Missing both legs and an arm, former special forces soldier Thushara Kumara is an unlikely critic of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a wartime defense chief who became Sri Lankan president in 2019.
But the 43-year-old army retiree is one of several dozen veterans now camping out at a protest site near the president’s office in Colombo, having lost faith in a leader who stubbornly resisted calls to resign when the economy began to implode and most of his cabinet resigned.
“We dedicated our lives to saving this country and it is extremely sad to see what has happened to it now,” Kumara said, sitting surrounded by old comrades, several with prosthetic limbs.
Weakened by the pandemic, the Indian Ocean island’s economy was hastened toward disaster by a surge in global oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. Government finances were already in a sorry statepartly due to populist policies, including tax cuts.
Fast-dwindling foreign exchange reserves left Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, without enough dollars to pay for vital imports of fuel, food and medicine, and violent street demonstrations erupted this month as shortages and power cuts worsened.
Earlier this month, Sri Lanka began talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a program to stabilize the economy. The government is also in talks with several countries and multilateral agencies to obtain around $3 billion in bridging financing and has suspended payment of part of its foreign debt to divert funds to pay for essential imports.
In the midst of the unfolding crisis, there have been street protests across the country, with thousands of people joining some demonstrations.
“I receive a pension from the taxpayers of this country, and we have a responsibility to step up now and support the brave efforts of these young people to save this country,” Kumara said.
“They are fighting for the future of this country,” said the veteran, who served in the military for 16 years. “That’s why we’re here.”
A father of three, Kumara lost his limbs in a mortar blast weeks before the bloody Sri Lankan attack. 26 year civil war against Tamil separatists ended in May 2009.
Rajapaksa and his brother, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ordered the offensive that eventually broke rebel resistance, but thousands of people were killed in the onslaught.
At the small but growing protest camp on Colombo’s seafront, people of all ages and faiths gathered, including Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast, saffron-robed Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns in robes.
Although there were only a few dozen army veterans, their presence indicated that discontent had reached even the most ardent Rajapaksa supporters.
Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Nalin Herath declined to comment on veterans’ involvement in the protests, although he said the military supported the government’s position of allowing peaceful dissent.
“The Secretary of Defense has clearly stated that there will be no obstruction to peaceful protests,” he said.
The veterans, some of whom have traveled hundreds of miles from their homes, sleep on thinly padded mats alongside the busy waterfront road, taking turns using the public restrooms further down the picturesque stretch of beach.
“We are used to difficulties. So we are not too concerned about meals,” said Uditha Roshan, 40, sipping ginger tea provided by volunteers as bystanders stopped to take selfies with the men, most of whom are amputees.
Many of the veterans said they would not vote for Rajapaksa again, having backed him in 2019 when he campaigned strongly for national security in an election that came months after the Easter attacks rocked the nation.
“He will not have a chance to be a presidential candidate again,” said HMS Mahindasiri, a 40-year-old double amputee who voted for Rajapaksa three years ago.
“People don’t have faith in him.”