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South Asia

Sri Lanka crisis not over despite PM Mahinda Rajapaksa's exit

Published : May 11, 2022 16:04 IST T+T-
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's decision to step down has so far done little to calm public anger.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's decision to step down has so far done little to calm public anger.

Experts see no immediate end in sight to the island nation's economic turmoil and escalating anti-government protests.

The resignation of Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 9 amid mass anti-government protests and rising public fury marks a watershed moment for a powerful dynasty that dominated the island nation's politics for years. The move to quit his post came on a day when clashes between government supporters and opponents killed seven people, including a member of parliament from the ruling Sri Lanka People's Front Party (SLPP), and injured over 200.

The violence broke out in the capital Colombo on the afternoon of May 9 when over 1,000 supporters of the SLPP broke into an anti-government protest camp outside the office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is Mahinda's younger brother. Armed with iron bars, clubs and sticks, they attacked the protesters and burnt down the tents used by them. Anti-government protesters then attacked buses carrying government supporters who were leaving the capital after meeting with the prime minister.

Police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse the skirmishers, after having initially done little to hold back the government supporters, Reuters reported. In the violence, more than 50 houses belonging to SLPP members, including that of former cabinet ministers, have been set on fire across the country and at least 40 vehicles of the ruling party supporters have been destroyed.

Curfew and state of emergency

The prime minister's decision to step down has so far done little to calm public anger. To bring the situation under control, the government gave emergency powers to its military and police. The military can detain people for up to 24 hours before handing them to police, while private property can be searched by force, including private vehicles, the government said in a gazette notification on May 10. The president had already declared a state of emergency on May 6 — the second time it has been imposed in just over a month.

"Mahinda's resignation is the first step but this should have taken place a long time ago. Now, the president has to step down. People are on the streets because institutions of governance, including law enforcement, are seen as corrupt," Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, a constitutional lawyer, told DW . "Imposing curfews and a state of emergency simply will not stop that," he added.

Rights groups and foreign diplomats based in Colombo have expressed concern about the potential for human rights abuses after the government granted sweeping powers to security forces. "The nature of Mahinda Rajapaksa's departure has made things far worse. It is hard to see how his brother, Gotabaya, can hang on in office further given the volatile atmosphere in the country," a foreign envoy in Colombo, who asked not to be identified, told DW . "There are still discussions about forming a unity government but it has become more difficult with the chain of events and the path has become more complicated," said the diplomat.

A crippling economic crisis and shortages of food, fuel and medicine

Sri Lanka has been facing one of the worst economic crises since it became independent in 1948. The country of 22 million people is confronting acute shortages of fuel, food and medicine as it struggles to pay for essential imports amid a severe debt and balance of payments crisis. This has led to skyrocketing inflation and lengthy power blackouts, stoking public discontent with the government dominated by the Rajapaksa family.

In April, Sri Lanka announced it was defaulting on its $51 billion (€48.3 billion) foreign debt. Former Finance Minister Ali Sabry, who resigned on May 9, along with the rest of Rajapaksa's cabinet, told Reuters that Sri Lanka had as little as $50 million in foreign reserves.

"Over 60 per cent of Sri Lanka's workforce are daily wagers, and in rural areas there is unspeakable distress. Given the galloping prices of almost everything, it won't be long before there are full scale food riots," Faraz Shauketaly, a senior journalist, told DW . The government said it hopes to restructure the country's huge debts and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is seeking further financial assistance from China and India.

Gotabaya refuses to step down

Despite growing public anger and calls for his resignation, President Gotabaya has refused to step down, instead repeatedly calling for a unity government led by him. But the opposition has so far refused to join such a government. "For a unity government to function, there must be confidence in the political establishment and independent oversight institutions. Plugging that trust deficit and ensuring the rule of law is the need of the hour. The time for political deal-making is over,” Jayawardena underlined.

Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an NGO, told DW that there has been a hardening of public sentiment against the government. "A unity government under President Gotabaya's leadership is a non-starter and it's difficult to envisage it including members of the former Rajapaksa government," he said.

An uncertain, uneasy future

Meanwhile, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa has called for the abolishment of the executive presidency, arguing that there should be a separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Malik Cader, a leading lawyer, shared a similar view. With Mahinda Rajapaksa resigning, the parliament will now elect a new prime minister and cabinet until next elections are held. "The new government is expected to bring amendments to abolish the executive presidency," Cader told DW .

Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political analyst at the University of Jaffna, said the protests will likely continue until the president steps down. "The Rajapaksas have lost all legitimacy to govern and the longer they remain, the more the chances of the country being pushed toward a state of anarchy," Kadirgamar told DW . "There needs to be a new leadership to pull Sri Lanka out of this crisis. Protests are likely to continue until the president resigns."