Since Saturday, hundreds of protesters have occupied the presidential palace of Sri Lanka. They announced their intention to remain there until President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation is scheduled for Wednesday.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the district of official residences on Saturday to show their anger at the unprecedented economic crisis that the country is experiencing and for which they hold President Gotabaya Rajapaksa partly responsible.
Among them, several hundred managed to enter the presidential palace, climbing over the gates as guards fought to keep them at bay long enough to take the president away.
Saturday’s events are the culmination of relentless and sometimes violent protests of recent months in the face of a growing economic and social crisis. And in the face of a political clan of the Rajapaksa brothers, who have shared power for more than fifteen years and which the inhabitants accuse of incompetence and corruption.
· What is the state of the demonstrators?
Protesters who ousted Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his building in Colombo on Saturday announced their intention to continue occupying the building until his resignation next week on Sunday. As he promised. They had already been camped in the official residence for nearly three months.
“Our fight is not over,” Lahiru Weerasekara, one of the movement’s student leaders, told AFP on Sunday. “We won’t give up until he’s really gone,” he said.
This Sunday, for the demonstrators, the atmosphere was joyful. Joy of victory, as the president promised that he would leave his post. But also more immediate joy to enjoy for a few hours the luxury usually reserved for the top of the state. The presidential palace is not the only one occupied. Even that of the Prime Minister.
After swimming scenes in the presidential poolthis Sunday we could see the crowd strolling quietly in all these buildings, taking advantage of the soft armchairs or queuing to sit, in turn, on the presidential chair, admiring the works of art, trying the grand piano or admiring the air conditioning.
· At what point is the presidency on the run?
After escaping a few minutes before the doors forced by protesters on Saturday, the head of state “was escorted to a safe place” and “is protected by a military unit”, according to an AFP defense source. According to this source, the president boarded a military ship bound for the territorial waters of the south of the island.
“To ensure a peaceful transition, the president said he would step down on July 13,” Parliament Speaker Mahinda Abeywardana said on television.
The unicameral institution then has one month to find a replacement. Term that could be shortened given the urgency of the situation. A new president could be appointed as early as next week, Mahinda Abeywardana believes, although no candidate appears to have won the majority of votes so far.
Two relatives of the president have already resigned: the head of the press service Sudewa Hettiarachchi and the media minister Bandula Gunawardana. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to pave the way for a national unity government on Saturday by calling a government crisis meeting with opposition parties and proposing his resignation.
But this was not enough to calm the anger of the demonstrators who besieged his residence in his absence in the evening and set it on fire, without causing any injuries. Chief of Staff Shavendra Silva called for calm on Sunday, assuring that it is possible “to resolve the crisis in a peaceful and constitutional way”.
· What is the political context?
These demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people who have forced the doors of institutions and overwhelmed guards and police are the highlight of a protest movement that has been raging for months. In the crosshairs: the domination of a family clan that for years has crushed the political life of this island of 22 million inhabitants, independent since 1948.
The fugitive president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, who has been president since 2019, is a member of this clan. His brother Mahinda, 76, was the charismatic leader. When his new cabinet took office, the president granted himself the defense portfolio, in contradiction with the Constitution which prevents the head of state from holding a ministerial post.
Formerly the country’s president for a decade until 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa deeply indebted the country. Above all, with China, to which huge debts have been contracted to finance huge infrastructure projects, spoiled by suspicions of corruption. His brother Gotabaya – nicknamed the “Terminator” – was then his chief lieutenant, holding the influential post of secretary of the Ministry of Defense and controlling the military and police.
During a interview with Al-Jazeera In 2013, Mahinda Rajapaksa today uttered a prophetic-sounding phrase: “People continue to vote for members of the Rajapaksa family. What can I do? When they don’t want to see them anymore, they will kick them out.”
After assuming the presidency, Gotabaya appointed his brother prime minister, as well as minister of finance, town planning and Buddhist affairs. The latter had to resign last May after violent clashes between police and demonstrators.
· What is the economic and social context?
The tourism sector, vital for the island’s economy, suffered the repercussions of the jihadist attacks in April 2019 against churches and hotels (279 dead, including 45 foreigners), then the coronavirus pandemic.
Even the largest tax cuts in the history of the island, granted by Gotabaya on his rise to the presidency, have emptied the coffers. And Sri Lanka has found itself without enough foreign currency to import what it needs, be it food, medicine or fuel.
In order to save foreign currency, of which the island was already dangerously short, hoping to make it the world’s leading producer of 100% organic food, the government decided in early 2021 to add chemical fertilizers to the list of prohibited imports. Supported by no ecological transition program, this decision had a devastating effect on the country’s agricultural production.
Fertilizers were re-authorized at the end of 2021, but as the country plunged into the crisis, they became difficult to import due to a lack of dollars. Despite aid from India and other countries, the country failed to pay its $ 51 billion foreign debt in April 2022 and called for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
As a result, Sri Lankans have been living for months with shortages of food and medicine, power outages due to lack of fuel for power plants and a shortage of gasoline that restricts travel.
Runaway inflation (55% in June alone), however, makes the few things that can still be found inaccessible to a large part of the population. The United Nations has warned that the country is in danger of a serious humanitarian crisis, with over three-quarters of the population having already had to reduce their diet.
· What reactions abroad?
At a press conference in Bangkok, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on parliament “to resolve this situation for the good of the country, not a political party”. And he called on Sri Lankan leaders to find a way out of the crisis as a matter of urgency.
The future government “will have to work quickly to identify problems and find solutions to restore economic stability,” he said, adding that these solutions should respond “to people’s discontent, which is so powerful and palpable, with deteriorating economic conditions. “.
The Russian food blockade could be a “factor” in the unrest in Sri Lanka, he also suggested, including Russian restrictions on Ukrainian grain exports.
“We see the impact of this Russian aggression manifesting everywhere. It may have contributed to the situation in Sri Lanka. We are concerned about the implications around the world,” he said on Sunday during his move to Thailand.
After the Sunday Angelus prayer, Pope Francis expressed his solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka this Sunday from the Vatican. “I join the pain of the people of Sri Lanka who continue to suffer the effects of political and economic instability,” said the Argentine pope.
“Together with the bishops of the country, I renew my appeal for peace and I implore those in authority not to ignore the cry of the poor and the needs of the people”, concluded Francis.
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