be nominated.

Emboldened by having toppled a strongman president, many in the movement now have their hopes set on building a very different future for Sri Lanka.

“The deep-rooted problem in Sri Lanka goes beyond the Rajapaksas,” said Umeshi Rajeendra, artistic director of a dance company in Colombo. “Gotabaya resigning has not resolved the systematic oppression, militarisation, economic crisis, and the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. His resignation is the first of many steps towards honest reflections, accountability, and, hopefully, deep-rooted change.”

July 16, 2022 at 10:06AM Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Colombo

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