A political record in Sri Lanka as the debt crisis deepens
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sherry Fonseka joined millions in 2019 to elect President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war 10 more early.
Now he is among thousands of people who for weeks have protested outside the president’s office, calling on Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, who is prime minister, to step down for leading the country into its worst economic crisis since his independence from Great Britain in 1948. .
With the island on the verge of bankruptcy, Fonseka, who owns a small garment business in the capital, Colombo, has had to spend her own savings to pay the salaries of her 30 employees. But he knows he will have to let them go soon and knows clearly who is to blame.
“We all thought we made the right decision (to elect Rajapaksa), but we realized we were wrong. We should have the backbone to tell people, and the world, that we made a mistake,” he said.
In recent weeks, protests have erupted across the country demanding that Rajapaksa step down.
The protests highlight the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksas from Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty in decades to a family seeking to retain power. Despite accusations of atrocities during the civil war, Gotabaya and Mahinda, who previously served as president, remained the heroes of much of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority and were firmly entrenched at the pinnacle of Sri Lankan politics. Lankan before the revolt of former supporters like Fonseka.
“The pendulum has swung from ‘it’s all about the Rajapaksas, it’s the people who saved this country’ to ‘it’s because of the Rajapaksas that the country is now ruined’,” said Harsha de Silva, economist and MP of the opposition. .
The collapse of the Sri Lankan economy was rapid and painful. Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plummeted, leading to severe food shortages and power cuts. People were forced to queue for hours every day to buy basic necessities. Doctors have warned of a crippling shortage of lifesaving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on $7 billion in foreign debts due this year alone.
“The Rajapaksas, like an octopus, have retained all aspects of public life in Sri Lanka,” de Silva said. “They ran it like it was their kingdom. They wished and they did – it was like that and the people were with them.
President Rajapaksa has defended his government, partly blaming the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. “This crisis was not created by me,” he said in a speech last month, adding that his government was working hard on solutions. They include the approach of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to get help, after repeated calls for it.
But as protesters seethe, the president and prime minister have changed tact in recent weeks. They have admitted mistakes they have made which have exacerbated the crisis, such as the introduction of a short-lived ban last year on the import of chemical fertilizers which has seriously harmed farmers and the admission that they should have requested a bailout sooner.
Influential Buddhist monks have urged Rajapaksa to form an interim government under a new prime minister, signaling a further decline in the family’s image as protectors of the country’s 70% Buddhist-Sinhalese majority. Some observers say it is too early to gauge how much support for the Rajapaksas has dropped among their hardcore base, but for many their response has been too weak and too late.
“The government now recognizes several missteps, but this one comes at a huge cost to the people,” said Bhavani Fonseka, senior fellow at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.
The Rajapaksas were a powerful landowning family who for decades dominated local elections in their rural southern district, before taking the helm of national politics in 2005 when Mahinda was elected president. He remained in power until 2015, overseeing the end of the civil war against Tamil rebels in 2009, before losing to opposition led by his former aide.
The suicide bombings that killed 290 people on Easter Sunday in 2019 paved the way for the return of the Rajapaksas, this time as Gotabaya launched an acute nationalist campaign that sparked outrage and disillusionment with the previous government over the attacks.
He vowed to return to the tough nationalism that had made his family popular with the Buddhist majority, and also to lift the country out of an economic slump with a message of stability and development.
Tourism had fallen sharply after the bombings and Sri Lanka badly needed to boost its revenue to service a series of foreign loans for splashy infrastructure projects. Some involved Chinese money and were commissioned during his brother’s presidency, but failed to create profits, instead collecting debts.
Just days into his presidency, Rajapaksa imposed the biggest tax cuts in Sri Lanka’s history to boost spending, even as critics warned it would squeeze government finances. According to Nishan de Mel, executive director of Verité Research, Sri Lanka’s tax base has fallen by 30%.
“When you do something like that, you have some sort of internal analysis or document that shows why those cuts might help the economy. There was nothing like that,” de Mel said.
The move triggered an immediate sanction from the global market as creditors downgraded Sri Lanka’s ratings, preventing it from borrowing more money as its foreign exchange reserves continued to dwindle. Then the coronavirus hit, further crushing tourism as debt snowballed.
Analysts say the Rajapaksas’ response to economic challenges has underscored the limits of their strongman politics and their family’s virtual monopoly on decision-making, relying heavily on the military to enforce policy and enact laws to weaken independent institutions.
Three other members of the Rajapaksa family were in Cabinet until early April, when the Cabinet resigned en masse in response to protests.
“Their whole political ideology and credibility is in serious crisis,” said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a seasoned political scientist.
But many fear that things will only get worse before they get better. A divided and weak opposition without a majority in parliament kept the Rajapaksas in power. An IMF bailout could see austerity measures intensify hardship for people before there is relief.
Meanwhile, the focus remains on protests, which attract people of all ethnicities, religions and social classes. For the first time, middle-class Sri Lankans took to the streets in large numbers, Uyangoda said.
Among them, Wijaya Nanda Chandradewa, who joined the crowd outside the president’s office on Saturday. A retired government worker, Chandradewa said he succumbed to Rajapaksa’s promise to rebuild a Sri Lanka scarred by the 2019 attacks.
“He said there will be a country and a law – now there is neither the law nor the country,” Chandradewa said, adding that the only option now is for Rajapaksa to step down.
“He showed us a fairyland and deceived and misled us,” he said. “We have to correct our mistakes and build a system to bring in the right leader.”
Pathi reported from New Delhi.
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