It’s about noon, July 21, at the passport office in Colombo’s Battaramulla area, and the queues are serpentine, seeking that one document to leave the country. A few kilometres away, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has just been sworn in, a week after predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa flew out to Maldives to escape a public which took over his official residence, incensed over the country’s economic collapse.
Zaki, 29, is among those in the line. A plumber, he has spent a valuable Rs 15,000 for a visa, and hopes to go to Kuwait. The queue includes teachers, IT professionals, engineers, many of them with families. “I have been coming for two days, but haven’t been able to even get into the office,” says Piyumi, a 25-year-old teacher, here with her father.
But queues are ubiquitous in Colombo, some lasting days, for almost all essentials. Power cuts are rampant, and malls, cinema halls nearly empty. Schools continue to be closed due to lack of power, fuel for buses.
The anger may have ebbed, and government buildings such as the President’s house and Prime Minister’s office vacated by crowds, but questions remain: how did one of South Asia’s better economies come to this.
Mahinda & Sons, and China
Flashback to 2009, and the end of the war with the LTTE. The resolution of the once intractable situation made the Rajapaksas — particularly President Mahinda and brother and Defence Secretary Gotabaya — heroes in the eyes of the country’s Sinhala majority. Few questions were raised when, in a brazen display of power, the Rajapaksas ensured that after the 2019 elections, the family reigned supreme — Gotabaya, 73, as President; Mahinda, 76, as PM; another brother Basil, 71, as key strategist; eldest Chamal, 79, as minister; and other Rajapaksas in junior roles.
According to leaders in their party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, trouble began soon after, as Gotabaya asserted himself, and found himself ranged against Mahinda and Basil. A former Lt Col, Gotabaya has never been much of a politician unlike the other two, especially the veteran Mahinda. The all-powerful President post came to him as Mahinda was ineligible after two terms, while Basil is a US citizen.
The first discord was over appointments to key positions. Mahinda wanted his favourites, Gotabaya his friends from the military and other hardliners, more accommodating of his tactics in the final run against the LTTE.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a leading Colombo-based political analyst, says: “The relationship between Gotabaya and Mahinda soon became an uneasy one.”
China was another bone of contention. Under Mahinda as President, Colombo had grown increasingly close to Beijing, handing over major projects — Colombo Port city project, Hambantota Port, Mattala airport, Lotus Tower to name a few — to Chinese firms. India wasn’t the only one discomfited, as whispers grew of money changing hands, and into the pockets of Mahinda’s sons Namal and Yoshitha. While Yoshitha, 34, was Mahinda’s Chief of Staff, Namal, 36, was a minister.
Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of an advocacy group for cleaner politics, says, “There was no decision-making process, and they (the Rajapaksas) took decisions without informing the Cabinet.”
Concerns that the Chinese projects were overvalued were overlooked. Hettiarachchi says the projects were a way to earn “commissions” by Rajapaksa family members; some estimate overvaluation of 30%-50%.
As President, Gotabaya is believed to have expressed qualms over this. Sources said one reason was his view that Mahinda’s sons were too entitled.
According to Indian officials, as a military person, Gotabaya was also more receptive to Delhi’s strategic concerns vis-a-vis China. NSA Ajit Doval is learnt to have developed a rapport with him, and Colombo was one of the few places Doval visited during the pandemic.
Change was also visible on the ground under Gotabaya. Having lost out on the strategic Eastern Container Terminal project to China in February 2021, India got the deal for Western Container Terminal in September 2021, after Gotabaya leaned in favour of Delhi’s interests.
A Run in the Family
A senior political leader from the ruling establishment says that initially, the family always found a way to rally together. “Matters would come to a head every two months, but they would all meet at Chamal’s house for a long meal and sort out differences.”
But then, the communication within the family started getting strained. Insiders say things came to such a pass that the brothers would not talk for weeks, using go-betweens to convey concerns.
This left Gotabaya without a shrewd political and strategic mind like Basil just when he needed one the most. It’s a moot point now whether the government would have gone ahead with ill-informed decisions such as tax cuts and the overnight switch to organic farming had Gotabaya been better advised.
George Cooke, a former diplomat and historian, says: “Gotabaya had the wrong team around him.” One of those aides was central bank governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, now out.
Political analyst Saravanamuttu says the hasty decision on organic farming was Gotabaya’s idea, to which Mahinda had reservations, being in favour of a step-by-step process. The ostensible reason was to cut imports of fertilisers, with foreign exchange running low. The result was large-scale failure of the paddy crop, adding to Lanka’s problems.
