COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – As Sri Lankans queued for hours for fuel, sweated from the spring heat during daily power outages and watched the value of their income erode, the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, blamed forces beyond his control.
“This crisis was not caused by me,” he said in a speech last month, calling on the nation to “have faith” in his actions.
Tens of thousands of protesters now swarm the streets of the capital Colombo, clashing with security forces outside the official residences of the ruling family. They are running out of essential goods and patience – and are demanding that the president resign.
Sri Lanka is said to be a post-war success story, a rapidly developing economy committed to healing after decades of conflict. Instead, it is the last democratic nation to revert to authoritarianism, under the misguided policies of a ruler who critics say is more focused on protecting his family’s political dynasty than on the country’s fledgling institutions and economy.
To ensure the political future of his family, Mr Rajapaksa, 72, has undermined the criminal justice system, jailed dissenters and destroyed the opposition. He has dramatically expanded his presidential powers, supplying the government with his family members, fellow soldiers and right-wing monks in keeping with his law-and-order mentality.
It has left the country ill-equipped to deal with a growing economic and debt crisis. The treasury is nearly empty after the island nation was closed to tourists for much of the coronavirus pandemic and following a series of policy missteps. And on Tuesday, the government said it was suspending payments on its international debt, signaling that economic conditions could worsen.
Now Sri Lanka is trying to save money for emergency supplies of fuel and other basic goods. The fertile land that produces some of the world’s most sought-after teas faces widespread food insecurity. And protesters fill the streets of Colombo, many of them young professionals who had taken for granted they would have constant electricity and internet access, access to imported coffee and cars, as well as a promising future.
Shathurshan Jayantharaj’s fleet of vans came to a halt as diesel supplies dwindled. Mr Jayantharaj, 25, protests almost every day in Colombo against what he sees as the incompetence of the Rajapaksa-dominated government.
“We may have achieved a lot, but we are all losing it now,” he said. “This family doesn’t know what they’re doing, and they’re taking us all down.”
While campaigning for office in 2019, Mr Rajapaksa pledged to restore security and solvency in a country that is still reeling after more than 250 people were killed in a series of suicide bombings on Easter Sunday that year. His war record gave him credibility.
As defense minister when his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president, he and his family were commended for ending the civil war in 2009 and for creating an economy that became a model for other countries trying to rebuild. He capitalized on public outcry over evidence that the government had ignored warnings about the terrorist attacks at the time.
Mr Rajapaksa won in a landslide election.
The atmosphere in Sri Lanka changed almost immediately. The chief detective of the Criminal Investigations Department, or CID, who had led the investigation into the Rajapaksas, fled to Switzerland. Prominent journalists, diplomats and other security officials rushed to leave.
Their fears were not unfounded. Mr Rajapaksa has extended the use of an anti-terror law that the European Union and the United Nations say has led to “consistent and well-founded allegations” of human rights violations to imprison hundreds of people.
Hejaaz Hezbollah, a prominent Islamist human rights lawyer who challenged Mahinda Rajapaksa’s seizure of power during a constitutional crisis in 2018, was among them and was jailed on charges of hate speech.
After more than a year and a half, Hezbollah, which denies the charges, received bail in February. He wants to speak for those he believes have been wrongfully imprisoned under the terror law, but fears retaliation.
“I’m an accused and it’s suffocating,” he said.
Mr Rajapaksa also established a Presidential Commission of Inquiry, a tool critics say has been used to reverse court rulings, pardon political allies and protect the family from charges of wartime atrocities.
Shani Abeysakara, the CID director who worked on the handful of human rights cases that progressed under the previous president, has appeared before the committee more than 40 times.
In the first month that Mr. Rajapaksa was in office, Mr. Abeysakara demoted to the personal assistant of a provincial police chief. He was later arrested and jailed on charges of fabricating evidence in the case of a former senior police officer near Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was convicted of murdering a businessman.
The police officer was acquitted of the charges last March.
Mr Rajapaksa has also centralized power in the office of the president, giving himself the power to appoint and dismiss ministers, chair former independent committees and set economic policies with few checks and balances.
He used his newfound powers to turn the Sri Lankan government into something akin to a family business, appointing his three brothers to the most eminent of ministerial posts: Mahinda as prime minister, Chamal as defense minister and Basil as finance minister.
When Basil Rajapaksa took over the position, Sri Lanka’s economy was already highly leveraged with dollar-denominated debt. It also ran out of dollars to buy essential imports such as medicines and fuel.
Despite the challenges, the new government cut taxes and began printing money, hoping to generate local industry. Instead, people spent the extra money importing cars and other foreign goods. When the pandemic hit, Sri Lanka’s two main sources of dollars – tourism and remittances from Sri Lankans living abroad – collapsed.
To save dollars, the government started banning imports.
In April 2021, the Rajapakas declared that Sri Lanka would immediately switch to organic farming and imposed an import ban on fertilizers.
The shock – and the condemnation – were swift.
“There is a saying that famine comes after an epidemic,” said Muditha Perera, president of a rice growers’ association. “However, the famine that is about to take place was an invitation from the government and not a natural one. This government has deliberately destroyed the country’s agriculture.”
The government has received donations from China of rice, a staple of Sri Lanka, and has paid a premium to import additional supplies of it from Myanmar.
Basil Rajapaksa acknowledged that the country was “facing a dangerous currency crisis” but ignored economists’ pleas to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. He also declined to answer questions about the country’s balance sheet with members of the Sri Lankan parliament, including those of the ruling coalition.
As the Sri Lankan currency, the rupee, continued to plummet, the government tried to hedge the rising cost of its debt by pegging its currency to the dollar. But that only created a parallel black market where the rupee was worth about two-thirds of the official exchange rate.
Rajapaksa’s government eventually bowed to pressure to keep the Sri Lankan rupee afloat, and it quickly sank. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announcement last month that his government was in talks with the IMF for a bailout hasn’t helped it recover.
Sri Lanka’s finance ministry on Thursday suspended payments on about $7 billion in debt to bondholders, institutions and countries that have lent the country money. The country warns of a potential default and is trying to negotiate with creditors and will struggle to borrow until an IMF deal is reached.
“We get paid the same as before, but everything costs a lot more now,” said 28-year-old Lozaine Pereira, a freelance filmmaker who found himself among a rowdy crowd who pressed against the barricades during a protest outside the prime minister’s office. stay this month. “Just living from day to day has become a struggle.”
As protests across the country heat up, the rajapaksas are becoming increasingly vulnerable.
Many of the president’s family members resigned en masse from their government posts last week in an apparent attempt to placate the protesters. But the protesters have continued to gather tents and portable latrines along an ocean park in Colombo in preparation for the long haul.
The Rajapaksa’s usual tough tactics – exposing opponents and imprisoning critics – are proving less effective against a spontaneous wave of discontent among an audience that is harder to silence.
“The same people who voted him into power are on the street asking him to get out,” said Brandon Ingram, a creative director at a Colombo advertising agency who has joined the protests. “So, is he leaving?”
Aanya Wipulasena and Skandha Gunasekara reported.