By Yuri Prasad
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Protesters in Sri Lanka want total system change

Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa could be forced out by angry protests
Issue 2800
Crowds clashing with riot police

Protesters clash with police outside the parliament of Sri Lanka in the capital Colombo (Picture: Alamy/ Dinuks Liyanawatte)

The growing crisis in Sri Lanka has been putting massive pressure on president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. Huge protests in the capital Colombo last weekend demanded the entire government step down in the wake of power cuts, food shortages and rising fuel prices. Government debt is rising so fast that many fear the country will default on its foreign loans and the economic collapse will worsen.

The hated loan sharks of the International Monetary Fund are now circling the island off the coast of southern India. In return for stabilisation loans, they will demand cuts to food and fuel subsidies that allow poor people to live. Marchers took to the Galle Face area of Colombo where the leading politicians have their mansions to demand “total system change now”.

“This is not a joke, we are here because we have no electricity, gas, fuel and medicine,” a protester told reporters. Another said, “They must go, they have no solutions.” Almost the entire cabinet was forced to resign last week after ­protesters fought police. Now marchers want to finish the job and finally drive the whole Rajapaksa family out of politics. “This is a do-or-die moment,” said Buddhi Karunatne, who works in advertising.

“For the first time, people of all kinds of political and social beliefs are coming together, with non-negotiable demands for the president to resign.” The hatred for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a dramatic turnaround for the career politician who won the presidency in 2019 by a large margin. His party went on to gain a two thirds parliamentary majority and was able to appoint his brother Mahinda as prime minister. Together they amended the constitution to strengthen the president’s powers.

They claimed that a wave of Islamist bombings on the island had made this a necessity. Gotabaya cannot be voted out by parliament and the opposition is largely obsessed with manoeuvres that rely on the president standing aside. But he may cling on to power unless the protests escalate further. Gotabaya had been the head of the military during some of the bloodiest years of the war against the Tamil Tiger separatists in the late 1980s. 

He has traded on his terrible ­reputation to say only he would take a firm hand against terrorism. But the years when the Rajapaksa name would instil fear appear now to have passed, as people on the protests carry placards that mock him. Others call for him to face the kind of punishments he would once have inflicted on his enemies.

One protester said last week, “I voted for Rajapaksa thinking he was a lion. Now I can see that he is worse than a dog.” It will be a sweet victory if Gotabaya is dethroned by action on the streets. But the economic crisis will not be so easily swept away. Those who come to power after him will surely try to make the working class and poor pay the heaviest price for Sri Lanka’s ­deepening debt spiral.

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