By Einthiri Mudili
Unprecedented shortages of food and fuel along with record inflation and blackouts have inflicted widespread misery to Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million. Citizens continue to struggle to buy basic foods, fuel, and medicine and they have turned their blame on the Sri Lankan president, Gotabya Rajapaska. Rajapaska is accused of overseeing corruption and economic mismanagement that has bankrupted the country and triggered one of the worst financial crises on record.
Anger over the government’s mishandling of the economic crisis has led to weeks of unrest and calls for Rajapaksa to step down from power. Over 100,000 protestors massed outside of his Presidential residence, furious about the lack of access to basic goods, education, transportation, and so on. The President attempted several avenues of escape but the Indian government reportedly refused permission for his Sri Lankan military plane to land at any Indian civilian airports and the U.S. embassy refused to grant him a visitor visa.
Rajapaksa had been expected to formally resign but instead fled to the Maldives with his wife, family members, and close aides. Following his arrival in the Maldives, Rajapaska was met with protests, some urging the Maldivian government to stop providing a haven to the fleeing president. A source told BBC that Mr. Rajapaksa will not remain in the Maldives and intends to travel to a third country. Rajapaska’s brother, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has also left Sri Lanka and is said to be heading to the U.S.
Rajapaksa’s departure left Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as Acting President due to a section of the constitution that allows a prime minister to “discharge the powers, duties, and functions of the office of president when the president is ill or absent.” The crisis escalated as hundreds of protesters breached the compound of Wickremesinghe's office and entered the premises, demanding that he step down. At least 30 have sustained injuries and have been admitted to the hospital as a result of tear gas inhalation and numerous have sustained injuries in their attempts to breach the fences. Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency and instructed the military to restore order as protesters stormed his office. Following Rajapaksa’s resignation, Wickremesinghe was formally sworn in as the President.
Protestors say that out of their six key demands in an Action Plan declared on July 5, only one has been achieved yet. Citizens are not happy about the prospect of Wickremesinghe being elected to serve the rest of Rajapaksa’s term stating “we need somebody who can find solutions to our burning issues, not someone who was rejected by the people.” As Sri Lanka’s elections arise in 2024, Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, who is seeking the presidency, vows to “listen to the people” and ensure that “an elective dictatorship never occurs” in Sri Lanka.
The protests underscored the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksa political clan, which had ruled Sri Lanka for the past two decades. Rev. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and protest leader, stated that the country had “come through a hard journey” but “we are happy as a collective effort because this struggle in Sri Lanka was fought against by every citizen.”