Opinion & Analysis

Sri Lanka: "Gota Go Home!"

Sri Lankans demand their President has "Gota Go Home" 

On the streets of Sri Lanka, thousands of citizens are continuing to intensify their protests , demanding the immediate resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, more popularly known as Gota.

For the people of Sri Lanka, the economic crisis gripping the country is worse than anything seen since the country celebrated its independence from the British Empire in 1948.

The foreign currency reserves of Sri Lanka have now plunged below $1 billion dollars, and with the value of the rupee falling off a cliff, the country is unable to repay its foreign debt. As a result, Sri Lanka is not in a position to purchase the essentials for its people. Even basic food items are becoming scarce. 

The Ministry of Power has announced long power cuts daily (up to 13 hours), as they are unable to purchase the oil required for electricity generation. At the same time, there are long queues across the island full of ordinary Sri Lankan citizens, seeking other essentials including fuel and medicine. 

So how has this happened?  The reasons for the current unprecedented economic crisis are multifaceted. Sri Lanka has been struggling with a severe Balance of Payment (BOP) crisis since early 2020. The Easter bomb attacks in 2019 and the spread of Covid since 2020 hit the tourism sector crucially, the main sector that brought a $4 billion annual foreign currency inflow to the country. Economic mismanagement has compounded the issue, to the point where the country faces a difficult recovery. Among a string of economic mistakes, the government moved to ban chemical fertilisers across the country. The result was failed crops and more food price hikes.

To restrain the foreign currency outflow, the government imposed various restrictions in 2020 including importing vehicles and some other technical products. As a result, although the outflow of foreign currency reduced, the need to repay foreign debt hit the economy hard.

The crisis has also been worsened by the stubborn stance of the government in not seeking economic support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Now, the IMF has confirmed it will be beginning discussions with senior Sri Lankan policy makers very soon. IMF mission chief for Sri Lanka, Masahiro Nozaki was quoted as saying the IMF is "very concerned about the current economic crisis and the hardships suffered by the people".

Although the economic crisis is the immediate reason for the Sri Lankan people to step into streets, and demand the resignation of the President, there are other deep-rooted issues in the political system which is widely seen as corrupt and full of nepotism 

Mobilising under the popular slogan “Go Home Gota”, the protesters are also demanding that the entire parliament be dissolved, and the numerous members of the Rajapaksa family be removed from various positions of power. At present the President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister are all related under the Rajapaksa name. Other demands from protest groups involve the repayment of allegedly stolen public money by this family and others in the political elites.

In response, the entire cabinet has now resigned, although there are now claims that their resignations are not constitutional.

According to the constitution, ministers should hand over their resignations to the president, nonetheless, the ministers have been handing over resignations to the prime minister – Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa who is of course one of the brothers of the president and a previous president of the country.

So far, there are no sign of the president and the prime minister resigning. A few representatives of the ruling party have boldly declared that the president will not resign no matter what, claiming the protests have not been organised by ordinary people but by opposition political parties.

The government has also taken controversial measures to control the protests and people’s constitutional right to their  freedom of expression. The symbolic moment came with a street protest that took place in front of the president’s house in the Colombo suburb of Mirihana, on 31st March.

After this incident, the government imposed a temporary state of emergency for the entire island to limit gatherings, as well as a controversial social media ban. 

While protests against the government are unfolding rapidly among the Sinhalese, the situation in the northern Tamil-dominated part of Sri Lanka is relatively quiet.

Although Tamils have often protested against the government, they are far more wary of the possible severe consequences than are the Sinhalese citizens.

Apart from the protests that are taking place within the country, Sri Lankan migrants from across the world are also showing their solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka. Huge protests have been organised in cities like Auckland, Melbourne, Toronto and Paris, creating huge pressure for the Colombo government from the international arena.

However, on the streets the situation is largely a stalemate, with the people demanding the resignation of the president everyday, but the government stubbornly proclaiming their iintention to stay in power whatever.

For the country to get out of this unfortunate situation, political and economic analysts both in Sri Lanka and outside have proposed multiple options. Nonetheless, the government seems to be underestimating the reality on the ground and taking its  time, expecting the public to tire of the protests. In this they may well have again underestimated the resilience of the Sri Lankan people, both at home and overseas. 

- Dr Pavithra Jayawardena

(banner image : Thilina Kaluthotage)