Sri Lankan cabinet resigns as protesters defy government curfew

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s cabinet resigned en masse on Sunday amid street protests and a severe economic crisis, the outgoing hea...


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s cabinet resigned en masse on Sunday amid street protests and a severe economic crisis, the outgoing health minister said, leading to a leadership vacuum in a largely controlled country. by the powerful family of its president.

All cabinet members except President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister and former president, have resigned.

The ministers “have made a collective decision to step down”, said outgoing health minister Keheliya Rambukwella.

The midnight quits came as protesters took to the streets of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, and its suburbs, as well as a university in the central city of Kandy. Guided by a crushing economic crisis which led to food and energy shortages, protesters defied the state of emergency and risked arrest for taking part in the protests.

Such protests would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. Mr. Rajapaksa and his family have ruled the country largely out of fear, based on accusations of wartime atrocities they carried out during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.

The Sri Lankan president has the power to appoint new cabinet members, and a high-level meeting was underway in the early hours of Monday morning.

Among the 26 outgoing cabinet members were two close to the president: his brother Basil Rajapaksa, the much-criticized finance minister; and Namal Rajapaksa, his nephew and son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The young Rajapaksa was widely seen as the heir apparent to the family’s dynastic politics, but he struggled to distance himself from the perceived failures of his father and uncles. It was unclear how his departure would affect his political future.

“The fear factor definitely doesn’t work the way it used to,” said Alan Keenan, Sri Lankan consultant to the International Crisis Group, “although repression remains an option. Sri Lanka is not off the hook.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who served as Sri Lanka’s prime minister after Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in 2015 and until Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019, told reporters that Sri Lanka was having its own “Arab Spring”.

In the middle-class suburb of Rajagiriya, protesters defied a ban on public gatherings, protesting quietly to avoid provoking the security services and holding up signs reading “Enough” and “Go home, Gota”, in reference to the nickname of the president. Some sang the national anthem of Sri Lanka, while others held hands with their children or waved the country’s flag.

“Regardless of this emergency they have imposed, we are holding a silent meeting here to show that we know our constitutional rights,” said Uttunga Jayawardana, 31, a logistics company owner, who was taking part in the protest.

Troops armed with rifles and police stationed at checkpoints deterred a planned large march through Colombo. Yet more than 100 people followed the opposition politicians to the house of opposition leader Sajith Premadasa. They were stopped at barricades near Independence Square, a regular gathering place for protesters in the center of the city.

Mr Rajapaksa had declared a 36-hour state of emergency on Saturday in the hope of stemming protests. The government also blocked access to social media, a move that sparked a rare show of dissent within the Rajapaksa family, who affixed his name to the Sri Lankan government. Namal Rajapaksa, the outgoing sports minister, used a virtual private network, or VPN, to note on twitter earlier today that the ban was “completely unnecessary”.

The government’s ban on protests in Sri Lanka inspired one in London, where around 300 people marched past the Sri Lankan embassy carrying placards accusing President Rajapaksa of being a thief.

“There is no electricity, no jobs, no food, no fuel. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. We need to get back what the government stole from us,” said Shirani Fernando, one of the London protesters.

Government-imposed restrictions on internet access and public travel followed Thursday’s protest that involved thousands of people outside Mr Rajapaksa’s residence in suburban Colombo, an initially peaceful protest that turned violent when security forces deployed tear gas and water cannons, according to local media.

Protesters responded by throwing stones and burning buses used by security forces. Two dozen police officers were injured. More than 50 people were taken into custody, including eight journalists, a government spokesman said on Friday.

Shortly after the arrests, some of those detained claimed to have been tortured. In a show of support for the protesters, around 300 lawyers volunteered to represent detainees free of charge.

Leaflets distributed by protest organizers over the weekend urged people to defy the curfew and demonstrate as planned on Sunday. On Saturday, police allowed some demonstrations, despite the emergency order.

Protesters say they are angry and frustrated with declining living standards in Sri Lanka as the country faces a severe economic crisis, marked by power cuts that have lasted up to 13 hours a day.

Sri Lanka’s economy, which depends on tourism, was hit hard after the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, which killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels. After Mr Rajapaksa won the November election, he introduced a sweeping tax cut, and the coronavirus pandemic that soon followed put pressure on the currency, the Sri Lankan rupee.

The central bank has decided to peg the rupee to the dollar, rather than continuing to let it float. Analysts say this has created a parallel black market and arbitrage opportunities that have driven down the value of Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt. At the same time, the country’s foreign exchange reserves have plummeted to dangerous levels, making it difficult to buy essential imports, including medicine, gas and fuel.

Allies of Mr Rajapaksa, whose family dominated Sri Lankan politics for many years, rebelled. Several political parties in his ruling coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, demanded that he appoint an interim government made up of the 11 parties represented in the legislature.

Sri Lanka’s Freedom Party said at a meeting on Friday that it would abandon the ruling coalition, said Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, a senior member of the party, unless the government takes action to ‘soften the crisis economic, after which an election must be called”. .”

How Mr Rajapaksa responds to public protests in defiance of his emergency order will be closely watched to gauge how much, or how much, he has changed since his family took power.

Mr Rajapksa was defense secretary and his brother Mahinda was president during the brutal final stage of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. The Rajapaksas have been widely credited with ending the war. But they have also been accused by victims supported by United Nations investigations into war crimes and other abuses.

The family had held power for a decade, until 2015 when they were removed from office. Their final years in government were marked by frequent kidnappings of opponents, often crammed into white vans, never to be seen again.

After the devastating Easter terror attacks, security issues were brought to the forefront of public consciousness, creating an opening in elections for Mr Rajapaksa and his family to return to power.

In Rajagiriya, protesters said what they expected most from Rajapaksas was the humility to acknowledge their missteps.

“They have to take to the streets and say, ‘We made some bad decisions, but we hear you, we feel you. Let’s get together and fix this problem. They don’t do that. They are showing a strong hand and suppressing the people,” said Mr. Jayawardana, the protester.

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Emilie Schmall from New Delhi. Aanya Wipulasena contributed from London.



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