The economic crisis in Sri Lanka is turning into a major political upheaval as supporters of the Rajapaksa brothers clashed with anti-government protesters hours before Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down with the entire cabinet from office. Yesterday’s violence is an indication that the Rajapaksa brothers will not fade into the sunset but fight all the way to the end. Hardening of positions can lead to further escalation of an already dire situation.
The clashes resulted in five deaths and scores of injuries. This is the first time that the protests turned violent, triggered by the violence let loose by cadres of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Perumuna (SLPP) on peaceful demonstrators. Cars were set ablaze and public property were destroyed. A SLPP lawmaker was killed in the central province, when he fired on protesters surrounding his car. His car was overturned and he ran for cover. Later he killed himself.
The buzz is that the former prime minister is unhappy to be made the sacrificial lamb when the anger in the street is against President Gotabaya and not the prime minister. Writing for the Daily FT, one of Colombo’s leading newspapers, Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka commented, "The Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, miffed at his brother’s attempts to scapegoat him for the country’s increasing instability, has brought in thousands of his supporters from the provinces to the city today (Monday 9 May), proclaiming their demand for his continuance in office."
Mahinda Rajapaksa is a shrewd politician and is the one to have built up a political dynasty with members of his family. Is there now a feud between the brothers at the handling of the protests? Nobody is sure at the moment. But the former prime minister is certainly peeved at being asked to pack up.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is known for his strong-arm tactics. During his tenure as President, criticism of the government was not tolerated. Opponents were jailed and tortured. It was only a matter of time before the government came out with its plan of action, which at the moment is to quell protests by letting loose SLPP thugs on demonstrators. This will tarnish the image of the street protests and help the government to take harsher measures. According to reports the thugs started the rampage after a meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Rajapaksas are in a bind on how to tackle the current crisis. Each one is trying to save his skin and blame the other. The protestors are fed up with the political class. Opposition politicians are being asked to leave protest sites. However despite the chant of 'GoGotaGo', stepping into his shoes to clear the mess is not going to be easy for anyone. The problems of the island will not disappear with the exit of the President. There lies the catch, what next? The IMF bail out will help when it comes, but hard times are ahead and is likely to continue for a year or so. Gotabaya will have to go sooner or later. Beyond assuaging public anger, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit will not solve the financial mess that successive political leaders have brought on to the island. Sri Lanka needs the international communities help to bail it out of bankruptcy. India should step up its efforts to help the people in their hour of need. This will win New Delhi much goodwill in the island, where at one time, not so long ago, many regarded India as the neighbourhood bully.
To repeated questions on the crisis in Sri Lanka, Arindam Bagchi, the MEA spokesman said on Tuesday "As a close neighbour of Sri Lanka, with historical ties, India is fully supportive of its democracy, stability and economic recovery.’’ He said that in keeping with India’s neighbourhood first policy, New Delhi has extended help to the tune of over $ 3.5 billion . It has also provided assistance to counter shortages of essential items like food and medicine.
"India will always be guided by the best interests of the people of Sri Lanka expressed through democratic processes,” Bagchi added. Note there is no mention of Sri Lanka government or President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just the people of Sri Lanka. India is now taking care to project its support for the people of the island and not to the unpopular Rajapaksa family.