In the last 24 hours, the area surrounding the private residence of the Sri Lankan president descended into chaos.
The South Asian island nation of 22 million has been grappling with a foreign exchange crisis and acute shortages of basic necessities for months. Tensions have been simmering as queues for food and fuel lead to deaths and power cuts became the norm.
On Thursday, thousands of protesters gathered outside Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private home in the city of Mirihana, southeast of the capital Colombo. While chanting “Gota go home” – a protest slogan being used to hold Rajapaksa and his government accountable for the economic failures –protesters clashed with the police, pelted stones and broke barricades to enter the premises.
At least 54 people have been arrested by police, including one woman.
Many protesters and police personnel were injured when last night’s protest went violent. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP
It’s not been confirmed whether Rajapaksa was home. But police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. At least 31 people, including police, other law enforcement personnel, and a few journalists were injured in the clashes. One video shows protesters setting fire to a bus.
The protest came on the heels of announcements that Rajapaksa and members of the parliament, among others such as hospitals and power stations, were to be exempted from the 13-hour power cuts meant to ration the country’s dwindling power reserves. The situation highlights the widening gap between Sri Lanka’s political elite and the broader population.
A man is injured during last night’s clash between the protesters and the police outside the president's house. Photo: AFP
Even hospitals were not spared from power cuts. In some cases, surgeries and diagnostic tests have had to be cancelled due to power outages.
Resentment toward Rajapaksa has been mounting. The Pandora Papers, a massive collection of leaked documents on money ties among the world’s rich and powerful released late last year, revealed a history of Rajapaksa’s family stashing away wealth and accumulating assets as the country went through civil war from 1983 to 2009. The family’s assets were reported to be around $18 billion in 2015, which the family denied. The median annual household income in Sri Lanka is less than $2,000.
On Friday morning, the presidential media division blamed an “organized extremist group” for the violence outside Rajapaksa’s home, saying they were spearheading an “Arab Spring”-type campaign with “iron club, machetes and sticks.” The Ministry of Public Security said it has launched an investigation to identify this alleged group.
Last night’s protest is a part of a growing demand among Sri Lankans, who want President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign as the country faces an unprecedented economic crisis. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP
Prasanna Ranatunge, the country’s tourism minister, criticized the protesters, saying violence was the last thing a forex-starved country needed. "Our stance is that people have the right to protest but it should be constructive. What happened yesterday was the opposite,” he said.
Growing calls for Rajapaksa to resign also reflect the leader’s declining popularity, with people criticizing him for, among other things, corruption, mishandling of food policies and debt restructuring.
The Rajapaksa family have held top political positions for nearly two decades. Mahinda, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 76-year-old brother, is the prime minister, after having been president from 2005 to 2015. Gotabaya, 72, started out as the secretary to the defence minister when Mahinda was president. Other Rajapaksa family members hold several key government posts.
The Sri Lankan government allege that there’s an “extremist organized group” behind last night’s protest. Dozens have been arrested. Photo: Pradeep Dambarage/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A string of human rights abuse allegations have marred their regime, including alleged war crimes during the civil war. The next Sri Lankan Presidential election isn’t until 2024.
Reuters reported tensions have calmed down on Friday, although the national news outlet Daily Mirror reported protesters planning to switch tactics to a “white cloth campaign” – they will tie a strip of white cloth to the side mirrors of their vehicles, accompanied by candlelight marches.
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