Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Gotabaya resigns | What’s next for Sri Lanka?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Gotabaya resigns | What’s next for Sri Lanka?

In this episode of Worldview with Suhasini Haidar, we focus on the recent protests in Colombo and discuss what is in store for Sri Lanka in the future.

 Let us get up to speed with all that happened- much of it on live cameras, in a country that saw change in its highest office through the power of people taking to the streets

– In the past week, those protests grew louder, and more violent. Despite much of the cabinet having stepped down as they demanded, crowds stormed the Presidential palace, burned down PM Ranil Wickremsinghe’s private home. The visuals were unprecedented for a country with high security and very heavy handed security forces…. as the protestors occupied the presidents rooms, the gym, even the swimming pool.

– On Monday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had tried to leave the country over the weekend but failed, flew to the Maldives- and after protests followed him there, took a commercial, Saudia flight to Singapore. The Singapore Foreign Ministry said he had been allowed entry as a visitor, not granted asylum. His brother former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa has not left the country, and is overseeing party strategy, but other members of the family are reportedly trying to leave as well.

– On Thursday, after missing several deadlines, Gotabaya finally resigned, nominating Wickremsinghe as the Acting President, pending an election in Parliament. The SLPP is still the largest party in parliament- and will be important in an all party government likely to follow.

– The Presidential election is expected in the next week- where Wickremsinghe, Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, as well as former Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, who could stand, are being seen three as main contendors.

-Talks with the IMF were disrupted by the protests, but Sri Lanka is now officially bankrupt and will need an IMF bailout, as well as bridge financing more desperately. Acting President Ranil Wickremsinghe, who negotiated the last bailout for Sri Lanka will be attempting to do this if he is given the reins of the country again. The question now – will protests finally end, and how is Sri Lanka going to tackle the economic crisis, and strict conditions the IMF is likely to impose?

Let’s go across to my colleague and The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent Meera Srinivasan 

Meera you have covered so many types of uncertainty and conflict in Sri Lanka, from post LTTE situation to ISIS terror, police crackdowns etc. How have the protests of the past few months and days been different? 

There have been several struggles that Sri Lanka has seen. Importantly, in 2021, just in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a massive rally that Tamils and Muslims took out from a town in Easternn province called Pothuvil to Polikandy in Jaffna calling it the P2P march, demanding for equality, justice and a political solution. But this is striking. The people’s struggle, as they call it, is striking in its unprecedented scale to start with. Of course the protests were centred in Colombo but also had manifestation in almost every district. There were pocket protests even before the three month long protest at the site. The protests were peaceful and it is not a monolith, so very diverse voices and demands. The fact that they could all converge in this one demand that Gota must go home and the shared economic distress and agony brought them together. It is unprecedented for many reasons and really striking in its scale, its creativity. The way they went about putting up a tent city, outside the President’s office. So many aspects of this struggle are something that the Sri Lankas have not seen before. There is also a bit of hope that this could become the starting point for conversations on several old questions and concerns.

From an economic crisis to political crisis, is Sri Lanka now headed for a constitutional crisis? And what could this mean in terms of security concerns?

Senior lawyers here have been putting out the explanation. I believe the Sri Lanka constitution has very clearly laid out the process should such a scenario arise, if a President’s office falls vacant. They say that the Prime Minister is the acting President for a very few days, which is what happened today. Ranil Wickremsinghe was sworn in as the Acting President. The parliament has to convene in not more than 3 days after the post falls vacant. We are told that the Parliament will meet on July 16 and then schedule this process. The speaker has assured the country that within 7 days Sri Lanka will have a new president. This includes nomination and vote in Parliament. The Parliament would have to vote the next President from among its members through a secret ballot. It is going to be quite fascinating and crucial because of the different manouvers that are already happening. As we know Gotabaya may have stepped down, but still the ruling party SLPP has a majority in the house. That is going to determine how the vote plays out when it happens in the course of the week.

Is this the end of the road for the Rajapaksas in SL? 

In a way this is a very emphatic message to the Rajapaksas. I do not see their electoral return possible in the foreseeable future. If you look at the celebrations on the streets, people making milk rice which is what Sinhalese has when Rajapaksas defeated the LTT in 2009. It is very symbolic that they are using the same kind of celebration to mark the exit of the Rajapaksas. That is the kind of anger and hate that we see now among people. In a way they started becoming unpopular duing Covid-19 pandemic.

MEA’s reaction:

India – Sri Lanka’s biggest neighbour has been remarkably reticent, even hesitant to speak, but MEA has issued 3 statements expressing solidarity with the People of Sri Lanka, not mentioning the leaders . And its reaction to all the high drama next door can be summed up as a 3-prong strategy

1. Empathy for the Sri Lankan people- this is more in terms of actions than words. Since the beginning of the crisis, India has been in talks with Sri Lanka on a range of measures- more than 3.8 billion dollars in supplies of food, fuel and medicine, lines of credit, currency swap arrangement, and the postponement of debt repayment. India also facilitated aid from Tamil Nadu to northern Sri Lankan areas.

2. A distancing from the Sri Lankan leadership- the relationship between the Modi government and Rajapaksas has always been a bit of a see-saw. Very close at times, and then distancing. Since March this year, we have seen the government steer clear of engagements with President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda, and any conversation has been behind the scenes. This was most notable during the past week, where the high commission issued a strong denial to reports India could give shelter or safe passage to Gotabaya or his brother former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, saying India is not facilitating their exit from Sri Lanka in any manner.

3. A low profile- New Delhi has taken pains to be seen as helpful but not interfering during Sri Lanka’s crisis, specifically denying reports twice that indicated Indian security forces could be pressed in for support. The lessons from several decades ago, where India was deeply unpopular for IPKF operations there still rankle, as well as the backlash to Indian help in Nepal and the government has made it clear that it does not want a big brother image.

But there’s no question everyone particularly in the neighbourhood is watching what happens next- as Sri Lanka’s economic distress, triggered by the Pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war, Populist moves and poor policy management have ejected the leadership from power.

Of course international interest has also been sparked by the idea of a President on the run from Protestors- Gotabaya didn’t resign until he was safely out of Sri Lanka- so as not to lose his immunity and escape possible imprisonment

– Reminding many of the Marcos run from Phillipines, or Ceaucescu, the last communist leader of Romania who escaped protestors but were executed by the military in the 1980s.

In the 1990s and 2000s – many Pakistani leaders escaped public anger by going abroad- Saudi and UK – General Musharraf went to UAE.

In 2011 the Arab spring saw Tunisian President Ben Ali flee to Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarak out of power,

and most recently we saw Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani flee the Taliban

– These are mainly leaders who left their countries. It must be remembered that politicians, regardless of the risks, prefer to to stay on and face the people’s wrath than stay in their own countries and deal with the consequences.

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