Jul 11, 2022 - World

Sri Lankan protesters push out their president

Protesters and curious citizens enter the presidential palace on Sunday. Photo: Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sri Lankan protesters continue to occupy the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who hasn't been seen or heard from in three days, though his allies say he's agreed to step down.

The big picture: The island country of 22 million is bankrupt. With virtually no foreign currency remaining, the government is unable to import nearly enough fuel. Lines for gasoline can stretch for days, medicine supplies have run short, grocery shelves are bare and inflation has climbed to 50%.

  • The World Food Program estimates that 86% of Sri Lankans are having to skip meals or take other such steps to cope.

The protesters blame the Rajapaksas.

  • After Gotabaya won a landslide election in 2019, he effectively instituted a one-family rule. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president (2005–2015), became prime minister and two more Rajapaksa brothers joined the Cabinet, along with a nephew.
  • After desperate shortages translated into massive protests in April, the Cabinet resigned en masse. Then the prime minister's supporters attacked peaceful protesters on May 9, unleashing a wave of violence, and Mahinda abruptly quit.
  • Gotabaya, the last Rajapaksa standing, fled on Saturday before protesters swarmed his residence, his pool, his office and even his bed.

What's next: Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena initially said the president was in a "nearby country," but he claimed Monday that he'd been confused and Rajapaksa never actually left the capital, Colombo.

  • In any event, Abeywardena says Rajapaksa will resign on Wednesday and Parliament will elect his successor on July 20, after which a unity government will be formed.

Flashback: Gotabaya initially came to prominence when, as defense minister, he ruthlessly brought three decades of civil war to an end, garnering a strongman reputation and war crimes allegations.

  • He brought the Rajapaksas back to power with promises to restore security in the wake of a devastating terror attack.

How the economy collapsed: Sri Lanka was already heavily indebted and Rajapaksa continued to borrow to fund infrastructure projects, while simultaneously pushing through the country's largest-ever tax cut.

  • Then came the pandemic. Tourism dried up, the economy shrank and foreign reserves dwindled.
  • Rajapaksa disastrously attempted to ban fertilizer imports in 2021 to save foreign currency and promote organic farming. Crop yields fell, and Sri Lanka had to spend more foreign currency to import food.
  • As shortages and blackouts took hold, peaceful protests began in March. The government imposed a curfew, clashed with protesters and restricted social media as the president held on for the last four months.

Driving the news: Images spread on Saturday of protesters streaming into the presidential palace, swimming in its pool, playing a grand piano, and taking turns pretending to be president. The scene was less joyous at the nearby prime minister's residence, which was set on fire.

What's next: Sri Lanka has already defaulted on some of its debts, and it's seeking help from India, China, the IMF and other international donors as it attempts to cobble together $6 billion to cover its needs for the next six months. Contributions so far fall short of that.

  • Meanwhile, opposition parties are negotiating the structure of the next government.
  • Rajapaksa has remained silent thus far. Assuming he does leave as scheduled, his successor will face an enormous challenge.

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