Home / Opinion / Columns /  Sri Lanka: A healing touch must accompany economic stability
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Protest movements produce powerful symbols. Images of the citizens of Sri Lanka storming the presidential residence of the man who steered their country into financial ruin and then refused to quit sent a pointed message. When they started swimming in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pool, cooking in his kitchen and working out in the gym, he had to know it was over for his family’s reign of economic destruction.

For the first time since demonstrations began this March in the capital, Colombo, soldiers were seen joining the protests. So too were Buddhist monks who had once supported the Rajapaksa clan’s rule. When the military starts to turn against the strongman who was once defence minister, it’s clear the power has shifted. That the weekend was dominated by reports the Rajapaksas were planning to flee the country was not surprising, given the renewed ferocity of protestors. The president left his residence before it was seized and his whereabouts are so far,unknown. He says he’s preparing to resign on Wednesday. His citizens say that’s not soon enough.

Sri Lanka has been in financial crisis for months. There is no fuel, essential medicines are either unavailable or in short supply and food inflation is running at close to 80%. Initial talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wrapped up on 30 June, but there is no immediate resolution to the foreign exchange crisis that brought the nation to a standstill. About a quarter of the 22 million population is unsure of where their next meal will come from, said the World Food Program on 6 July.

The people have been telling their government for months to resign: The signs at the permanent protest site along Colombo’s waterfront read “Gota go home." When former leader Ranil Wickremesinghe stepped in two months ago to steady the administration and start negotiating with the IMF, people were not convinced. And they were right—whatever answers he may have had, he was viewed as part of the political establishment that led Sri Lanka to this point. Hours after Wickremesinghe said on Saturday he too was prepared to leave his post, protestors set fire to his private residence, a move widely condemned by the broader civilian uprising.

Travelling through the Rajapaksa stronghold of Hambantota last month, it was clear that even the family’s diehard supporters were losing faith. The decision to ban fertilizer imports last year cost farmers at least two harvests and left them with little means of survival. It plunged the country into a food crisis from which recovery is shaky.

So what next? The IMF said it hoped for a resolution to Sri Lanka’s political turmoil to allow a resumption of bailout talks after Saturday’s protests. The US called on parliament “to approach this juncture with a commitment to the betterment of the nation — not any one political party."

The problem is, only protestors seem to be moving with any sense of urgency. Both Gotabaya and Wickremesinghe should stop prevaricating; parliament should appoint an all-party cabinet that includes technocrats with deep economic experience to guide the nation out of this government-induced emergency.

They need to do this before a potentially dangerous power vacuum develops that could allow extremist groups to exploit the instability. It is only three years since the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo that were claimed by supporters of the Islamic State. Churches and luxury hotels were targeted, killing nearly 270 people and crippling the tourism industry.

If there’s one thing these protestors have shown, it is that the Rajapaksas can be defeated. That the corruption and human rights abuses they are both famous and feared for, can be overcome, however long it takes. Beyond their grave economic mismanagement, Gotabaya’s and his brother Mahinda’s administration blocked any legal avenues for accountability over the grave abuses linked to the 26-year civil war that ended under their watch in 2009. Instead, as Human Rights Watch notes, victims of past abuses, their families, journalists and human rights defenders have endured surveillance and intimidation. Muslims, Tamils and other minorities have faced discrimination and threats. Many have been severely beaten. Some disappeared. The brothers have denied any link to the violence.

What’s different now is that these groups have come together to oust the Rajapaksas. They have rejected the family’s brand of populist authoritarianism that relied on the support of Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up 75% of the population. They are united in their desire for a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that can resist political attempts to divide communities and incite violence. It’s time for their own political leaders and the international community to heed their call and help them as they forge a new future for their country. 

Ruth Pollard is a Bloomberg Opinion editor

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