He was once known as “The Terminator”, the most feared man in Sri Lankan politics. But today, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name can hardly be spoken without a loud chorus of derision and calls of “thief”, “madman”, “criminal” or “traitor”.
As Sri Lanka endures its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, blame has fallen at the feet of one man. Rajapaksa, known to many simply as Gota, was elected in 2019 amid nationalistic fervour and a wave of support from the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. But over the past three years, under his watch – and what many are calling “criminal financial mismanagement” – the economy has gone into freefall. Now many people can barely afford three meals a day. “He has dragged this country down into the gutter and we are all suffering,” said Dinesh Galgamuwa, 47, who was among the protesters in Colombo.
The mood of desperation across the country is evident. Foreign reserves are so low that the government cannot afford to import even basic supplies. People are dying in queues waiting for fuel and politicians have warned that starvation may be on the horizon, so pressing are the food shortages. Hospitals have started cutting down on surgeries as vital medicine and equipment run out, including cancer drugs and intubation tubes for babies.
But out on the streets, where thousands are gathering in the largest civilian uprising in Sri Lanka’s modern history, the feeling is electric and the cry of the crowd is singular and unified: “Gota go home.” On Wednesday, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the brother of Gotabaya and the country’s prime minister, made a request to meet a delegation from the protesters who have been gathering daily in their thousands at Galle Face, a seafront stretch in the commercial capital, Colombo, close to the president’s residence. But they have refused.
“This is a people’s movement, we have no leader, and we have collectively decided that we don’t want to negotiate with the government,” said Supan Jayaweera, a lawyer. “What we are asking from the government is that the president should step down and be held accountable for all the incompetence and corruption that has got this country into such a terrible state. We don’t think there is anything left to negotiate with the Rajapaksas.”
Not long ago it would have been hard to imagine Gotabaya Rajapksa’s name being brandished openly at protests or spoken in the same sentence as the word “resign”. The Rajapaksas are Sri Lanka’s most powerful family dynasty, and have had a grip on the country’s politics for more than two decades.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was known best as a fearsome leader of the military during the final years of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the man who brought about the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, after 26 years of conflict. He stands accused of overseeing war crimes in the final years of the war and aftermath, including the “white van” policy in which thousands of Tamils, activists and journalists were abducted off the street and never seen again. All attempts to investigate him have been squashed.
It was on the back of this strongman reputation that Rajapaksa was brought to power in 2019, promising security and prosperity. Instead he began implementing a series of policies that many now say became the country’s undoing. The previous government’s programme of austerity was thrown out and tax cuts were introduced, while spending and international borrowing went up, and the treasury began excessively printing money to fill a growing financial hole, pushing up inflation.
As Sri Lanka was downgraded further and further, it got locked out of the international markets. Due to Covid, income from tourism and remittances also disappeared, meaning the country began to dip into its foreign reserves to pay for imports and the billions in mounting debt it owed to China, Japan and other sovereign bonds.
The Rajapaksa government stands accused of overseeing rampant corruption while turning a blind eye to the imminent crisis, and refusing to adapt its policies or go to the International Monetary Fund for help. As foreign currency reserves reportedly fell to $150m in recent weeks, with imminent debt repayments of more than $100m, even basic items became unavailable on supermarket shelves as the government cannot afford to import them. The effects of an ill-thought-out chemical fertiliser ban are still being felt in massive shortages of rice and fresh produce.
The opposition MP and economist Harsha de Silva did not mince his words when talking about the financial decisions of the government. “Monetary policy under Rajapaksa and his band of jokers was completely irresponsible. It was driven by stupidity and arrogant idiocy,” he said. “If you rob a man and take his car or his money, the police will lock you up and throw you in jail for 20 years. But this man robbed every person in Sri Lanka of half their wealth and he’s still the president.
“They are done, this government is finished,” De Silva added. “They have lost the legitimacy of the people and the president must realise that this country does not belong to him.”
Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been prime minister several times, most recently until 2019, was equally damning, despite reports he has been drafted in by the Rajapaksas to negotiate behind the scenes. “They should have acted earlier, gone to the IMF months ago,” he said. “They were cooking the books to show things were good when they weren’t and then hoping that China or India or Japan would be the godfather and help them out. But that didn’t happen.”
Wickremesinghe said things were “going to get worse” and that the entire private sector could shut down by June, with devastating consequences. Yet he spoke with optimism that the crisis could bring to an end the divisive nationalist politics perpetuated by the Rajapaksas for more than 20 years. “The support base has gone,” he said. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz, people finally see who’s behind the curtain.”
After the cabinet resigned en masse 10 days ago, Rajapaksa confirmed that the government would be going to the IMF and would put together an economic taskforce. On Tuesday the government announced it was temporarily defaulting on all $51bn of its foreign debt while it restructured the loans. But it has not been enough to satisfy those on the streets who are calling for nothing short of all the Rajapaksas to be held accountable and resign or even face the courts.
In recent days the call has gone from “Gota go home” to “Gota go to jail”. This week the man who until recently ran the central bank for the Rajapaksa government, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who has faced numerous previous allegations of corruption and oversaw the massive money-printing operation – had his passport seized by the courts to prevent him from fleeing the country.
“They put Cabraal in charge of the central bank just to rob the country, to rob the treasury,” said Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, 52, a former governor of the Southern Province, who was among the protesters in Colombo. “And that man did his job.”
Despite the growing call for his resignation on the streets across the country, where the protests continue to gather momentum, Rajapaksa has so far shown no sign of being willing to step down. His government is now in a minority, with no cabinet.
The opposition plans to hold, and say they will win, a no-confidence vote against Rajapaksa’s party in parliament. Their hope is to use that bargaining power to force Rajapaksa either to resign or accept a reduction of his powers, after which they will agree to form a government that could negotiate with the IMF. Many fear, however, that time is running out: if the country heads towards a hard default on its foreign loans, it will never be able to borrow money on the international market again.
Many on the streets and in parliament are also pushing to abolish the executive presidency entirely, thus preventing Sri Lanka from falling prey to the whims of a strongman in the future, and providing systemic structural change.
“This is not an issue of just one person or one family or one party,” said Serika Siriwardhana, 19, leading a protest at Independence Square in Colombo. “It is a systemic issue, it’s a cultural issue, and we as Sri Lankans have allowed this to go on for too long. The only way to bring about any change is the resignation of the president. We won’t accept anything else.”