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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Sri Lanka crisis: Politicians’ homes set afire, shoot-at-sight orders as protests against govt intensify

The sky is completely overcast. But the Earth below is burning. Quite literally. The tear-drop-shaped Indian Ocean island nation is rapidly descending into chaos. Sri Lanka is going through its worst-ever crisis in its modern history; much worse than the 30-year-long Tamil Eelam civil war, Ultra Marxist Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP)-led terrorism and the tsunami of 2004. A small nation of 22 million people has never seen a public uprising of this magnitude and proportions. The entire country seems to have risen up against the ruling Rajapaksa clan for their failure to end the economic crisis.

After dillydallying for almost two months, the Prime Minister and head of the clan — Mahinda Rajapaksa — finally resigned on Monday afternoon. Apparently, his younger brother and the infamous President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sacrificed him to save himself. 

Mahinda, who could have saved his reputation earned over 50 years and the mass following by leaving the office gracefully, faltered by misreading the prevailing situation. He has disgraced himself and has almost hit the nails on the coffins of his family’s future politics. Gotabaya, the only Rajapaksa who is still clinging to power, is increasingly looking like a totally helpless leader and the public is baying for his blood.

Sri Lanka has no government today. The President is hiding, fearing for his life. His ministers and the MPs are under attack all over the island. 

After Gotabaya-backed thugs attacked the peaceful protestors on Galle Face in Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka, the public retaliated by launching a fierce counterattack. A ruling SLPP MP who had opened fire on the protestors in his electorate had to shoot himself to death after the angry mob surrounded the building in which he was hiding.

The public torched and ransacked the homes and properties of top ministers, including Johnston Fernando and Prasanna Ranatunga. Several commercial properties owned by these politicians have also been attacked in many parts of the island.

A huge mob destroyed the memorial of DA Rajapaksa — father of the Rajapaksa brothers — at their native village Weeraketiya on Monday evening.

Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves have now dropped to a mere $25 million and there is an acute shortage of fuel, cooking gas, medicines and other essential commodities. The absence of a government and the violence across the island nation have worsened the situation. The foreign nations seem to have lost confidence in the current government and the much-needed help is difficult to come by. The international community, including the European Union (EU), World Bank and the United Nations, have condemned the government-perpetrated violence against peaceful protestors.

Almost all government employees, including the elite Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS), have gone on an indefinite strike, bringing the entire government machinery to a complete halt. About 2,000 different trade unions have also joined the protest, demanding the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka’s most powerful Buddhist clergy, which is accused of siding with the Rajapaksas to promote Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, has also come out in support of the public. The clergy in a statement has asked the Rajapaksas to step down to save the country.

Former president Maithripala Sirisena and former speaker of the Parliament Karu Jayasuriya have asked the President to quit immediately. The military, which is closely watching the developments, has requested people not to damage and destroy public properties. 

Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne and Army Chief General Shavendra Silva have addressed the media to assure the public of neutrality of tri-services. Political observers feel that if the military and police step aside and tell the President to quit, he will have to step down immediately as he will be left with no one to back or protect him.

Sri Lanka is facing a volley of rumours and conspiracy theories. “Even if the Rajapaksa clan wants to flee, they can’t do it now. Because the people are everywhere. They will enter the airport to block their aircraft. People are so angry and desperate. The only option before them is seeking the help of a foreign nation for safe passage. Who would have thought that one day the most powerful family will have to literally beg for their lives?” said a public servant.

Even if Gotabaya steps down, it won’t be easy for the next government to put the island nation back on track. “The damage is so huge. It will take at least 10 years to return to where we were two years ago. The economic damage is unimaginable,” said Shashi Danatunge, a political observer.

The overcast sky may open up, bringing rains in a day or two. But that will not douse the raging fire. A fire lit for change.

Managni Sarmah
Author: Managni Sarmah

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