- SRI LANKA IS AN ISLAND NATION OFF SOUTHERN INDIA
- PRESIDENT HAD BEEN WARNED TO RESIGN OR FACE MASS PROTESTS
- PROTESTERS STORMED PRESIDENTIAL PALACE
- PRESIDENT’S DEPARTURE WILL POSSIBLY CREATE A DANGEROUS POWER VACUUM
Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled the country on a military jet, after massive protests over his country’s economic crisis. The 73-year-old Gotabaya arrived in the capital of the Maldives, Male, Tuesday afternoon. The president’s departure ends a familial dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for decades.
Protesters relaxing in palace bedroom. Image courtesy of The New York Times
Sri Lankans blame President Rajapaksa’s administration for their worst economic crisis in decades as her foreign currency reserves have virtually run dry. In May it failed to make a payment on its foreign debt for the first time in its history. The government blames the Covid pandemic, which affected Sri Lanka’s tourist trade, one of its biggest foreign currency earners. Sri Lanka is seeking to restructure debts of more than $50bn that it owes to foreign creditors, to make it more manageable to repay. The country’s economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and rising energy prices, but critics say the current crisis has been extended from the previous government’s own making. The main economic sectors of the country are tourism, tea export, apparel, textile, rice production and other agricultural products. In addition to these economic sectors, overseas employment contributes highly in foreign exchange with 90% of expatriate Sri Lankans residing in the Middle East. For months they have been struggling with daily power cuts and shortages of basics like fuel, food and medicines.
PROTESTERS TOOK OVER THE PRESIDENTIAL PALACE AND MADE MERRY
Over the weekend tens of thousands of protesters massed outside the President’s office and residence before breaking through security barriers. Striking images shared on social media show protestors singing protest songs and chanting slogans calling for Rajapaksa to resign. Other photos showed groups of demonstrators setting up barbecue pits to grill and cook food But the most dramatic footage showed protesters having a field day in the president’s private pool.
Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces spirited Rajapaksa away to a naval vessel minutes before protesters stormed his residence, a high-ranking military source told reporters. The president came down from his bedroom on the upper floor of the palace and exited the premises moments before the demonstrators broke the compound’s first barrier, the source added.
Protesters force their way into president’s residence. Image courtesy of Washington Post
Rajapaksa was to officially step down on July 13, officials said, following an emergency meeting called by parliament speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. Wickremesinghe posted on Twitter that he was stepping down “to ensure the continuation of the government including the safety of all citizens” but didn’t name a date. Four other ministers also stepped down on the weekend, the latest in an exodus of senior officials. On April 3, the Sri Lankan government’s entire cabinet was effectively dissolved due to mass resignations by top ministers.
Fuel shortage among the causes of Sri Lanka unrest. Image courtesy of New York Times
The president’s departure threatens a potential power vacuum in the country, which needs a functioning government to help start digging it out of financial ruin. Politicians from other parties have been talking about forming a new unity government but there is no sign they are near agreement yet. It’s also not clear if the public would accept what they come up with. Under the constitution, it’s the prime minister who should act in the president’s stead if the latter resigns.
The prime minister is considered the president’s deputy in parliament. However, Mr. Wickremesinghe is also deeply unpopular. Protesters set fire to his private residence on Saturday though he and his family were luckily not inside and he said he would resign to make way for a unity government, but gave no date. That leaves the parliament’s speaker as the next most likely to step in as caretaker president, constitutional experts say. However, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is an ally of the Rajapaksas therefore unclear whether the public would accept his authority.
Whoever does become acting president has 30 days to hold an election for a new president from among members of parliament. The winner of that vote could then see out the remainder of Mr. Rajapaksa’s term until late 2024. On Monday, the main opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told the press that he would be aiming for the presidency, but he also lacks public support and there is deep public suspicion of politicians in general.
The protest movement which has brought Sri Lanka to the brink of change also does not have an obvious contender for the country’s leadership. Whether other struggling countries will take a similar approach remains to be seen though this should be an eye-opener for both leaders and citizens of countries that have been mismanaged, mostly in Asia, Africa and South America.