Sri Lanka’s new president quickly issues crackdown on protests

Ranil Wickremesinghe is Sri Lanka’s interim president by parliamentary vote, after an unprecedented popular protest toppled the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But while appointing an interim president may help the country manage some of its staggering debt, is unlikely to bring about the kind of change the protesters demand.

Gotabaya named Wickremesinghe prime minister in May after his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned during the protests. Now Wickremesinghe – who served as prime minister five times and was also finance minister during his most recent term – will serve as president until the country holds a popular vote in 2024.

Wickremesinghe’s proximity to the Rajapaksa clan – Gotabaya and Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015; his brother Basil, a former finance minister; his brother Chamal, who held various positions; and Mahinda’s son Namal, who served as Gotabaya’s sports minister – made him unpopular with protesters.

This is rightly so; on Friday, just two days after Wickremesinghe won the presidency, police and security forces carried out a violent pre-dawn raid on the main protest camp in Galle Face, Amnesty International reported.

According to the report, police, special forces and the military carried out “a massive joint operation” at the GotaGoGama camp in the Presidential Secretariat. the office of the President of Sri Lanka. Protesters have been in tents there since April and are expected to vacate parts of the camp on Friday; however, at around 1:00 am local time, security forces stormed the camp without warning, having blocked the exits from the camp.

“There were around 200 to 300 protesters back then, I would say,” an eyewitness told Amnesty. “Suddenly [the forces] left of [behind] the barricades and completely destroyed and toppled the tents. There were enough police and military personnel to flood the area. The police and especially the army beat up peaceful protesters.”

Amnesty reported at least 50 injured and nine arrested, although activist and lawyer Swasthika Arulingam, who has been involved in the protests in Colombo since March, told Vox that only eight were arrested, all of whom were rescued at noon eastern time. Saturday.

“We need to reorganize the fight,” Arulingam told Vox. “People are shaken.”

While the protesters have accomplished the unthinkable – ousting the Rajapaksas from leadership despite nearly two decades in power – concerns remain about Wickremesinghe’s ties to the previous government.

Financial stability requires political stability

Wickremesinghe is a long-time political actor who has held many positions in the Sri Lankan government. As a member of the SLPP, Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna, he is connected to the Rajapaksas through political party affiliation as well as his tenure in the administration of Gotabaya.

Wickremesinghe’s top priority as president is – or should be – to help the country refinance its massive, unsustainable debt and secure International Monetary Fund loans, as well as implement crucial economic reforms to ensure the economy remains stable for decades to come. “These are reforms that Sri Lanka has been talking about for decades, failed to implement, but will have to be implemented now,” Constantino Xavier, Foreign Policy and Security Fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi. and a non-resident Project India Fellow at the Brookings Institution to the Brookings The Current podcast on Friday. “Reforms at the level of the labor sector, at the level of public sector companies that still hold monopolies in various sectors, from energy [to] the port sector in Sri Lanka”.

Wickremesinghe, Xavier said, is “the only individual who has emerged satisfying different actors”, including the IMF and Sri Lanka’s western creditors, who are instrumental in helping Sri Lanka refinance its debt. “Ranil Wickremesinghe is generally seen as a very popular technocrat, particularly in Western countries that play an influential role here,” Xavier said, although he acknowledges that Wickremesinghe is deeply unpopular with the protesters.

Despite its unpopularity, however, Sri Lanka needs some political stability to continue negotiations with the IMF, whose previous session concluded in late June while Gotabaya was still in charge. “I think getting a president means restarting the process immediately; I think this will be at the top of the list,” Tamanna Salikuddin, director of South Asia programs at the US Peace Institute, told Vox in an interview last week.

On Monday, before being elected interim president and shortly after declaring a state of emergency, Wickremesinghe announced that negotiations with the IMF were nearing completion and that “discussions for assistance with foreign countries were also progressing”, Reuters reported. last week, citing a press. release from Wickremesinghe’s office.