Former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India Austin Fernando says Gotabaya saw himself as a demigod — a belief born out of the LTTE win. “He started believing in his own myth that God cannot do anything wrong. So, nobody could object.”
But Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, professor of economics at Colombo University, says it’s facile to blame the crisis on just Gotabaya alone, and that it was the result of “poor economic policies for the last several decades”. “It’s like a family needs Rs 1,500 for food, but has only
Rs 1,000. So, it borrows Rs 500, and keeps borrowing every day. The debt piles up. When the income falls, the gap keeps widening.”
One sign of Sri Lanka’s poor fiscal management is that it has approached the IMF 16 times for a bailout.
A senior official at the President’s office told The Sunday Express about an incident from early this year. “Gotabaya lost his temper with Mahinda in front of others, blaming him for the crisis. That was unprecedented.”
As early as March, when protesters attacked his family home, Gotabaya asked Mahinda to resign. “Mahinda said that it was not his fault. Then in May, when the protesters again made a move, he resigned, followed by Basil,” an insider says.
United colours of Aragalya
It’s the wee hours of July 13. The breeze at Colombo’s seafront Galle Face, the epicentre of ‘Janatha Aragalaya’ or people’s struggle, is cool and calm. On the lawns of the adjacent President’s office, the crowd is anything but. Slogans of “Aragalayata jayawewa (victory to the struggle)” rent the air, amid a carnival-like atmosphere as realisation sets in about the end of the Rajapaksa reign.
The Aragalaya may have burst into world attention now, with the remarkable pictures from inside a President’s home run over by crowds on July 9, but its seeds were sown long back. While Colombo initially remained indifferent, in the countryside, anger had been brewing among a public hit by disappearing essentials and rising prices.
But if the outpouring of protesters was, to a large extent, organic, political affiliation helped. The Left parties, including radical groups, lent a hand, particularly Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the ultra-Left Frontline Socialist Party and the Inter University Students’ Federation. They fanned out and helped organise small-scale protests across the country, beyond the Galle Face greens.
Regarding July 9, officials say messages went out to people to hit the streets for “just one day”. Security officials claim that some protesters came armed. Donations poured in from different quarters. Allegations of foreign funding are now being investigated.
As middle classes and upper middle classes of Colombo joined in, the Janatha Aragalaya grew into a once-unthinkable rainbow coalition — erasing the sectarian differences between the majority Sinhalas and the country’s Christian, Muslim and Tamil minorities.
One Identity: ‘Sri Lankan’
This wasn’t a minor development.
Father Jevantha Peiris, 45, one of the visible Christian faces of the Aragalaya, talks about the Easter Sunday terror attacks in April 2019 that left 269 dead, and Christians scarred. “The Rajapaksas promised action… but nothing happened,” he says.
Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Ranjith, who also joined the protests, wrote several letters to President Gotabaya. The Christian cause got Ranjith a rare audience with the Pope at the Vatican.
The reason for the Christian anger was the faith that, having crushed the LTTE, the Rajapaksas would similarly defeat Islamic extremism, blamed for the Easter attacks. While all eight of the suicide bombers died in the attacks — on three five-star hotels and three churches — the trial of 25 alleged planners has been on since November 2021.
While the Rajapaksa regime did little to comfort the Christians (about 8% of the population), the Muslims (10%) felt persecuted.
Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer working for minority rights, says: “The Muslims had to bear the brunt (of the attacks).”
A decision to ban the burqa in the wake of the attacks, in the name of security, caused outrage. A minister in the Rajapaksa government said at the time that the veil “directly affects our national security”.
Then came a ban on burial of bodies during the Covid-19 pandemic to check possibility of “contamination of groundwater” — a misguided, even if perhaps well-intentioned, move which was seen as a confirmation of the government’s anti-Muslim bias.
Danish Ali, 31, who studied in Australia and is among the protesters at the Aragalaya, says: “They called us terrorists.”
The Aragalaya leaders have been wearing their pan-Sri Lankan unity on their sleeve. Almost every press conference has had people from different communities present.
Sanka Jayasekere, 28, a wealth plan manager at an insurance firm, calls the change in fortunes of the Rajapaksas “karma”. “It’s ironic that the leader who divided us became the biggest unifier of communities… If the Sinhalas, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians were split, we could have never achieved this goal.”
Ali says that he has more Sinhala friends than Muslim. “We hope we have started a change… They can’t divide us by invoking Sinhala pride… It is all about Sri Lankan pride.”
Military holds its fire
To many, the most remarkable feature of the overthrow of Gotabaya was how the military, once fiercely loyal to him, kept away.
