What We Know About the Protests in Sri Lanka

What We Know About the Protests in Sri Lanka

Months of protests in Sri Lanka reached a crescendo on Saturday when demonstrators stormed into the official residence of the president and the private home of the prime minister. The protesters say the leaders are responsible for the corruption and mismanagement that led to the collapse of the economy.

Here’s what we know so far.

For months, daily life in Sri Lanka has been upended by a fuel shortage. The prices of food and medicine have soared, power cuts have become the norm and public transportation is often shut to shore up fuel supplies.

Protesters had taken to the streets before, but frustration with these conditions and with the people seen as putting the country in dire financial straits came to a head with demonstrators pulling off a peaceful take over of the presidential residence.

The coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame. It deprived the country of overseas tourists and crucial foreign currency that it needs to import fuel and medicine. Government mismanagement and a cratering currency only exacerbated the shortage.

The downward spiral was hastened by the war in Ukraine, which added more supply-chain problems across the globe. In April, the government suspended payments on its international debt.

More than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s nearly 22 million people are at risk of food shortages, the United Nations said last month. The country needs $6 billion through the end of the year to buy fuel and other essential goods but the question is where that money will come from.

The Rajapaksa family has dominated Sri Lanka’s politics for much of the past two decades, and in recent years, it has increasingly run the island nation’s government as a family business.

D.A. Rajapaksa, the family patriarch, was a lawmaker in the 1950s and ’60s. But it was Mahinda Rajapaksa, his son, who helped cement the family’s ascent to prominence, rising to become prime minister and then president for two terms from 2005 to 2015.

The Rajapaksas were briefly out of the government after losing in the 2015 elections, but they returned to power with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their presidential candidate in 2019.

Soon after, he brought his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, back to the government as prime minister and handed key positions to several other members of the family. As the country’s economy appeared to be headed for a crash, he made his brother Basil Rajapaksa the minister of finance last July.

In the face of intensifying protests, President Rajapaksa forced the family members in April to give up their seats in the government.

The president has said he will give up his post, according to the speaker of Parliament who is also an ally of the president.

Sri Lanka’s Constitution clearly defines a line of succession, but whoever takes the reins will need to revamp the political system under the watch of an impatient, weary public.

In more ordinary circumstances, the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, would become the acting president, now that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is said to be negotiating an exit. But on Saturday, Mr. Wickremesinghe — who many believed had been gearing for just that possibility — announced his intention to resign as well.

The next likely candidate as interim president is Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the 76-year old speaker of Parliament and a close ally of the Rajapaksa family.

The acting president will have a month to organize the election of a president from among members of Parliament. The winner will complete the two years left in Rajapaksa’s term before elections are due.

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