Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Sri Lanka’s new president swiftly carries out sweeping crackdown on protests

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Ranil Wickremesinghe is the interim president of Sri Lanka according to a parliamentary vote after an unprecedented popular protest toppled the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But when appointing an interim president… to help the country manage some of its staggering debt is unlikely to bring about the kind of change protesters are asking for.

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

Wickremesinghe’s close relationship with the Rajapaksa clan – Gotabaya and Mahinda, who served as president from 2005 to 2015; their brother Basil, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer; their brother Chamal, which has had multiple functions; and Mahinda’s son Namal, who served as sports minister under Gotabaya, has made him unpopular with protesters.

That is not for nothing; on Friday, just two days after Wickremesinghe secured the presidency, police and security forces carried out a violent dawn raid on the main protest camp in Galle Face, when Amnesty International reported.

According to the report, the police, special forces and military conducted a “massive joint operation” at the GotaGoGama camp near the presidential secretariat. the office of the President of Sri Lanka. Demonstrators have been staying there in tents since April and are expected to clear parts of the camp on Friday; however, around 1:00 AM local time, security forces entered the camp without warning after blocking the camp’s exits.

“There were about 200-300 protesters at the time, I would say,” an eyewitness told Amnesty. “Suddenly [the forces] came out [behind] the barricades and the tents totally destroyed and torn down. There were enough police and military personnel to flood the area. The police and especially the army beat up peaceful demonstrators.”

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

“We need to reorganize the fight,” Arulingam told cafemadrid. “People are shocked.”

While protesters achieved the unthinkable – removing the Rajapaksas from leadership despite nearly two decades in power – concerns remain over Wickremesinghe’s ties to the previous government.

Financial stability requires political stability

Wickremesinghe is a political actor who has held many positions in the Sri Lankan government. A member of the SLPP, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, he is associated with the Rajapaksas through political party affiliation and through his tenure in the government 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 critical economic reforms to ensure the economy continues to thrive for decades to come. remains stable. “These are reforms that Sri Lanka has been talking about for decades, unable to implement, but now needs to be implemented,” Constantino Xavier, a Foreign Policy and Security fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi and a non-resident fellow at the India Project at the Brookings Institution told Brookings podcast The current on Friday. “Reforms in terms of the labor sector, in terms of the public companies that still have monopolies in different sectors, of the energy sector [to] the port sector in Sri Lanka.”

Wickremesinghe, Xavier said, is “the only person who has emerged as satisfying various actors,” including the IMF and Sri Lanka’s western creditors who are crucial in helping Sri Lanka refinance its debt. “Ranil Wickremesinghe is generally seen as a technocrat who is especially popular with the western countries that play an influential role here,” said Xavier, though acknowledging that Wickremesinghe is deeply not popular with protesters.

However, despite its unpopularity, Sri Lanka needs a degree of political stability to continue negotiations with the IMF, whose previous session concluded at the end of June, while Gotabaya was still in charge. “I think appointing a president means starting the process over right away; I think that will be at the top of the list,” Tamanna Salikuddin, director of South Asia programs at the American Institute of Peace, told cafemadrid in an interview last week.

On Monday, before he was elected interim president and just after he declared a state of emergency, Wickremesinghe announced that the IMF talks were nearing completion and that “talks for foreign aid are also progressing”. Reuters reported last weekciting a press release from Wickremesinghe’s office.

The protest movement began with a disastrous financial policy among the Rajapaksa, built on the back of their rapacious consolidation of power and the dismantling of democratic institutions, as Xavier explained on Friday’s podcast. “They have centralized power politically, which has brought some benefits: it is clear that the country has been run with strong, for some people, authoritarian tendencies and very decisive governance, but at the same time the weakening of critical institutions such as the Central Bank of Sri Lanka,” he told Adrianna Pitta, host of The Current. “So therefore, when you gradually weaken those governance structures over 10, 20 years, and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka that I mentioned […] because it is really the heart of the financial crisis of the country that has borrowed without much control over the sustainability of refinancing mechanisms.”

While tackling the approximately $51 billion in debt that Sri Lanka owes is the top priority for the government, looking ahead it is not clear how Sri Lanka can build a sustainable economy when the tourism industry is decimated as a result of Covid 19, and the agricultural sector as a result of failed policies.

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

Will the Rajapaksa get justice?

Despite the turmoil Sri Lankans endured under Gotabaya and his family – primarily the lack of medicines, basic food and fuel, as well as a disastrous ban on chemical fertilizer imports, which decimated Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector – the Rajapaksa and their cronies may never be held accountable.

They have so far evaded blame for alleged human rights violations at the end of a 30-year civil war between ethnic Tamil militants fighting for a homeland in northern Sri Lanka, and the country’s majority Sinhalese. Mahinda was president in 2009, when the war ended, and Gotabaya was his defense minister; during his time in that role, in the final months of the war, according to a UN panel report, the Sri Lankan military alleged atrocities, including sexual assault, enforced disappearances and the killing of Tamil civilians, the Sri Lankan government said at the time.

“I think it’s very interesting to think about how the Rajapaksas came to power,” Salikuddin told cafemadrid. “They crushed – with many accusations of human rights abuses and war crimes – the Tamils, and that led them to power on this Sinhalese nationalism, Buddhist nationalism wave. So that they could tell the majority of Buddhist nationalists, ‘Look, we’ve put an end to this 30-year civil war. We won.’ And the Sinhalese, Buddhist nationalists, were okay with looking the other way.”

However, for Tamil and other minorities who are on the sidelines, “I think the wounds still exist,” Salikuddin told cafemadrid. “There has never been any truth and reconciliation, there has never been any” [addressing] of all missing persons, or of the war crimes committed by the Rajapaksa.”

As of now, Gotabaya is located in Singapore, but only on a temporary basis. So far, he has not applied for or been granted asylum, the Straits Times reports; so it’s unclear how long he plans to stay.

Mahinda and his son Namal, the former Sports Minister who Bloomberg reports is being prepared 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 sent back at the airport by officials, according to Bloomberg.

In the short term, while the protests have been significant and persistent, yielding some victories, “much of what we’ve seen in terms of the protests in Colombo and international media is actually a very urban progressive elite taking to the streets, asking for a fundamental reset of the country,” said Xavier, adding that “the majority of the Sri Lankan electorate, I would risk, still stands behind the Rajapaksas. This is the conservative, rural, southern voice of the ethnic majority group called the Sinhalese group, therefore there can be no solution in Sri Lanka without that popular support, especially when the very painful period of reform begins in a few months.”

In addition, the fact that the repression has already started two days after Wickremesinghe’s tenure, despite the fact that the protests have been largely peaceful, does not bode well for the future. When asked if she thought the Rajapaksa dynasty would get justice for the downfall of the Sri Lankan economy, Arulingam said, “Not soon.”


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