The protest movement began with the disastrous financial policy under the Rajapaksas, built on their voracious consolidation of power and dismantling of democratic institutions, as Xavier explained in Friday’s podcast. “They centralized power politically which brought some benefits: obviously the country was led with a strong, for some people, an authoritarian streak and very decisive governance, but at the same time also the weakening of critical institutions like the Central Bank of Sri Lanka,” he told The Current host Adrianna Pitta. “So when you are progressively over 10, 20 years of weakening these governance structures, and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka that I mentioned […] because it is really the heart of the financial crisis in the country that borrowed without much scrutiny on the sustainability of the refinancing mechanisms.”

While dealing with the approximately $51 billion debt that Sri Lanka owes is its government’s first priority, it is unclear how Sri Lanka can build a sustainable economy when its tourism industry is decimated due to Covid 19 and its sector. agriculture due to failed policies.

“There was one bodily blow after another,” Salikuddin said, referring not just to Covid-19 but also a string of 2019 bombings on churches celebrating Easter and Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Now, with the collapse, you have countries all over the world issuing travel safety advisories, so I don’t see tourism coming back anytime soon, at the same rates they expect.”

Will the Rajapaksas face justice?

Despite the turmoil that Sri Lankans faced under the rule of Gotabaya and his family – notably a lack of medicine, staple foods and fuel, as well as the disastrous import ban on chemical fertilizers, which decimated Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector – the Rajapaksas and his cronies can never be held accountable.

So far, they have escaped blame for alleged human rights abuses during the end of the 30-year civil war between Tamil militants fighting for a homeland in northern Sri Lanka and the country’s Sinhalese majority. Mahinda was president in 2009, when the war ended, and Gotabaya was his defense minister; during your time In that role, in the final months of the war, according to a UN panel report, the Sri Lankan military was accused of committing atrocities, including sexual violence, enforced disappearances and murder of Tamil civilians, allegations that the Sri Lankan government denied at the time.

“I find it very interesting to think about how the Rajapaksas came to power,” Salikuddin told Vox. “They crushed – with many allegations of human rights violations and war crimes – crushed the Tamils, and that brought them to power in this wave of Sinhalese nationalism, Buddhist nationalism. So they could say to most Buddhist nationalists, ‘Look, we’re done with this 30-year civil war. We won.’ And the Sinhalese and Buddhist nationalists were well looking the other way.”

However, for the Tamil and other marginalized minorities, “I think the wounds are still there,” Salikuddin told Vox. “There has never been truth and reconciliation, there has never been [addressing] of all missing persons, or the war crimes of the Rajapaksas”.

As of now, Gotabaya is in Singapore, but only temporarily. So far, he has not asked for or received asylum, reports the Straits Times; thus, it is unclear how long he plans to stay.

Mahinda and her son Namal, the former sports minister who Bloomberg says is being groomed for a future in political leadership, will not leave Sri Lanka, an unnamed aide told Al Jazeera last week. Meanwhile, Basil, the former finance minister and brother of Mahinda and Gotabaya, was reportedly returned at the airport by authorities, according to Bloomberg.

In the immediate term, although the protests have been significant, sustained and have brought some victories, “a lot of what we have seen in terms of the protests in Colombo and in the international media is actually a very urban progressive elite that is on the streets, that is calling for a fundamental redefinition of the country,” Xavier said, adding that “the majority of the Sri Lankan electorate, I would venture, is still behind the Rajapaksas. This is the conservative, rural, southern vote of the majority ethnic group called the Sinhalese group. Therefore, no solution in Sri Lanka can happen without this popular support, especially when the painful period of reform begins in a few months.”

Furthermore, the fact that the crackdown had already begun two days after Wickremesinghe’s term, despite the fact that the protests were largely peaceful, does not bode well for the future. When asked if she thought the Rajapaksa dynasty would face justice for the downfall of Sri Lanka’s economy, Arulingam said, “Not anytime soon.”

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