ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP
Political turmoil peaked over the last 24 hours in the island nation of Sri Lanka. Its once-powerful ruling dynasty, the Rajapaksas, are now in hiding after four protesters and a ruling party member were killed, 200 were injured, and 52 houses that belonged to members of the Rajapaksas’ ruling party were set on fire by protesters.
The protesters also set ablaze the ancestral mansion of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who announced his resignation as the country’s prime minister just hours before. The mansion was a showcase of his family’s wealth and power, and to protesters a symbol of inequality and corruption.
“The Rajapaksas are not used to this kind of resistance. They thought they were invincible, and are used to being treated as gods,” Ambika Satkunanathan, a former commissioner of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission told VICE World News. “The protests have probably destabilised them psychologically. They don’t know how to deal with it, except perhaps with force.”
Despite an island-wide state of emergency and police curfew, the arson capped a full day of escalating tensions between government supporters and protesters who have been demanding the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The violence reflects deep-seated resentment and anger in the South Asian nation of 22 million, which has been grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis, power cuts, and acute shortages of basic necessities for several months.
As terrifying videos from the ground continue to emerge since Monday, Satkunanathan said last night’s events were blowback from state-sponsored violence inflicted on anti-government protesters until just hours before the arson.
In the last two months, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans occupied key spots across the country to denounce the Rajapaksa brothers and their government. Protesters demanded accountability from the Rajapaksas for the ongoing economic crisis, systemic inequalities and corruption in the country.
Last night, protesters stormed Mahinda’s official residence while he was reportedly holed up inside. This morning, CNN reported that Mahinda was rescued in a “pre-dawn military operation” after protesters entered the outer perimeter of his residence, where they hurled petrol bombs. He is reportedly staying at the Sri Lankan naval base, where protesters have gathered as well. The political opposition blamed him for last night’s events.
Yesterday morning, government backers arrived at sites where the anti-government protesters were sitting, used weapons such as clubs to attack them, and set their tents on fire. Human Rights Watch had warned that this would risk “further deadly violence.” Some videos circulating on social media show some of these operatives confessing to being paid to do so. In one video, a man claimed to be a prisoner brought to the site to attack the anti-government protesters.
Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa, a research fellow at an independent initiative called The Disinformation Project, told VICE World News that while those videos have yet to be confirmed, it’s an indication of the track record of the Rajapaksas working in collusion with the police. “[These videos] and subsequent reporting suggest that there was a significant amount of collusion with the police to create the space for, engineer, instigate and unleash the violence directed at the peaceful protesters,” said Hattotuwa.
The public – with hardly any food, fuel, electricity or medical support – has been pushed to the brink in a country gone bankrupt, Hattotuwa added. “So when they were attacked so publicly, with impunity, and with the police looking on, it can be understood that the anger that they bottled was unleashed.”
Satkunanathan called the violence by Rajapaksa loyalists “state sponsored.” “The second phase of violence, which took place at night, is what happens to an angry society that is desensitised to violence because of being subjected to state-sponsored violence,” she said. She added that last night’s incident might backfire. “It is not inconceivable that such incidents that are enabled by the state are used as an excuse to crack down on peaceful protesters,” she said. Many experts, including Hattotuwa, worry that martial law – which gives Gotabaya even greater power – is an imminent possibility.
Many in the country, including Rajapaksa’s personal astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, are saying this is the end of the family that has held political power for over two decades, and was a popular choice for the Sinhala-majority country. "Even a grade two child knows today that the Rajapaksas are doomed," Abeygunawardena told the media last month. Sri Lankan leaders traditionally turn to astrologists for advice.
Mahinda’s resignation comes just when the anti-government protests were gaining momentum. The cabinet has also been dissolved. Hattotuwa, who is studying the movement on social media, said that there is a “historic rise” in the number of people on social media joining in the conversation on the day the Rajapaksa loyalists attacked the protesters.
In the meantime, the Sri Lankan Attorney General told the police to investigate Monday’s clashes between the anti-government protesters and the Rajapaksa loyalists. Despite the curfew, the protests carry on. “The fact that it took [Mahinda] to unleash violence against the protesters and resign, is a sign that the government massively underestimated what the islandwide response would be,” said Hattotuwa.
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