But to those on the ground, it is simple: the economic rut is such that families of military personnel too are affected, and it could not close its eyes. Even the most elite in the Lankan power structure, for example, cannot get fuel easily now, unless they work directly for the President or Prime Minister and ministers, or top-ranking military officers.
A senior officer of Gotabaya’s former military regiment, Gajaba, says while uniformed personnel may not have joined the protests (though some policemen did), he couldn’t be sure about officers on leave. He talks of the July 9 incidents: “The military fired in the air, just to intimidate the crowds, but not at them.”
There is another reason. In February 2020, the US imposed an entry bar on then Lankan Army Chief, Lt Gen Shavendra Silva, for alleged war crimes in the operations against the LTTE. He is now Chief of Defence Staff General, and extremely careful about his reputation, insiders say; some add he has political ambitions.
“In the war, the military was accused of human rights violations. It did not want to fire on own people,” says Iqbal Athas, a top journalist who covered the war and is now political editor at the Sri Lankan daily The Sunday Times.
Other senior officers too, including Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne, face calls for sanctions. A senior Rajapaksa regime official says at least two ex-officers nominated by the Gotabaya government for diplomatic positions were turned down unofficially.
The official says that the military brass didn’t want to do anything that could invite them further sanctions, or affect their children (the offspring of most of Lanka’s elite head abroad).
According to a senior official in Gotabaya’s office, “The President wanted the crowd (gathering at the presidential residence) to be dispersed using tear gas and water cannons, but the military did not want that. They advised him to retreat and take refuge.”
Athas, who wrote a detailed account of Gotabaya’s final hours in the presidential house on July 9, told The Sunday Express that he eventually listened. “He just walked across to the adjacent Sri Lankan Navy headquarters.”
From there, he would head to a Navy ship take a hush-hush flight to the Maldives, and onwards to Singapore. He is believed to still be looking for a more secure destination. Analysts say he may return, if his brothers who have stayed behind can manage security for him.
The New Man in the House
A veteran politician, former five-time PM, and sitting PM since Mahinda stepped down, Ranil Wickremesinghe was voted President on July 20, seven days after Gotabaya left. While his ambition is undoubted, this is a lottery even Wickremesinghe perhaps didn’t expect to win, with his United National Party holding just one seat in Parliament and virtually decimated.
The general belief is that the Rajapaksas have the 73-year-old’s back, and he, theirs – another in this saga of political twists, given Mahinda and Wickremesinghe’s old rivalry. Wickremesinghe has been at pains to emphasise that he is no friend of the Rajapaksas.
For Wickremesinghe, the temptations of power apart, the post offers a shot at political revival. Having lost a large chunk of his party to Sajith Premadasa (who backed out of the presidential race), he sees an opportunity to woo back supporters before the next elections.
For Mahinda and Basil, who unlike Gotabaya are in Sri Lanka, a President under their influence is their best insurance.
As for Premadasa, 55, analysts say, it made more sense to stay out of a difficult situation. In 2019, he lost to Gotabaya narrowly, and believes getting the next national mandate is his best chance. And that could be as early as six months from now. As per the Sri Lankan Constitution, the earliest a Parliament can be dissolved is two-and-a-half years after being voted in, which falls in March 2023. Premadasa is expected to seek elections then. Incidentally, in Harsha de Silva, he has one of the best economic minds in the country in his team.
Kishore Reddy, head of the India-Sri Lanka Society, who has lived in Sri Lanka for more than two decades, says, “This is Sri Lanka’s 1991 moment (referring to India’s liberalisation).”
From India’s perspective too, Premadasa could be good news as he is said to be well-disposed towards Delhi. On the eve of the July 20 Presidential election, he reached out to parties in India in a tweet, tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking them to “keep helping mother Lanka and its people”.
Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, has his cards close to his chest. While friendly towards India, he is using the China card of late.
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India has gone all out to lend help to Colombo in the current crisis, extending financial assistance to the tune of almost USD 4 billion in just six months of this year. Delhi will hope that this, plus historical links, will help it claw back the space lost to Beijing.
Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay says Delhi would like to “bring more investment into Sri Lanka because that will help it go beyond short-term solutions”.
Fernando, a former Lankan envoy to India, believes there will be a tradeoff: “India will help, but it will ask Sri Lanka to return the favour, especially in the Indian Ocean region.”
For now, even at the height of the crisis, when tickets are going for Sri Lankan Rs 400-600 (i.e. Indian Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,700), one of the films showing at Colombo’s Scope Cinemas is the Tamil movie The Warrior, releasing simultaneously as in India.