Thousands in Sri Lanka urge Rajapaksa family to stay out of politics

Colombo, Sri Lanka – The Sri Lankan people continue to demand the resignation of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse, and thousands have rallied in the capital, Colombo, saying they or his family members cannot be trusted to drive the country out of the deepening economic crisis.

On Saturday, students, teachers, lawyers, actors and architects – many of whom claimed to be protesting for the first time – chanted “Crazy Quota” and “Go home” at the vacant lot in the seas off Colombo. The nickname of the president, they gathered under the blistering sun.

They waved the Sri Lankan flag and carried handwritten banners in Sinhala and English with slogans such as “No more corrupt politicians” and “Save Sri Lanka from the Rajapaksa family”.

Buddhi Karunathna, 29, who works in the advertising industry, said, “This is a do-or-die moment.

“For the first time, people of all political and social beliefs must come together with unconditional demands for the resignation of the President and the handing over of power to those who are capable of rescuing us from this socio-economic crisis.”

For 72-year-old Rajapakse, the outpouring of anger turned out to be a shocking reversal for the party, which won the presidency by a landslide in 2019 and won a two-thirds majority in parliament within a year. Those victories led Rajapakse to appoint his brother Mahinda Rajapakse as prime minister and amend the constitution to strengthen the powers of the president.

He gave key posts to three Rajapaksa family members in his cabinet, including finance, agriculture and sports.

Severe shortage of food and fuel, prolonged power outages lead to weeks of widespread anti-government protests – President Gotabhaya Rajapakse must step down [Ishara S Kodikara/ AFP]

At the time, many voters hoped that Gotabhaya and Mahinda Rajapakse would increase security and stabilize the country in the wake of the ISIL-sponsored bombings that killed at least 250 people in 2019. Separatists in 2009 after 26 years of bloody conflict. Mahinda was then president and his younger brother Gotabhaya was defense secretary.

But instead of improving things, the Rajapaksas have “proved incompetent and incapable of making the right decisions,” said one protester at a rally on Saturday. “Goda cannot run a country,” said another. “He doesn’t have the brains to deal with this kind of crisis.”

‘Rajapaksa should not be anyone’

The economic downturn triggered by the foreign exchange crisis has been Sri Lanka’s worst economic downturn in decades. This has led to rising inflation, the poor struggling without enough money to eat, and fuel shortages and hours of power cuts threatening to shut down businesses.

Protesters in the vacant lot blamed the government’s mismanagement for the economic downturn.

Introduced tax cuts to reduce government revenue, as well as delays in obtaining assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) even as debt repayments filter foreign exchange reserves. Over the past two years – as the Govt-19 epidemic has devastated Sri Lanka’s main tourism sector – the country’s foreign reserves have plummeted by more than 70 percent.

“What has Goda done in the last two years? He did nothing, ”said author Buddhadasa Kalappathi (74). “We no longer want Rajapaksas in the administration of the country. No Rajapaksa should be there.

The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother and the President of Sri Lanka Gotabhaya Rajapaksa are seen during the inauguration ceremony of the new Prime Minister on August 9, 2020 at the Kelani Buddhist Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa during the swearing in ceremony of the Prime Minister on August 9, 2020 at the Kelani Buddhist Temple in Colombo. [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/ Reuters]

The Rajapaksas’ refusal to listen to public concerns lined up protesters. When people first took to the streets in early March, protesters were dismissed by some in government as “terrorists” and other officials underestimated the severity of the crisis.

As protests spread in late March, the president declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. But in the midst of widespread opposition he was forced to cancel the proceedings within a few days.

The Rajapaksas have fooled the people, said Kumudakuli Vikaramatandri, who was wearing a Joker hat and banging on a tambourine. “There should be no more jokes,” the 32-year-old actor urged the country’s politicians to form an interim government and change constitutional changes that would concentrate power in the hands of the president.

Others said the protests were due to Rajapaksa corruption.

“People are starving, while the Rajapaksas and their allies are living good lives,” said 26-year-old Shane Steelman. “I came because I could not tolerate this injustice … People will not stop until Kota goes home.”

A protester carrying the sign “Give us our stolen money” also demanded that the Rajapaksas’ assets be frozen.

“The Rajapaksa family is rumored to have assets worth more than $ 18 billion. This is three times the amount due on foreign loans this year, ”said Tarindu Jayawardena, 32. “The Rajapaksa regime must be held accountable. I have come here to warn all politicians that people will rise up if they steal. ”

Al Jazeera contacted Rajapakse’s spokesman to respond to the protesters’ allegations, but he did not respond at the time of its release.

‘Without an explanation’

However, the government has insisted that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will not resign. Ruling party legislator Johnston Fernando told parliament on Wednesday that the president would not resign under any circumstances and that the government would “face” the current crisis.

Meanwhile, the president has fired his brother Basil Rajapakse as finance minister, appointed a new central bank governor, and set up a new council to advise the government on IMF consultations.

But many at Saturday’s demonstration mocked the president’s actions.

“Which part of the house do you not understand?” Nithuna Jayatunga, carrying a sign saying, “There is no point in the Rajapaksas seizing power.”

“If people tell them to leave, they refuse to do it. They insist that those who dragged the country to this point should be part of the solution,” the author said. “They are trying to retain power and they are trying to avoid repercussions.”

Chandun Dutugala, an activist with the Law and Community Foundation, a non-profit group, described the government’s response as “arrogant”.

But he was adamant that the opposition would win.

“We have been waiting for this moment all our lives. Sri Lankans will come together and change something from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s not just about sending Kota home, it’s about changing the system that put him there.”

Moreover, the struggles will intensify further.

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