Sri Lankan uprising devours Rajapaksas, country’s once most powerful family

Mayank Chhaya –

Mayank Chayya

In a span of barely two months a largely peaceful uprising of Sri Lankans has overthrown their country’s most powerful and often despotic family, the Rajapaksas, emblematized by Mahinda Rajapaksas and Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

While Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president who became the country’s prime minister, had to flee in May amid huge protests against the country’s pathetic state of affairs, his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled today as thousands of irate Sri Lankans stormed his palatial residence. He had been moved on Friday as reports of a huge impending protest began coming in.

Sri Lanka stands practically bankrupt with its foreign exchange reserves fully spent, causing it to give up imports of essential items such as fuel and medicine. The United Nations has warned that more than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people could face food shortages.

The second Rajapaksa fled with his family reportedly aboard a warship even as protesters shouted the catchy slogan “Gota Go”. For close to two decades, it was unthinkable that ordinary Sri Lankans would be able to unseat the country’s most powerful family with an unshakable stranglehold on all levers of power.

Faced with an impossible situation Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his intentions to resign even as recently appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too announced his intention to resign on July 13 calling for an all-party government to take charge.

The Speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, Mahinda Abeywardana said the president decided to step down “to ensure a peaceful handover of power”.

“I therefore request the public to respect the law and maintain peace,” he said.

Notwithstanding that appeal, hundreds of thousands of protesters descended on the capital Colombo with some of them setting Wickremesinghe’s house on fire. Trains were commandeered by protesters to reach Colombo from various parts of the island nation. It was a measure of their revulsion against the ousted leaders that hundreds of protesters roamed through the palatial presidential residence, eating food from the kitchen and swimming in the pool.

The country has been gripped by unprecedented social unrest among the majority Sinhala community as inflation has become rampant and gas, food and other essential commodities have vanished from the market. Only a few days ago a photograph of the president and the prime minister smiling together triggered a wave of anger as ordinary citizens took their happiness as an insult to their harrowing lives.

For quite some time, the Rajapaksas enjoyed cult status after 2009 when the country’s military ruthlessly decimated the separatist Tamil group, known as Tamil Tigers or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president under whom his brother Gotabaya carried out what is now viewed as cavalier human rights violations by killing thousands of Tamils as part of the longstanding civil war.

Early on Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to distinguish himself as a modernizer by borrowing heavily from China which has long been looking for a strategic maritime presence near India. Colombo under Mahinda Rajapaksa became a very eager partner. Soon enough, system-wide mismanagement, incompetence and corruption took over and the past two to three years saw Sri Lanka, which once had the ambitions to emerge as a rival to Singapore, slide into near anarchy. That has now culminated into a spectacular fall of the once unassailable family.

Rolling blackouts, serpentine queues for gas and other commodities and a general sense of nationwide despair overwhelmed the country unleashing the current uprising.

The country’s future is in serious jeopardy unless some dramatic measures are taken to restore some measure of normalcy. It is in this context that India has an opportunity to upstage China’s loan-shark-like hold over Sri Lanka.