A political reckoning in Sri Lanka as debt crisis grows

Apr 27, 2022, 9:24 PM | Updated: Apr 28, 2022, 6:47 am
People shout slogans against the government during an ongoing protest outside president's office in...

People shout slogans against the government during an ongoing protest outside president's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, April 23, 2022. Thousands of Sri Lankans have protested outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office in recent weeks, demanding that he and his brother, Mahinda, who is prime minister, quit for leading the island into its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

(AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sherry Fonseka joined millions in 2019 in electing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war 10 years earlier.

Now he is one of thousands who, for weeks, have protested outside the president’s office, calling on Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, who is prime minister, to resign for leading the country into its worst economic crisis since its independence from Britain in 1948.

With the island teetering near bankruptcy, Fonseka, who owns a small garment business in the capital, Colombo, has resorted to spending his own savings to pay the salaries of his 30 employees. But he knows he will soon have to let them go and is clear about who is to blame.

“All of us thought we made the correct decision (to elect Rajapaksa), but we’ve realized we were wrong. We should have the backbone to tell people, and the world, that we made a mistake,” he said.

In recent weeks, protests have erupted across the country demanding that Rajapaksa quit.

The protests highlight the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksas from Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty in decades to a family grasping to retain power. Despite accusations of atrocities during the civil war, Gotabaya and Mahinda, who was previously president, remained heroes to many of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority and were firmly entrenched at the top of Sri Lankan politics before the revolt by previous supporters like Fonseka.

“The pendulum has swung from ‘it’s all about the Rajapaksas, they are the people who saved this country,’ to ‘it is because of the Rajapaksas that the country is now ruined,'” said Harsha de Silva, an economist and opposition lawmaker.

The unravelling of Sri Lanka’s economy has been swift and painful. Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plunged, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts. People have been forced to queue for hours every day to buy essentials. Doctors have warned of a crippling shortage of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on $7 billion in foreign debts due this year alone.

“The Rajapaksas, like an octopus, have held on to every aspect of public life in Sri Lanka,” de Silva said. “They have been running it as if it was their kingdom. They wished and they did — that’s how it was and people were with them.”

President Rajapaksa has defended his government, partly blaming the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. “This crisis was not created by me,” he said in a speech last month, adding that his government was working hard on solutions. They include approaching the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for assistance, after repeated calls to do so.

But as protesters seethed, the president and prime minister have changed tact in recent weeks. They have admitted to mistakes they made that exacerbated the crisis, such as implementing a short-lived ban last year on importing chemical fertilizers that badly hurt farmers and conceding that they should have sought a bailout sooner.

Influential Buddhist monks have urged Rajapaksa to form an interim government under a new prime minister, signaling a further decline in the family’s image as protectors of the country’s 70% Buddhist-Sinhalese majority. Some observers say it’s too soon to measure how much support for the Rajapaksas has fallen among their hardcore base, but for many their response has been too little and too late.

“There is now recognition across the government of several missteps, but it’s one that’s come at a huge cost to the people,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

The Rajapaksas were a powerful land-owning family which for decades dominated local elections in their rural southern district, before rising to the helm of national politics in 2005 when Mahinda was elected president. He remained in power until 2015, overseeing the end of the civil war against ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, before losing to the opposition led by his former aide.

Suicide bombings that killed 290 people on Easter Sunday in 2019 paved the way for the Rajapaksas’ return, this time as Gotabaya launched a high-pitched nationalist campaign that tapped outrage and disillusionment with the previous government over the attacks.

He vowed a return to the muscular nationalism that had made his family popular with the Buddhist majority, and also to bring the country out of an economic slump with a message of stability and development.

Tourism had dropped sharply after the bomb attacks and Sri Lanka needed badly to boost revenue to service a slew of foreign loans for splashy infrastructure projects. Some involved Chinese money and were commissioned under his brother’s presidency, but had failed to create profits, instead collecting debt.

Just days into his presidency, Rajapaksa pushed through the largest tax cuts in Sri Lanka’s history to spur spending even as critics warned that it would shrink the government’s finances. According to Nishan de Mel, executive director of Verité Research, Sri Lanka’s tax base fell by 30%.

“When you do something like that, you have some kind of internal analysis or document that shows why these cuts could help the economy. There was nothing of that sort,” de Mel said.

