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How Sri Lanka got caught in the turmoil

How Sri Lanka got caught in the turmoil


A protest movement against the economic crisis has been raging for months in Sri Lanka where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised on Saturday to step down after his residence was invaded, a crisis unprecedented since independence in 1948 of this island of 22 million inhabitants. 

Who are the Rajapaksa brothers?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, president since 2019, is a member of a clan that has dominated Sri Lankan political life for decades.

His brother Mahinda, 76, the clan's charismatic leader, was previously the president of the country for a decade, until 2015. He considerably indebted the country, especially with China to which enormous debts were contracted to finance huge infrastructure projects and tainted by suspicions of corruption.

Mahinda is adored by the Sinhalese ethnic majority for crushing the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in 2009, ending 37 years of civil war. Gotabaya — nicknamed “The Terminator” — was then his top lieutenant, holding the influential post of Secretary of the Ministry of Defense and controlling the armed forces and the police.

Upon his accession to the presidency, Gotabaya appointed his brother as prime minister, but Mahinda had to resign in May after violent clashes between law enforcement and protesters.

What happened to the economy?

The tourism sector, vital to the island's economy, suffered the backlash of the April 2019 jihadist attacks on churches and hotels (279 dead, including 45 foreigners ), then the coronavirus pandemic.

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  • AFP
  • The largest tax cuts in the island's history, granted by Gotabaya upon his accession to the presidency, also emptied the coffers, and Sri Lanka found itself without sufficient foreign exchange to import what he needs, be it food, medicine or fuel.

    Despite aid from India and others, in April 2022 the country defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt payment, and sought a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

    What consequences for the population?

    Sri Lankans have lived for months with shortages of food and medicine, power cuts due to lack of fuel for power stations, and a shortage of gasoline that limits movement.< /p>

    Galloping inflation (55% in June alone) makes the few things that can still be found inaccessible to a large part of the population.

    The United Nations has warned that the country is at risk of a serious humanitarian crisis, with more than three-quarters of the population having already had to reduce their diet.

    Why is Rajapaksa still in place?

    After months of demonstrations, in May supporters of the president violently attacked the demonstrators. Nine people were killed and hundreds injured in these clashes, which prompted the resignation of the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of the president.

    He nevertheless managed to cling to power, appointing at the head of the government a veteran politician, Ranil Wickremesinghe, until Saturday.

    Saturday, July 9, the demonstrators, after having forced him to flee the presidential palace which they took from assault, also set fire to his house (from which he was absent). He then announced his intention to resign next week.

    Now what?

    Parliament will then legally have one month to choose its successor. But the President of Parliament has promised a decision by the end of the week.

    A promise that may be difficult to keep, because for the moment no one among the parliamentarians seems able to obtain sufficient support.

    “We are heading into a period of dangerous uncertainty,” Tamil MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP. “Gota should have resigned immediately, to avoid a power vacuum”.

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