Sri Lanka’s President Is Girding Himself for the Long Haul

Despite two months of anti-government protests, Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t seem like a leader preparing to relinquish power.

By , a freelance journalist covering Sri Lankan affairs, and , a legal advisor and human rights activist from Sri Lanka.
University students speak with police during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
University students speak with police during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
University students speak with police during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 19. ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

Embattled Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party soundly defeated an urgent no-confidence vote against the government on Tuesday after rallying coalition support, but the leader still faces loud calls from the public to resign. Opposition leaders who moved to hold the vote after their constituents turned against the president could still bring the motion forward again—but the president and his powerful family appear to be girding themselves for the long haul, even as protesters continue to gather in the capital, Colombo.

Sri Lanka has now faced two months of nationwide anti-government protests, the country’s largest popular uprising since its independence. Severe food and fuel shortages have driven people into the streets, protesting what they see as years of mismanagement and corruption. (The ruling Rajapaksa family denies these allegations.) The president’s cabinet resigned in April. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother, who also served as president from 2005 to 2015—stepped down last week amid violence and fled the capital. However, protesters have said they won’t stand down until the Rajapaksa regime is out for good.

Anti-Rajapaksa sentiment has been building for months in Sri Lanka. Since late last year, polls have shown record numbers of disapproval for the government; in January, approval numbers dropped to just 10 percent. The once-popular president faces plummeting support even among the Sinhalese ethnic majority who make up the Rajapaksas’ traditional base. The anti-government protests that began in March represent a striking display of solidarity across ethnic groups—and a clear sign that the president has lost his mandate.

Embattled Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party soundly defeated an urgent no-confidence vote against the government on Tuesday after rallying coalition support, but the leader still faces loud calls from the public to resign. Opposition leaders who moved to hold the vote after their constituents turned against the president could still bring the motion forward again—but the president and his powerful family appear to be girding themselves for the long haul, even as protesters continue to gather in the capital, Colombo.

Sri Lanka has now faced two months of nationwide anti-government protests, the country’s largest popular uprising since its independence. Severe food and fuel shortages have driven people into the streets, protesting what they see as years of mismanagement and corruption. (The ruling Rajapaksa family denies these allegations.) The president’s cabinet resigned in April. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother, who also served as president from 2005 to 2015—stepped down last week amid violence and fled the capital. However, protesters have said they won’t stand down until the Rajapaksa regime is out for good.

Anti-Rajapaksa sentiment has been building for months in Sri Lanka. Since late last year, polls have shown record numbers of disapproval for the government; in January, approval numbers dropped to just 10 percent. The once-popular president faces plummeting support even among the Sinhalese ethnic majority who make up the Rajapaksas’ traditional base. The anti-government protests that began in March represent a striking display of solidarity across ethnic groups—and a clear sign that the president has lost his mandate.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa named political veteran Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister shortly after his brother resigned, but the appointment hasn’t changed protesters’ minds. Wickremesinghe served five previous terms as prime minister and enjoyed close ties with the Rajapaksa family for decades. His appointment has raised suspicions that he will prioritize the president’s political survival over the will of the people—something Gotabaya Rajapaksa may be banking on. Last Wednesday, the president delivered a last-minute address to the nation, his first official appearance in more than a month. He defiantly said he would not immediately resign but would instead enact reforms, and he promised to build a new cabinet “without any Rajapaksas.”

If Gotabaya Rajapaksa did accede to demands to resign, the prime minister would act as president until Parliament could elect a new leader. But Sri Lanka can’t afford to buy emergency supplies of fuel, let alone hold a national election. Last week, Gotabaya gave police the power to arrest protesters without a warrant; Mahinda Rajapaksa, having narrowly escaped an attack on his compound in the capital, is holed up at a secure military base in the northeast. Neither the president nor his brother seem like they are preparing for the family to relinquish power.

The Rajapaksas have more at stake than simply staying in power and retaining their wealth. There are also allegations of war crimes dating to at least 2005 that could follow them. The most egregious of the allegations stems from 2009, during the final phase of the Sri Lankan government’s civil war against the Tamil Tigers insurgency, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president and Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as his defense minister. U.N. experts say that as many as 40,000 civilians in the country’s northeast died during the last months of the war. Witness interviews and U.N. reports during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as defense minister said the military bombed government-declared no-fire zones and civilian hospitals. (Gotabaya Rajapaksa denies these allegations, but in a past interview, he admitted that he did not consider a hospital off limits during the civil war.)

Both Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa have so far used their power to thwart probes into the charges, including those related to the shelling of civilian hospitals, the execution of surrendered fighters, and other extrajudicial killings. The Rajapaksas have never cooperated with any official investigation within Sri Lanka, and both leaders have been shielded from justice abroad through so-called head of state immunity. In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced two civil lawsuits in California that accused him of involvement in the killing of a journalist and the torture of a Tamil civilian. Months later, he won the presidency. To prevent a case against the Rajapaksas from moving forward, Gotabaya Rajapaksa—or a close ally—hopes to hang on to office.

To do that, the president has two undemocratic options: keeping power through force or by changing the rules. Last week, it seemed like he might choose the first, with some sources in Colombo expecting him to declare martial law. Instead, Gotabaya Rajapaksa used last Wednesday’s speech to offer the country half measures. Rather than step down immediately to appease protesters, he announced his intentions to rid his regime of corruption, amend the constitution to abolish the president’s absolute powers, and resign when he is satisfied that Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has passed.

Opposition leaders have dismissed these promises as an effort to stall for time, noting that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has repeatedly refused to give a timetable for amending the constitution or his exit. Less than a week after the speech, the government cracked down on critics with police raids. Furthermore, the president’s stated plan has a fatal flaw: He said he will quit after the economic crisis abates, but the economic crisis cannot be solved until he steps down. “[Opposition members of Parliament] tell him that … the most proximate and immediate cause for the collapse of the economy was the president’s actions,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a lawmaker who represents the northern city of Jaffna.

To critics, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s selection of Wickremesinghe as prime minister confirmed that he has opted to retain power via “corrupt” means. If he was going to refuse to leave, he needed to strike a deal. Although a member of the political opposition, Wickremesinghe is unpopular, and his appointment has ignited speculation among other lawmakers about unsavory dealings behind closed doors. Weeks ago, Wickremesinghe said he would support a no-confidence vote against the president. But by last week, the two had begun a campaign to persuade opposition members of Parliament to side with the government.

It was Wickremesinghe’s protection that allowed the Rajapaksas to evade investigations the last time they lost power, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, and he could serve that role again. Tuesday’s result confirmed the view of many in the capital that Wickremesinghe was brought on board to help Gotabaya Rajapaksa remain in office against protesters’ demands. And as Sri Lanka’s economic catastrophe continues, so will the demonstrations—ensuring the political crisis isn’t over yet either.

Virginia Jeffries is a freelance journalist covering Sri Lankan affairs. Twitter: @virginiajeffr

Laxmanan Sanjeev is a legal advisor and human rights activist from Sri Lanka, working with the United Nations Human Rights Council on human rights, transitional justice, and refugee affairs in South Asian countries. He is an alumnus of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

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