Exasperated by the economic crisis that has been degrading their daily lives for months, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on the evening of Thursday, March 31, in front of the residence of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in Colombo, to demand his resignation. Violent overflows occurred, with stone throwing, and three vehicles were set on fire. To disperse the crowds, the Sri Lankan police responded with gunfire, tear gas and water cannons, and the capital was locked down by an overnight curfew.
In the aftermath of this night of violence, the authorities blamed the events on“extremist elements”. On Friday April 1, the security forces watched the wide avenues of the capital by the sea, in an island which dreamed of being a “new Singapore” and is now being hit by the worst recession since its independence in 1948.
Thirteen hour power outage
In a cycle that continues to worsen, the 22 million inhabitants face a drastic shortage of basic necessities and galloping inflation. Medicines are running out and food prices have risen by more than 30%. On Thursday, March 31, the authorities had even resolved to impose a general power cut for a record duration of thirteen hours.
“The lack of gas, fuel and electricity has made life miserable for many Sri Lankans, especially the poorest. This situation has led to spontaneous protests across the country from desperate people, who are hungry and plunged into darkness.”comments Ruki Fernando, defender of human rights.
In Sri Lanka, Covid-19 increases poverty
These shortages are the consequences of a strict restriction on imports decreed two years ago, when Sri Lanka found itself short of foreign exchange and sought to maintain afloat the management of its external debt. Sweeping international tourism on the island, the Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened a situation poorly controlled by the government. In two years, foreign currency reserves have fallen by 70%. With the economic crisis deepening, Sri Lanka is now trying to borrow from India and China, which are waging a war for influence in the region, while seeking help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The takeover of the “Terminator” clan
According to Ruki Fernando, the forceful response of the security forces on Thursday night illustrates the attitude of a government which is trying to “suppressing people’s grievances instead of acknowledging them and finding solutions”. The anger of the demonstrators was precisely targeted at the impetuous President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, whose brothers and other members of the family clan have reigned over Sri Lanka for many years.
During the end of the civil war between Colombo and the Tamil rebels in 2009, this former soldier nicknamed “Terminator” was the lieutenant of Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother at the head of the country between 2005 and 2015. The two men lead the annihilation bloody part of the Tamil insurgency which had lasted for a quarter of a century. This military victory earned them great popularity with the Sinhalese majority. But since 2019, the cadet’s presidency has coincided with the shock of an unprecedented economic crisis.
According to Ruki Fernando, the current demonstrations are to be placed in the context of a “widespread discontent”. The activist recalls that a hundred protest marches, carried out for heterogeneous causes, were recorded on the island during the month of March alone. He sees, in this anger, the weight “previous issues such as enforced disappearances and violations perpetrated during the war, land seizure, tea plantation workers’ rights, health and education”. By combining with the rise in the prices of essential foodstuffs and the economic crisis, they are today producing an explosive cocktail.