The streets in front of Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office have been transformed into a protest camp, as citizens vent their anger over the worst economic crisis faced by the country since it declared independence in 1948.
Protests have been growing since Saturday, with hundreds camping out on the waterfront despite regular outbreaks of torrential downpours. The protesters’ demands have been boiled down to a simple slogan, now infamous on the streets of Colombo: “Go home, Gota”.
The protests are the largest the nation has ever seen, and come on the back of an economic crisis close to turning into a humanitarian disaster. The government cannot afford to import even basic supplies due to a lack of foreign reserves, and politicians have warned that many are at risk of starvation due to food shortages.
There is no doubt in the mind of the protesters who is to blame for the financial chaos facing the country. The Rajapaksas are a powerful family dynasty in Sri Lanka, and have been the dominant for in the nation’s politics over the past two decades. For those on the streets it is impossible to look past the family that has held the presidency for 13 of the past 17 years when looking for the culprits.
Prior to taking the presidency in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa built his reputation as leader of the military through the later stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, earning acclaim as the man who finally defeated the Tamil Tigers and ended the 26-year war in 2009.
Whilst he may have entered politics with his reputation on a high, the man known simply as “Gota” by most is widely acknowledged to be the source of the economic misfortunes now facing Sri Lanka. Controversial policies on tax and spending have seen the country’s economy unravel, whilst excessive printing of money has sent inflation spiraling.
Combined with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic (12.6% of Sri Lanka’s GDP came from tourism in 2019), the country has seen its status repeatedly downgraded and has been locked out of international markets as a result.
The Rajapaksa government stands accused of overseeing an entirely preventable crisis, with critics arguing that early policy reversals could have avoided a lot of the damage and many dismayed over the administration’s refusal to ask the IMF for support.
Despite the desperate backdrop there is a carnival feel to the protests at present, though how long that will last is unknown. Rajapaksa is known for his heavy repression of opposition to his leadership, and stands accused of human rights violations dating back to his time in the military. All attempts to investigate the accusations against him have been squashed.
Protesters are insistent they are in it for the long haul, and show no signs of compromising on their position. On Wednesday Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother and the country’s prime minister, saw a request to meet with protesters rebuffed. For those camped out on the Colombo waterfront the message is unwavering: “Go home, Gota”.