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Lanka in turmoil

Social media is awash with pictures of protesters walking through the official residence of Sri Lankan President as if it was their backyard and storming the Prime Minister’s office in a blatant display of their massive anger against the political incompetence to rein in the economic meltdown

Island nation Sri Lanka is in turmoil. People have taken over the bastions of power. Four buildings in the capital – the President’s House and Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s residence and office – are now in the occupation of protesters who want the President and the Prime Minister to step down. The last building with political symbolism to fall was the Prime Minister’s Office. Five days after agitating protesters stormed the President’s House in Colombo and occupied it, the embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Maldives on July 13. This led to appointment of the Prime Minister as the acting President but because people of the crisis-hit nation have been demanding the PM’s resignation too, the decision led to fresh protests. Protesters gathered near the PM’s office, braved police tear gas, broke through a barricade, clambered over the compound walls and stormed the building.

Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, is under the grip of an unprecedented economic turmoil, the worst in seven decades, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine, fuel and other essentials. The troubled nation has been consumed by widespread and often violent protests since early this year. Storming and occupation of these centres of power had not occurred any time before in Sri Lankan political history, not even at the height of its civil war.

Since the occupation of the President’s House, social media has been awash with pictures of protesters walking through the colonial-era mansion, jumping in the pool in jubilation and exploring its stately bedrooms. President’s House is one of the government’s key symbols of power and prestige in Sri Lanka. The protesters, however, did not commit any acts of vandalism or cause damage to the property.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, the Prime Minister, got isolated in April this year when all of Sri Lanka’s cabinet resigned at a late-night meeting two days after the President declared a temporary state of emergency. The emergency gave security forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects. The decision was taken after a spate of protests. But the situation deteriorated on May 9 when a mob of government loyalists attacked peaceful protesters outside the President’s seafront office in Colombo. Nine people were killed and hundreds more injured in the reprisal attacks that follow, with crowds targeting those responsible for the violence and setting fire to the homes of lawmakers. Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as the Prime Minister and has to be rescued by troops after thousands of protesters barged into his residence. Political veteran Ranil Wickremesinghe replaced him but he has failed to convince the country that he can get it out of the current economic and political crisis. Protesters labelled him as a ‘failed prime minister’ and are against his appointment as the acting President.

Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe have been effectively in hiding and away from the public gaze for the past two months. Protesters had surrounded the President’s Secretariat for more than three months, forcing the President to work from his official residence. Shortly before the protesters stormed and occupied the President’s residence on July 9, President Rajapaksa fled with the assistance of troops and was taken to an undisclosed location. Later, Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Abeywardana announced in a televised statement that the President had offered to step down on July 13.

Earlier, the Sri Lankan government announced in April that it was defaulting on its foreign debt of $51 billion as a last resort after running out of foreign exchange to import desperately needed goods. Sri Lanka fell into default for the first time since its independence from Britain in 1948. Central bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe resisted calls to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and resigned. Finance minister Ali Sabry stepped down just a day after he was appointed. The IMF, when approached for a bailout, told Sri Lanka to restructure its colossal external debt before a rescue package could be agreed.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan doctors said they are nearly out of life-saving medicines, warning that the crisis could end up killing more people than the coronavirus. The government halted all petrol sales except for essential services. The United Nations said Sri Lanka was facing a dire humanitarian crisis. More than three-quarters of the population had reduced their food intake due to the country’s severe food shortages, the UN added.

Amid all these developments, President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe appeared helpless. In July first week, the government data showed that inflation had hit a record high for the ninth consecutive month. The economic meltdown prompted mass protests and led the country into a political crisis. India, like a caring neighbour, is offering credit for the purchase of essential goods. Talks for a bailout from the IMF are still on. But the big message emerging out of the crisis is this: politicians should not take the patience of the people for granted for too long. People who can elect them to power can also overthrow them with their will.

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