The Widening Sinkhole
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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was once a war hero, known for crushing the Tamil Tigers and putting an end to a brutal 26-year civil war and setting a course to make the country another Asian Tiger.
But last week, he was forced to escape the country after furious mobs, enraged over skyrocketing food, medicine, energy and other costs, took over the streets and broke into the residences and offices of the president and the prime minister, Reuters reported.
The atmosphere on the ground in the island nation off the southern coast of India has been chaotic, even revolutionary, as Rajapaksa’s government fell. That’s no surprise: He and his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the head of the Rajapaksa clan who was forced to resign in May, have been running the country with an “iron fist” for almost 20 years, CNN reported.
Between the president’s departure and the curfew that Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe imposed, the streets of Colombo grew quieter briefly as anti-government protesters left the official buildings that they had occupied. Sir Lanka is far from stable, however.
Wickremesinghe, for instance, has instructed the Sri Lankan military to do “whatever is necessary to restore order,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, suggesting the government would be willing to shed blood unless protesters went home.
Protesters, while quieter, were not backing down, however. They want the acting president out. “We are peacefully withdrawing from the presidential palace, the presidential secretariat and the prime minister’s office with immediate effect, but will continue our struggle,” the protesters’ spokeswoman said on NDTV, an Indian news outlet.
Most don’t have a choice, like Imthiyaz Abubakr, 58, a tuk-tuk driver, who for 25 years has spent his days driving a tuk-tuk but now spends that time waiting in line for gasoline – it’s averaging five days, he told the Washington Post. Or like Sanjana Mudalige, 39, a former retail worker, who was doing fine but is now reduced to eating a small amount of rice and a biscuit for dinner. She goes to the protests so she can get the free food passed out there.
“The Rajapaksa family is responsible for this – they did not care for the people,” she said. “I went to see the president and prime minister’s homes, and I was amazed to see their grandness. Did they never think of the inequalities when they lived in such luxury?”
Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe has signaled his openness to a new coalition government that would include opposition leaders, Voice of America wrote. Fractures are already appearing in that alliance, as the opposition has asked Wickremesinghe to resign so that the parliamentary speaker can become acting president, as the country’s constitution dictates.
Meanwhile, the main opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, is preparing to launch his bid for the presidency in hopes of capitalizing on discontent with Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe’s regime. His critics say that he had a chance to improve the country when he was offered the prime minister’s post in April. But he refused to work with the now-disgraced president, explained the BBC.
In a preemptive move to demonstrate his leadership and perhaps to curry favor with nearby India – Sri Lanka’s massive neighbor – Premadasa recently thanked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the financial help that India has given Sri Lanka, India Today wrote.
That move was a marked departure from Rajapaksa’s ties to China. Rajapaksa pursued significant infrastructure projects that have heavily indebted Sri Lanka to China, the Indian news outlet the Print noted. Surviving that debt has drained the island’s economy, arguably precipitating the crisis.
Opposition supporters who think Premadasa represents a revolution might be disappointed, however. He is, after all, the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who served as Sri Lanka’s president for four years through 1993, before he was assassinated.
But in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, it’s usually all in the family.