The move triggered immediate punishment from the global market as creditors downgraded Sri Lanka’s ratings, making it impossible for it to borrow more money as its foreign exchange reserves continued to dwindle. Then the coronavirus hit, further crushing tourism as debts snowballed.

Analysts say the Rajapaksas’ response to the economic challenges underscored the limitations of their strongman politics and their family’s near-monopoly on decision making, heavily relying on the military to enforce policy and passing laws to weaken independent institutions.

Three other Rajapaksa family members were in the Cabinet until early April, when the Cabinet resigned en masse in response to the protests.

“Their entire political ideology and credibility is in serious crisis,” said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a veteran political scientist.

But many fear that things will only get worse before improving. A divided and weak opposition without a majority in Parliament has kept the Rajapaksas in power. An IMF bailout could see austere measures intensifying hardships for people before there is relief.

Meanwhile, the focus remains on the protests, which are drawing people across ethnicities, religion and class. For the first time, middle-class Sri Lankans have taken to the streets in large numbers, Uyangoda said.

They include Wijaya Nanda Chandradewa, who joined the crowd outside the president’s office on Saturday. A retired government employee, Chandradewa said he fell for Rajapaksa’s promise to rebuild a Sri Lanka scarred by the 2019 bombings.

“He said there will be one country and one law — now there is neither the law nor the country,” Chandradewa said, adding that the only option now is for Rajapaksa to quit.

“He showed us a fairyland and cheated us and misled us,” he said. “We have to fix our mistakes and build a system to bring in the right leader.”


Pathi reported from New Delhi.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - The Chevrolet logo is displayed at the 2020 Pittsburgh International Auto Show Thursday, Feb...
Associated Press

GM recalls 484K big SUVs to fix problem third-row seat belts

DETROIT (AP) — General Motors is recalling more than 484,000 large SUVs in the U.S. to fix a problem that can cause the third-row seat belts to malfunction. The recall covers Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes, Cadillac Escalades and GMC Yukons from the 2021 and 2022 model years. The automaker says in documents posted Tuesday by […]
6 hours ago
This cover image released by Gallery Books shows "Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and ...
Associated Press

ESPN’s Stephen A Smith has memoir coming in January 2023

NEW YORK (AP) — Dallas Cowboy fans be warned: ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has a memoir coming out next year. 13A, an imprint of Gallery Books, announced Tuesday that Smith’s “Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes” is scheduled for January 2023. According to 13A, Smith will share stories about growing up […]
6 hours ago
This undated image provided by Boom Supersonic shows Boom Supersonic Overture Aircraft.  American A...
Associated Press

American Airlines places deposit on 20 supersonic planes

DALLAS (AP) — American Airlines has agreed to buy up to 20 supersonic jets and put down a non-refundable deposit on the planes that are still on the drawing board and years away from flying. Neither American nor the manufacturer Boom Supersonic would provide financial details Tuesday, including the size of American’s deposit. American becomes […]
6 hours ago
FILE - A woman wheels a cart with her purchases out of a Walmart, on Nov. 18, 2020, in Derry, N.H. ...
Associated Press

Walmart tops Q2 expectations as Americans continue spending

NEW YORK (AP) — Walmart reported better-than-expected second quarter results as more Americans looked to cut costs on groceries at the nation’s largest retailer in the face of surging inflation. Those rising prices, however, meant that customers where cutting back on non-necessary purchases. Walmart Inc. earned $5.15 billion, or $1.88 per share, or $1.77 excluding […]
6 hours ago
This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows the Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni, center ...
Associated Press

Satellite images show first ship out of Ukraine in Syria

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The first shipment of grain to leave Ukraine under a wartime deal appears to have ended up in Syria — even as Damascus remains a close ally of Moscow, satellite images analyzed Tuesday by The Associated Press show. The arrival of the cargo ship Razoni in Syria comes after […]
6 hours ago
Associated Press

Millennial Money: A scarcity money mindset can cost you

We all saw it at grocery stores in 2020. The shelves, once brimming with toilet paper and hand soap, were bare. We hid in our homes, deep-cleaning every surface, occasionally braving the threat of COVID-19 to hunt down the last remaining bottle of hand sanitizer in a 50-mile radius. We felt out of control, so […]
6 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
A political reckoning in Sri Lanka as debt crisis grows