Fahad Ali describes the worsening situation of Breakdown in Sri Lanka
The Breakdown in Sri Lanka is in the grip of the almost unending economic crisis that has badly affected the political balance of the country. Hitherto the country was known for its reasonable response to crises with political activity not badly disturbed particularly after the end of two-decade long civil war. This time round however all socio-political balance has been hit primarily due to the intense economic mismanagement. The seriousness of the crisis could be gauged by the fact that the economic crisis has finally claimed the scalp of the head of the state and all personnel associated with exercise of power in the country. The ignominy of fleeing from the country has become the fate of the most powerful political family in Sri Lanka and high level of uncertainty now looks ominous for all the supporters and beneficiaries of the ousted regime.
Protests erupted in Sri Lanka after the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled to the Maldives on a military jet but neither he nor the prime minster officially resigned, throwing the country into political chaos. After Gotabaya’s clandestine departure, a Sri Lankan official said that the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had been appointed by Rajapaksa to be acting president. Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency as protesters breached the prime minister’s offices and took over the state television broadcaster. Protesters, who have demanded that both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe step down, were infuriated by the announcement that Wickremesinghe was now acting president. Thousands congregated outside the prime minister’s office, where they were hit with dozens of rounds of teargas by police as they tried to break through the gates. People could be seen running with their eyes streaming and blood coming from their heads.
In scenes reminiscent of the weekend, when protesters took over the president’s presidential palace and offices, the crowds managed to breach the army barriers and stormed into Wickremesinghe’s offices. As the armed forces were overrun, people poured into the corridors and waved flags from the balconies. Wickremesinghe, who took over as a caretaker prime minister just two months ago has been accused of propping up the Rajapaksa regime and the demand from protesters is that he resign immediately to make way for a new government. Protesters also took over the offices of the Rupavahini state media centre in Colombo and the channel went off air.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning Rajapaksa, his wife and two security guards had boarded a military aircraft to the Maldives, after he invoked executive powers to enable his escape. A statement said that under the provisions of the constitution and on a request by the government, the Sri Lanka air force provided a plane early today to fly the president and they arrived in Malé, the Maldives capital, at 3am. Earlier the situation became ugly when the embattled president was stuck in his own country on Tuesday in a humiliating standoff with airport immigration staff blocking his exit to safety abroad. The president had fled his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it on and wanted to travel to Dubai. As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest and he was believed to want to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.
The embattled Sri Lankan president was previously blocked from departing the country at least twice on Monday, after refusing to join a public immigration queue at the Bandaranaike International Airport. Aides for Rajapaksa arrived at the airport in Colombo on Monday with 15 passports belonging to the president and members of his family — including First Lady Ioma Rajapaksa — who had booked seats on a Sri Lankan Airlines flight leaving for Dubai but immigration officers declined to process the passports given to them by presidential aides, as Rajapaksa and his family were not physically present for cross checks. Eventually, the flight departed without the president and his family on board.
Another attempt was made to get the family on an Etihad flight scheduled to leave Colombo for Abu Dhabi, however the same problem occurred, as the Rajapaksas refused to join the public immigration queue for the flight. In both instances, the Rajapaksa family was in a nearby airport lounge, waiting for confirmation they could board without queuing among members of the public. The president and his wife spent the night at a military base next to the main international airport after missing four flights that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates. Finally they left in a military plane traveling to the Maldives but air traffic control in the Maldives refused the plane’s request to land, until an intervention by the Speaker of Maldivian Parliament Majlis and former President, Mohamed Nasheed.
There was much anger among people on the streets that the president had fled, leaving Sri Lanka in an economic mess. The president’s younger brother Basil Rajapaksa, who served as finance minister, was also prevented from boarding a flight to Dubai en route to the US, where he is a dual citizen. Basil, too, was reported to have left Sri Lanka on Tuesday night. Rajapaksa and five family members who held senior government posts stand accused of widespread corruption and economic mismanagement which left the country without any foreign currency to import food, fuel and medicines, and pushed inflation to record levels. According to the UN, the island of 22 million people is facing a humanitarian crisis.
The president’s departure threatens a potential power vacuum in the country, which needs a functioning government to help start digging it out of financial ruin. Politicians from other parties have been talking about forming a new unity government but there is no sign they are near agreement yet. It is also not clear if the public would accept what they come up with. Under the constitution, it is the prime minister who should act in the president’s stead if the latter resigns. However, PM Wickremesinghe is also deeply unpopular and protesters set fire to his private residence when he and his family were not inside. That leaves the parliament’s speaker as the next most likely to step in as caretaker president, However speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is an ally of the Rajapaksas and public would not accept his authority.
Whoever does become acting president has 30 days to hold an election for a new president from among members of parliament. The winner of that vote could then see out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term until late 2024. The main opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said that he would venture to become president but it is also known that he also lacks public support and there is deep public suspicion of politicians in general. The protest movement which has brought Sri Lanka to the brink of change also does not have an obvious contender for the country’s leadership.
The economic mismanagement has wiped out much of Sri Lanka’s revenue base, most notably from the lucrative tourism industry, while remittances from nationals working abroad dropped and were further sapped by an inflexible foreign exchange rate. To keep the economy afloat, the government leaned heavily on its foreign exchange reserves, eroding them by more than 70 per cent in two years. Fuel shortages have led to long queues at filling stations as well as frequent blackouts, and hospitals have run short of medicine. Runaway inflation reached 54.6 per cent last month and could rise to 70 per cent. TW