Colombo, Sri Lanka – With the resignation of Sri Lanka’s prime minister and former two-time executive president Mahinda Rajapksa in Colombo on Monday, the island nation is likely to see the beginning of the end of the dominance of Rajapaksas, one of the two most powerful political dynasties in post-independence Sri Lanka. But the country’s financial and political crises are far from over.
Thousands of protesters have been gathering daily at a protest venue in the heart of Colombo, the Galle Face, to hold peaceful protests demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government as the country’s economy took a sharp nosedive.
But violence erupted in Colombo on Monday when a group of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked protesters camped outside his official residence, Temple Trees, in Colombo. At least three people were killed as violence erupted across the Indian Ocean island. Islandwide curfew and deployment of the army failed to prevent the violence.
The Rajapaksas have come under severe criticism for failing to take timely measures to control economic collapse and to keep the 22 million population supplied with essentials. In the past four months, the island had seen long queues for fuel and gas while there had been severe shortages in medical supplies and food. Mounting criticism against the government had intensified calls for the collective resignations of all Rajapaksas.
The island’s foreign reserves have sharply plummeted and despite requests, multilateral donor agencies have not been forthcoming, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which did not offer a bailout. Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt of $51bn last month.
A popular politician
Mahinda Rajapaksa is considered the most popular politician of the Rajapaksa family but his reputation took a beating in recent months as allegations of corruption resurfaced – a major reason for the country’s economic crisis, protesters say.
Though popular and credited for ending the protracted war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which fought to carve out a spate homeland in the island’s northeast, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political legacy is tainted with allegations of corruption, with many referring to his extended family as the “Marcos family” of Sri Lanka.
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Rajapaksa administration was accused of siphoning out tsunami funds meant for the affected population. Large-scale corruption allegations were also leveled against the regime in military purchases during the years of civil war that ended in 2009.
The two-term executive president’s war victory is also viewed by many as one that seriously divided the nation along ethnic lines and one that is tainted by charges of gross human rights violations.
During his first term, from 2005 to 2010, Rajapaksa’s administration was accused of committing crimes against humanity during the final phase of the war in May 2009 when the UN estimated about 40,000 Tamil civilians perished while seeking safe passage.
The 76-year-old veteran politician was elected to office in 1970, his father’s electorate Beliatta in the deep south at the age of 24. He was defeated in 1977 when the United National Party recorded a landslide victory and returned to parliament in 1989.
He became the island’s prime minister for the first time in 2004 with a small margin of less than 200,000 votes against rival Ranil Wickremesinghe, and a year later, was elected the fifth executive president of the country and continued in office until his surprise defeat in 2015 to his former party secretary Maithripala Sirisena.
Rajapaksa served as opposition leader between 2018 to 2019. Importantly, he served as finance minister from 2019 to 2021 until his brother Basil Rajapaksa assumed the powerful finance portfolio. Basil Rajapaksa resigned a month ago amidst widespread allegations of corruption that laid the foundation for a people’s rising against the administration – but more so, against the family rule.
On May 3, a no-trust motion was submitted in parliament against the Rajapaksa administration. Last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was believed to have requested his elder brother to step down to address the political crisis.
Instead of addressing the ongoing twin crises of financial collapse and a political one, the administration has been concentrating on shifting the balance of power within parliament, with plans to name a new prime minister to form an interim government. The public however, has risen sharply against this approach and intensified their calls for the resignation of both the president and prime minister.
Violence has erupted in other parts of the country targeting Rajapaksa loyalists, including former cabinet ministers, in the wake of attacks on peaceful protesters.
“This is what happens when love turns into hate. Mahinda was a much loved politician for long, respected and trusted, despite the many questions about his extensive personal wealth that does not tally with his lifestyle before 2005. There is a time to come and a time to go. When they don’t leave, people will force them to go,” said Aruna Nishantha, an anti-Rajapaksa protestor, who was waiting outside the Colombo national hospital where injured protesters were being provided with emergency care.