12.7 C
Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Sri Lankan president ‘Gota’ clings on to power despite violent protests and new PM | Sri Lanka

They have called it “Gota Go Village”. Here, on what was once an empty stretch of lawn outside the office of the Sri Lankan prime minister, on Colombo’s seafront Galle Face promenade, a thriving community has sprung up. There are tents, food stalls, a library, a memorial, art installations, stages for music and speeches, and even the beginnings of a small farm growing vegetables and fruit from recently planted trees. Nearby, a patch has been set aside to cultivate rice.

It began as the focal point of the anti-government protests that have engulfed Sri Lanka for months as the country goes through the worst economic crisis since independence. As fuel, food and medicine have run short, the blame has been placed firmly at the feet of one man, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, widely known as Gota, who stands accused of economic mismanagement and corruption pushing the country to the brink of bankruptcy. The calls from the majority of the population have been clear: Gota must step down.

But as it has become evident that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not give in to public demands, the protesters, too, have made it clear they are not going anywhere. What began as a few temporary marquees grew into a full tent village occupied by hundreds.

“We will not stop the protest until Gota goes home. We are staying here and we are ready to stay permanently,” said AM Fernando, who works in the television and film industry.

But last week, the protest village also became the target of the worst violence the country has seen since the demonstrations began earlier this year. On Monday, pro-government supporters, many of whom had been bussed in from outside the city, attacked the Gota Go Village site. Armed with iron rods and sticks, they beat protesters and set tents alight. Police then fired tear gas and water cannons at the camp.

Among the injured was a Buddhist monk, Welimada Upananda Thero, who is now receiving treatment for a leg so badly bruised that he needs crutches. “They just came started beating us. They beat everything we had in our tent, even my sandals,” he said

The incident triggered violence elsewhere. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the brother of the president, who resigned as prime minister on Monday after mounting public pressure, had to be evacuated at dawn on Tuesday from his official residence in Colombo after protesters tried to storm the building. Houses belonging to the Rajapaksas and their supporters were attacked and set alight across the country, and the military was brought on to Colombo’s streets with orders to shoot looters.

Yet despite a curfew and the imposition of a state of emergency, protesters at Gota Go Village turned out in their droves, rebuilding structures pulled down by the pro-government attacks.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, centre, carrying a plate with an offering, was appointed on Thursday, for his sixth time as prime minister of Sri Lanka.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, centre, was appointed on Thursday for the sixth time as prime minister of Sri Lanka. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appointment on Thursday of a new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has served as PM five times before, did little to appease the anger of many at the camp, and a spinoff site, “Ranil Go Home”, was set up by Friday.

Wickremesinghe, who has been in politics for more than four decades, last served as PM between 2015 and 2019 in a regime that toppled the Rajapaksa family’s previous decade-long hold on power but ultimately descended into dysfunction and infighting. He suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2020 parliamentary election, with his United National Party (UNP) winning just a single seat.

While he is regarded as a safe pair of hands for the economy, Wickremesinghe is also seen by many as the quintessential insider politician who will continue the status quo. He is long accused of protecting the interests of both the Rajapaksa family and corrupt figures in his own earlier government, maintaining his political career through back-door scheming.

“The real problem for Ranil is he is being seen as prop, albeit a very weak one, for a widely discredited and now even reviled leader,” said Harim Peiris, a political analyst.

Wickremesinghe said he was taking on the role in order to guide the country through the worst of the economic crisis and put food back on to people’s plates, and said he still supported the protesters’ call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who refuses to step down despite months of protest and economic crisis. Photograph: Getty Images

But Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group senior consultant on Sri Lanka, said that by accepting the position, Wickremesinghe was inevitably helping to prop up the Rajapaksa regime. “His appointment breathes new life into the desperate Rajapaksa family, and seems likely to undercut chances of achieving the protesters’ central demand – backed by 90% of the public – that Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign as president.”

Asanka Abeyrathna, a former university lecturer who has been at the protest camp since it was set up, was among those who said they were not happy with the decision to appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister.

“In 2015, Ranil was in charge of a government that promised us justice – but this did not happen, so what is the point of having Ranil again?” said Abeyrathna. “Maybe he can bring in dollars to get us gas, electricity and fuel but this will not ensure justice for past atrocities or relief for the people. Until Gota goes there will be no change.”

Many in the protest camp called for Wickremesinghe to prove his political neutrality by taking action against the Rajapaksa family and to arrest Mahinda Rajapaksa for his role in instigating Monday’s violence. “The first thing Ranil has to do is to send Gota home and also punish him for the wrongs he has done,” said Fernando.

Wickremesinghe’s ability to govern as prime minister remains to be seen. He is the only lawmaker from his UNP in parliament and so will be reliant on pro-Rajapaksa MPs and a few independents to form a majority coalition. He claimed to have the numbers but his majority will be put to the test in coming days, as parliament is due to vote on a motion of no confidence in the president and he will also have to get a budget passed.

While Wickremesinghe’s appointment is likely to be welcomed by foreign governments and international creditors, many are sceptical he will bring about the systemic change being demanded by those on the streets or provide long-term political stability.

“As long as there is a state of emergency, and the current president continues to function, the country’s economic recovery will be devastatingly slow,” said Gehan Gunatilleke, a human rights lawyer and former adviser to the Sri Lankan foreign ministry.

Senior opposition lawmaker and economist Harsha de Silva publicly rejected an offer to take over the finance ministry in Wickremesinghe’s cabinet. “People are not asking for political games and deals – they want a new system that will safeguard their future,” he said.

Latest news

Related news