Colombo, Sri Lanka – Thousands of people demanding “total system change” have rallied in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers to quit politics amid a deepening economic crisis.
At the Galle Face Green on Colombo’s waterfront on Saturday, students, teachers, lawyers, actors and architects – many of whom said they were protesting for the first time – chanted “madman Gota” and “Go home Gota”, referring to the president’s nickname, as they gathered under a blistering sun.
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They waved the Sri Lankan flag and held up hand-written placards in Sinhalese and English that carried messages such as “No more corrupted politicians” and “Save Sri Lanka from the Rajapaksa family”.
“This is a do-or-die moment,” said 29-year-old Buddhi Karunatne, who works in advertising.
“For the first time, people of all kinds of political and social beliefs are coming together, with non-negotiable demands for the president to resign and hand over power to people who are capable of getting us out of this socioeconomic crisis.”
The display of anger marked a stunning reversal for Rajapaksa, 72, who won the presidency in 2019 by a big margin and whose party went on to secure a two-thirds majority in the parliament less than a year later. Those victories allowed Rajapaksa to appoint his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and amend the constitution to strengthen the president’s powers.
He also went on to hand three other Rajapaksa family members key positions in his cabinet, including the finance, agriculture and sports portfolios.
At the time, many voters said they believed Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa would boost security and bring stability to Sri Lanka following a spate of ISIL-inspired bombings that killed at least 250 people in 2019. That’s partly because the brothers had overseen the military defeat of Tamil separatists in 2009 after 26 years of bloody war. Mahinda was president at the time and Gotabaya the defence secretary.
But instead of improving things, the Rajapaksas “have proved incompetent and incapable of taking the right decisions”, said one protester at Saturday’s rally. “Gota simply can’t run a country,” said another. “He doesn’t have a brain to deal with this kind of crisis.”
‘No Rajapaksa should be there’
Sparked by a foreign exchange crunch, the economic downturn is Sri Lanka’s worst in decades. It has resulted in soaring inflation that has left the poor struggling to afford enough to eat and caused fuel shortages and hours-long power cuts that have threatened to close down businesses.
Protesters at the Galle Face Green blamed government mismanagement for the meltdown.
That included measures such as drastic tax cuts that depleted government revenues, as well as a delay in seeking help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) even as servicing Sri Lanka’s high foreign debt drained foreign exchange reserves. Over the past two years – as the COVID-19 pandemic decimated Sri Lanka’s key tourism sector – the country’s foreign reserves have plunged by more than 70 percent.
“What has Gota done in the last two years? He has done nothing,” said Buddadasa Galappaththi, 74, a writer. “We don’t want the Rajapaksas in the country’s management anymore. No Rajapaksa should be there.”
What has also rankled protesters is what they described as the Rajapaksa government’s refusal to listen to the public’s concerns. When people first began taking to the streets in early March, protesters said some in the government dismissed them as “terrorists” while other officials downplayed the severity of the crisis.
As protests spread in late March, the president responded by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a curfew. But amid widespread opposition, he was forced to rescind the measures within days.
Kumudguli Vikaramatantri, who was wearing a joker’s hat and banging on a tambourine, said the Rajapaksas had made people out to be fools. There must be “no more jokes”, the 32-year-old actor said, urging the country’s politicians to set up an interim government and also reverse the constitutional changes that concentrated power in the president’s hands.
Others said they were out protesting because of the Rajapaksas’ corruption.
“People are starving, while Rajapaksas and their allies live the good life,” said Shane Steelman, 26. “I came because I could not tolerate this injustice … People won’t stop until Gota goes home.”
One protester who carried a sign that said “Give us our stolen money back” also called for a freeze on the Rajapaksas’ assets.
“There are rumours that the Rajapaksa family owns more than $18bn in assets. This is three times the amount that is due in foreign debt this year,” said Tharindu Jayawardena, 32. “We want to change the whole system and hold the Rajapaksa regime accountable.”
Al Jazeera contacted a spokesman for the Rajapaksas for a response to the protesters’ allegations but he was not responding at the time of publication.
Despite the unprecedented protests, the government has insisted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not step down. Johnston Fernando, a ruling party legislator, told parliament on Wednesday that “the president will not resign under any circumstances” and that the government “will face” the current crisis.
And in a bid to placate the protesters, the president has dismissed his brother Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister, appointed a new central bank governor and also set up a new council to advise the government on IMF consultations.
But many at Saturday’s protest ridiculed the president’s actions.
Carrying a sign that said “Which part of go home do you not understand?”, Nituna Jayathunge said the Rajapaksas holding on to power “makes no sense”.
“When people are asking them to leave, they are refusing to do that. They insist the people who pulled the country down to this situation must be part of the solution,” said the teacher. “They are trying to hold on to power and they are trying to avoid the repercussions.”
Sandhun Thudhugala, an activist at the non-profit group Law and Society Trust, described the government responses as “arrogance”.
But he was sure the protesters would prevail.
“We’ve been waiting for all our lives for this moment, Sri Lankans coming together, from all sorts of walks of life to change something,” he said. “This is not just about sending Gota home, it is also about changing the system that put him there.”
He added, “Protests will only intensify.”