But that all changed on July 9, when protesters stormed in and seized power, demanding the resignation of President Gotabay Rajapaksa before turning the palace upside down.
“It was the home of the most powerful man in the country,” said Sri Lankan writer and analyst Asanga Abeyagunasekera. “It has never been opened to the public.”
“Resignation was really the only option he had,” Abayagunasekera said. “People are tired, hungry and angry… And they are demanding change and responsibility because they are tired of seeing the same faces in power.”
“We can’t afford to choose”
Rajapaksa may be gone, but Sri Lanka is still grappling with a devastating financial crisis and experts say the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Protests over daily power outages, rising fuel prices and severe shortages of essentials such as food and medicine began in March and showed no signs of abating.
“Political stability is zero,” Abayagoonesekera said. “We have seen three cabinets in two months, and a fourth is on the way. Urgent change is needed to rebuild the country.”
Analysts say the crisis began around 2019. But for many Sri Lankans, the warning signs were clear as early as 2010, when Gotabai’s brother Rajapaksa Mahinda was re-elected president for a second term.
“It was a ticking time bomb,” Arudpragasam said of the Rajapka era. “The government gave huge cuts to the wealthy elite as well as corporations when they should have been raising taxes. Money that could be reinvested in the population was used to pay off debt – and none of this helped to eliminate many of the shortcomings. in our economy.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power at the end of 2019, having previously served only as an unelected Minister of Defense in his brother’s administration.
Critics say he mismanaged the economy, investing huge sums in the military while implementing drastic tax cuts despite warnings from the international community, causing government revenue to plummet.
“Rajapaksa did not listen to anyone’s advice, and he was supported by people who did not understand how an economy like ours should work,” Arudpragasam said. “(The government) refused to admit that the economy was in crisis until it was too late.”
According to her, urgent humanitarian assistance is now needed. “We are in a crisis situation where we cannot afford to choose.”
In 2020, the World Bank reclassified Sri Lanka as a lower middle income country amid a collapse in the currency and rising inflation.
“One of the best places in the world”
The crisis has shaken many in the international community who are remembering a different Sri Lanka.
“In many ways, Sri Lanka is a development success story,” said Philippe Le Houérou, former World Bank Vice President for South Asia. “It stands out as a lower-middle-income country in a region that has the world’s largest concentration of the poor.”
Since the end of the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, the country has entered a period of peace and stability. Trade flourished and foreign tourists returned to the country’s beaches, resorts and tea plantations.
Le Houérou emphasized Sri Lanka’s “impressive” post-war social achievements. “Economic growth has been robust and prosperity has been widespread,” he said, adding that life expectancy was also among the highest in the region.
“We had a strong agricultural base and one of the most exciting tourism industries in the world,” said author Abayagunasekera. “Due to the lack of proper governance, we have gone from a fragile state to a crisis state, and now to a failed one.”
But he added: “Sri Lanka has been one of the best places in the world and I believe that with the right directives and functioning institutions, it can be that place again.”
In a statement on Saturday, Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Beijing said the country was in talks with China for about $4 billion in bailouts.
The amount includes a $1 billion loan to repay existing Chinese loans, a $1.5 billion swap line, and a $1.5 billion loan to purchase goods from China, Ambassador Palita Kohona said.
“The IMF will not give us financial support without political stability, especially when the country is still at the cutting edge,” said researcher Sanjana Hattotuva. He added that although the protesters had achieved the initial goals of Rajapaksa’s resignation, the country now faced great uncertainty. “There is no easy solution to a broken economy,” he said. “But the first step will be a new government, and elections are needed.”
“It’s time for a change”
“Wikremesinghe was Rajapaksa’s candidate for prime minister, that’s the problem,” said author Abayagunasekera.
Others repeated the call for elections. “The protest movement is not slowing down and many Sri Lankans have realized the importance of their role as citizens in holding those in power to account,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, a human rights lawyer who once worked for the United Nations and the Commission on human rights. in Sri Lanka.
She also said that she does not rule out the return of Rajapak to power. “They may have abandoned the ship as it was sinking, but they are smart and have been in the political game for decades,” she said.
“But now there’s a window and it’s time for a change. The government should call elections sooner rather than later.”
Wickmenesinghe will remain acting president until a new president is elected by Parliament. A date for the vote has yet to be set, but according to the constitution, Wickremesinghe will be allowed a maximum of 30 days in office.
Parliament will accept nominations for a new president on Monday, the speaker said on Saturday.
Once elected, the new president will fulfill the remaining two years originally allotted for Rajapaksa’s term.
Parliamentary elections were last held in 2020 and presidential elections in 2019, a few months after the Easter church bombings. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won after a hard-fought battle against then ruling party candidate Sajit Premadasa.
Wickremesinghe’s appointment Wednesday did not sit well with protesters who broke into his office demanding he resign. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at the demonstrators, and a nationwide state of emergency was declared.
Sri Lanka’s ruling party confirmed on Friday that Wickremesinghe is its candidate for the presidency in the upcoming elections.
But Sri Lankans remain determined, analysts say, and want to see new people and faces in government. “In time, the acting president will be tasked with stabilizing the economy within a few months,” Abeyagoonesekera said. “But he will not be the leader chosen by the people, and this is an obstacle.”
“Lack of Responsibility”
The Rajapaksa drew much of their power from the “war heroes” status granted to them by the majority of the population after then-President Mahinda declared victory in 2009 in a 26-year civil war against the Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers rebels, a campaign controlled by then Defense Minister Gotabaya.
According to a 2011 United Nations report, Sri Lankan government forces are responsible for abuses including deliberate targeting of civilians, summary executions, rape, and blocking the delivery of food and medicine to affected communities. The UN report states that “A number of credible sources estimate that up to 40,000 civilians have died.”
The Rajapakas have always vehemently denied such allegations.
Satkunanathan, a human rights lawyer, said Sri Lanka’s next long-term leader must “tackle ingrained issues such as ethnic conflict, accountability for human rights abuses, and show commitment and integrity to restore public trust.”
“Because we simply cannot afford to slide back into a crisis like the one we are facing today,” she said.
Global human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also said that the UN mandate to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka should be maintained.
“Gothabaya Rajapaksa and the other accused should also be investigated and properly prosecuted,” said Elaine Pearson, acting director of HRW Asia.
She added that independent investigations and prosecutions of Sri Lanka’s mismanagement are also needed.
“There needs to be an investigation into the alleged corruption that has contributed to this crisis, including any attempts to hide assets abroad,” she said. “Foreign governments should investigate the assets and freeze them if appropriate.”
Pearson also reaffirmed the need for an election.
“The urgent priority is a peaceful transfer of power that respects rights and addresses the root causes of the political and economic crisis, which is ultimately associated with a lack of accountability, corruption and weakening of the institutions that were supposed to control power. ” she said.
“If a more stable government … cannot be put in place, there is a risk of a humanitarian crisis, as well as increased violence and repression.”