Colombo, Sri Lanka- Sri Lankans continue to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with thousands demonstrating in the capital Colombo, saying he and his family members could not be trusted to lead the country out of its deepening of the economic crisis.
At the Galle Face Green on Colombo’s waterfront on Saturday, students, teachers, lawyers, actors and architects, many of whom said they were protesting for the first time, shouted “crazy Gota” and “go home Gota,” in a reference to the nickname of the president, while they met under a scorching sun.
They waved the Sri Lankan flag and carried handwritten banners in Sinhala and English with messages such as “No more corrupt politicians” and “Save Sri Lanka from the Rajapaksa family.”
“This is a do-or-die moment,” said Buddhi Karunatne, 29, who works in advertising.
“For the first time, people of all kinds of political and social beliefs are coming together, with non-negotiable demands for the president to resign and hand over power to people who are capable of getting us out of this socioeconomic crisis.”
The display of anger marked a surprising turnaround for Rajapaksa, 72, who won the presidency in 2019 by a wide margin and whose party won a two-thirds majority in parliament less than a year later. Those victories allowed Rajapaksa to name his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and amend the constitution to strengthen the president’s powers.
He also handed over three other members of the Rajapaksa family to key positions in his cabinet, including the portfolios of finance, agriculture and sports.
At the time, many voters said they believed Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa would increase security and stabilize the country after a series of ISIL-inspired bombings that killed at least 250 people in 2019. That’s in part because the brothers had overseen the military defeat of Tamil separatists in 2009 after 26 years of bloody conflict. Mahinda was then president and Gotabaya, his younger brother, secretary of defense.
But instead of making things better, the Rajapaksas “have shown themselves to be incompetent and unable to make the right decisions,” said a protester at Saturday’s rally. “Gota just can’t rule a country,” said another. “He has no brains to deal with this kind of crisis.”
‘No Rajapaksa should be there’
triggered by a currency crisis, the economic recession is Sri Lanka’s worst in decades. It has resulted in runaway inflation that has left the poor struggling enough to eat and caused fuel shortages and hour blackouts who have threatened to close businesses.
Protesters at Galle Face Green said government mismanagement was to blame for the economic collapse.
That included introducing tax cuts that depleted government revenue, as well as a delay in seeking help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even as debt payments depleted foreign exchange reserves. In the last two years, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic decimated Sri Lanka’s key tourism sector: The country’s foreign exchange reserves have plummeted by more than 70 percent.
“What has Gota done in the last two years? He hasn’t done anything,” said Buddadasa Galappaththi, 74, a writer. “We no longer want the Rajapaksas in running the country. No Rajapaksa should be there.”
What also upset the protesters is what they described as the Rajapaksas’ refusal to listen to the public’s concerns. When people began to take to the streets in early March, protesters said some in the government fired calling them “terrorists”, while other officials downplayed the severity of the crisis.
As the protests spread in late March, the president declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. But amid widespread opposition, he was forced to rescind Measurements in a few days.
Kumudguli Vikaramatantri, who was wearing a joker’s hat and playing a tambourine, said that the Rajapaksas had made people foolish. There should be “no more jokes,” said the 32-year-old actor, who urged the country’s politicians to establish an interim government and also reverse constitutional changes that concentrated power in the hands of the president.
Others said that they were protesting the corruption of the Rajapaksas.
“People are starving, while the Rajapaksas and their allies are living the good life,” said 26-year-old Shane Steelman. “I came because I couldn’t tolerate this injustice… People won’t stop until Gota goes home.”
A protester carrying a sign reading “Give us back the money they stole from us” also called for the Rajapaksas’ assets to be frozen.
“There are rumors that the Rajapaksa family has more than $18 billion in assets. This is three times the amount owed in foreign debt this year,” said Tharindu Jayawardena, 32. “The Rajapaksa regime must be held accountable. I’m also here to warn all politicians that people will riot if you steal.”
Al Jazeera contacted a spokesman for the Rajapaksas for a response to the protesters’ allegations, but he responded by the time of publication.
However, the government has insisted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not resign. Johnston Fernando, a lawmaker from the ruling party, said parliament on Wednesday that “the president will not resign under any circumstances” and that the government will “deal with” the current crisis.
The president, meanwhile, fired his brother Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister, appointed a new central bank governor and also set up a new council to advise the government on IMF consultations.
But many at Saturday’s protest ridiculed the president’s actions.
Holding a sign reading “What part of going home don’t you understand?”, Nituna Jayathunge said that Rajapaksas clinging to power is “meaningless”.
“When people ask them to leave, they refuse to do so. They insist that the people who brought the country to this situation must be part of the solution,” said the teacher. “They are trying to hang on to power and they are trying to avoid the repercussions.”
Sandhun Thudhugala, an activist with the non-profit group Law and Society Trust, described the government’s responses as “arrogance”.
But he was sure the protesters would prevail.
“We have been waiting our whole lives for this moment, Sri Lankans come together, from all walks of life to change something,” he said. “It’s not just about sending Gota home, it’s also about changing the system that put him there.”
He added: “The protests will only intensify.”