Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has put in his resignation, had to seek refuge in a naval base in the north of the island while his younger brother Gotabaya is still holding fort as the President. The political dynasty from Hambantota, which had lorded it over the country for decades, also gaining the popular vote again last year, is facing its worst-ever crisis. With the economic catastrophe having overtaken their country to the extent of making it the first nation to default on debt as its foreign exchange reserves are down to $50 million, the day of reckoning may have come and gone for the clan, which at one time had as many as 40 Rajapaksas in government.
The “Colombo Spring” has been in the air for a while with public protests ratcheting up the pressure on those who were deemed totally responsible for the grave economic situation. It may have burst on the day that Mahinda crossed a line in ordering his supporters into the capital in buses to take on the anti-Rajapaksa protesters who have been occupying prime spots in the capital outside buildings symbolising the enormous political power the family wielded.
Violence by the public this week, directed against the clan and their ministers and MPs, has been on a scale unprecedented for a country that had seen worse only in three decades of sectarian strife with the militant movement of the minority Tamils.
Clearly, it’s time for the President Gotabaya also to go and leave the country’s management to a non-Rajapaksa to run a national government that can attempt to douse the fires and tend to the economy with the helping hand of the IMF and World Bank, which alone are in a position to help with ways out after India had lent a big helping hand this year with $3.5 billion in credit. IMF intervention would mean further tightening of the belt for the suffering Sri Lankan people as their rupee would fall more and cost of imports will rise phenomenally.
As the first domino to fall in the face of the double whammy of the pandemic years and the Ukraine war taking the cost of food, fertiliser and fuel to mammoth highs besides shortages, Sri Lanka is like the canary in the mine signalling dire warnings for the world itself. But then the decision-making of the Rajapaksas, from allowing tax cuts and ruining agriculture with a bizarre ban on non-organic fertiliser to promoting family interests above that of the nation, was the primary cause of the situation tipping towards economic chaos.
The wrath of the Sri Lankan people, including that of the Buddhist clergy who historically supported the Rajapaksas for their tilt towards looking after the interests of the majority Sinhalese, is being directed at ministers and legislators, many of whom are in hiding at the moment. With the Cabinet of Mahinda Rajapaksa dissolved, the way ahead can only lie in a national government but if Gotabaya insists on staying as titular head, he might further fuel the people’s uprising though it’s clear he wishes to stay only to control the Army and the police in order to ensure the safety of his clan.
The road back to a modicum of normalcy would be a hard one for a country that imports a lot of food items, including sugar. With tea exports hit and crops languishing, the climb back will be an onerous task that even a unity government would struggle to cope with....