Series of Actions by Leaders Exacerbated Sri Lanka's Crisis

Protests drove president, prime minister out
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 10, 2022 11:30 AM CDT
Series of Actions by Leaders Exacerbated Sri Lanka's Crisis
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sings the national anthem of Sri Lanka during the country's Independence Day celebration in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in February.   (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, file)

As Sri Lanka's crisis reached its climax this weekend, two men in the center of the turmoil brought about by the country's economic collapse promised they would heed the call of tens of thousands of angry protesters and resign. One is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the last of six members of the country's most influential family who was still clinging to power. The other is his chosen prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned opposition politician who was brought in to steer the country out of the abyss. Here, per the AP, is a look at their rise and fall:

Gotabaya Rajapaksa

  • For decades, the powerful, land-owning Rajapaksa family had dominated politics in their rural southern district before Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005. Appealing to the nationalist sentiment of the island's Buddhist-Sinhalese majority, he led Sri Lanka to victory over ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, ending a 26-year civil war. His younger brother, Gotabaya, was a powerful official and military strategist in the Ministry of Defense. Mahinda was defeated in 2015. The family made a comeback in 2019, when Gotabaya won the presidential election on a promise to restore security after the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings that killed 290 people. He vowed to bring back the muscular nationalism that had made his family popular with the Buddhist majority, and to lead the country out of an economic slump with a message of stability and development. Instead, he made a series of mistakes that ushered in an unprecedented crisis.
  • As tourism plunged in the wake of the bombings and foreign loans on controversial development projects—including a port and an airport in the president's home region—needed to be repaid, Rajapaksa overruled advisers and pushed through the largest tax cuts in the country’s history. They were meant to spur spending, but critics warned of the hit to government finances. Pandemic lockdowns and an ill-advised ban on chemical fertilizers further hurt the fragile economy. The country soon ran out of money and couldn't repay its huge debts. Shortages of food, cooking gas, fuel, and medicine stoked public anger at what many saw as mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism.
  • The family's unravelling began in April, when growing protests forced three Rajapaksa relatives, including the finance minister, to quit Cabinet posts and another to leave his ministerial job. In May, government supporters attacked protesters in a wave of violence that left nine dead. The anger of the protesters turned to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was pressured to resign as prime minister and took refuge on a fortified naval base. But Gotabaya refused to go. He saw his savior in Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Ranil Wickremesinghe

  • A six-time prime minister, Wickremesinghe's was brought in in May to restore international credibility as his government negotiated a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund. Wickremesinghe, who also was the finance minister, became the public face of the crisis, delivering weekly addresses in Parliament as he kicked off difficult negotiations with financial institutions, lenders, and allies to fill the coffers and give relief to impatient citizens. He raised taxes and pledged to overhaul a government that had increasingly concentrated power under the presidency, a model many say tipped the country into crisis.
  • In his new job, he left little doubt about the seriousness of the situation. "The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives,” he told Sri Lankans in early June, shortly before he told Parliament the country had hit rock bottom. "Our economy has completely collapsed," he said.
  • Ultimately, observers say, he lacked both political heft and public support to get the job done. He was a one-man party in Parliament, the only lawmaker from his party to hold a seat after it suffered a humiliating election defeat in 2020. His reputation had been sullied in a previous stint as prime minister, when he was in a power-sharing arrangement with then-President Maithripala Sirisena. A communication breakdown between them was blamed for intelligence lapses that led to the 2019 terror attack.
  • With no respite for people waiting in line for fuel, food, and medicine, Wickremesinghe became increasingly unpopular. Many protesters say his appointment simply put off pressure on Rajapaksa to resign. But analysts are doubtful whether a new leader can do much more, instead fearing that the political uncertainty will only intensify the crisis.
(Read more Sri Lanka stories.)

We use cookies. By Clicking "OK" or any content on this site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. Read more in our privacy policy.
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.