Sri Lanka’s new president is already cracking down on protests

Ranil Wickremesinghe is the interim president of Sri Lanka per a parliamentary vote, after an unprecedented popular protest brought down former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration. But while naming an interim president may help the country manage some of its staggering debt, it’s unlikely to bring about the kinds of change protestors demand.

Gotabaya appointed Wickremesinghe prime minister in May after his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the post during the protests. Now, Wickremesinghe — who served as prime minister five previous times and was also finance minister during his most recent term — will serve as president until the country holds a popular vote in 2024.

Wickremesinghe’s closeness with the Rajapaksa clan — Gotabaya and Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015; their brother Basil, the former finance minister; their brother Chamal, who has held multiple posts; and Mahinda’s son Namal, who served as sports minister under Gotabaya — has made him unpopular with protesters.

That’s with good reason; on Friday, just two days after Wickremesinghe secured the presidency, police and security forces conducted a violent, pre-dawn raid on the main protest encampment in Galle Face, as Amnesty International reported.

According to the report, the police, special forces, and military staged “a massive joint operation” on the GotaGoGama camp at the Presidential Secretariat the office of the President of Sri Lanka. Protesters have been staying in tents there since April and were due to vacate parts of the encampment Friday; however, around 1:00 am local time, security forces descended on the camp with no warning, after having blocked off the encampment’s egresses.

“There were about 200-300 demonstrators at that time, I would say,” one eyewitness told Amnesty. “Suddenly [the forces] came out from [behind] the barricades and totally destroyed and broke down the tents. There were enough police and military to swamp the area. The police and especially the army beat up peaceful protesters.”

Amnesty reported at least 50 injured and nine arrested, although activist and attorney Swasthika Arulingam, who’s been involved in the protests in Colombo since March, told Vox that only eight were arrested, all of whom had been bailed out as of noon Eastern time Saturday.

“We need to reorganize the struggle,” Arulingam told Vox. “People are shaken.”

Though protesters achieved the unthinkable — getting the Rajapaksas out of leadership despite nearly two decades in power — concerns remain about Wickremesinghe’s ties to the previous administration.

Financial stability requires political stability

Wickremesinghe is a longtime political actor who’s held many positions in Sri Lanka’s government. Although he is the head of the United National Party (UNP), the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) backed him in the parliamentary election to secure his position as the interim president of Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe’s main priority as president is — or should be — helping the country refinance its massive, unsustainable debt and secure loans from the International Monetary Fund, as well as implementing crucial economic reforms to ensure that the economy remains stable in the decades to come. “These are reforms Sri Lanka has been talking about for decades, has been unable to execute, but will have to be now implemented,” Constantino Xavier, a fellow with the Foreign Policy and Security at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi and a nonresident fellow with the India Project at the Brookings Institution told Brookings podcast The Current on Friday. “Reforms in terms of the labor sector, in terms of the public sector companies that still have monopolies in various sectors, from the energy [to] the port sector in Sri Lanka.”

Wickremesinghe, Xavier said, is “the only individual that has emerged as satisfying different actors” including the IMF and Sri Lanka’s Western creditors who are critical to helping Sri Lanka refinance its debt. “Ranil Wickremesinghe is generally seen as a technocrat that is quite popular in particular with the Western countries that play an influential role here,” Xavier said, although he acknowledged that Wickremesinghe is deeply unpopular with protesters.

Despite his unpopularity, though, Sri Lanka needs a measure of political stability to continue negotiations with the IMF, the previous session of which concluded in late June, while Gotabaya was still in charge. “I think getting a president in place means you restart the process right away; I think that will be top of the list,” Tamanna Salikuddin, director of South Asia programs at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox in an interview last week.

On Monday, before he was elected interim president and just after he declared a state of emergency, Wickremesinghe announced that IMF talks were near their conclusion and that “discussions for assistance with foreign countries were also progressing,” Reuters reported last week, quoting a press release from Wickremesinghe’s office.

The protest movement started over disastrous financial policy under the Rajapaksas, built on the back of their rapacious consolidation of power and dismantling of democratic institutions, as Xavier explained on Friday’s podcast. “They have centralized power politically that has come with some benefits: obviously, that the country has been led with a strong, for some people, authoritarian streak and very decisive governance, but at the same time also the weakening of critical institution like the Central Bank of Sri Lanka,” he told The Current host Adrianna Pitta. “So therefore when you are progressively over 10, 20 years weakening those governance structures, and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka I mentioned […] because it is really the heart of the financial crisis of the country that has taken on loans without much scrutiny on the sustainability of refinancing mechanisms.”

Though tackling the approximately $51 billion in debt that Sri Lanka owes is the first priority for its government, looking forward it’s not clear how Sri Lanka can build a sustainable economy when its tourism industry is decimated due to Covid 19, and its agriculture sector due to failed policies.

“There’s been one body blow after another,” Salikuddin said, referring not only to Covid-19, but also a 2019 series of bombings at churches celebrating Easter and Russia’s war on Ukraine. “Now, with the collapse, you have countries all over the world issuing safety travel notices, so I don’t see tourism coming back any time, at the same rates that they’re hoping for.”

Will the Rajapaksas face justice?

Despite the turmoil Sri Lankans have endured under Gotabaya and his family— chiefly the lack of medicine, basic food supplies, and fuel as well as a disastrous ban on importing chemical fertilizers, which decimated Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector — the Rajapaksas and their cronies might never be held to account.

They have thus far evaded culpability for alleged human rights abuses during the end of the 30-year-long civil war between ethnic Tamil militants fighting for a homeland in the north of Sri Lanka, and the country’s Sinhalese majority. Mahinda was president in 2009 when the war ended, and Gotabaya was his defense minister; during his time in that role, in the final months of the war, according to a UN panel report, the Sri Lankan military was alleged to have committed atrocities including sexual violence, forced disappearances and killing of Tamil civilians, claims that the Sri Lankan government denied at the time.

“I think it’s really interesting to think how the Rajapaksas came to power,” Salikuddin told Vox. “They crushed — with a lot of allegations of human rights violations and war crimes — crushed the Tamils, and that led them to power on this Sinhalese nationalism, Buddhist nationalism wave. So they could tell the majority Buddhist nationalists, ‘Look, we ended this 30-year civil war. We won.’ And the Sinhalese, Buddhist nationalists were ok looking the other way.”

However, for Tamil and other sidelined minorities, “I think the wounds are still existent,” Salikuddin told Vox. “There’s never been any truth and reconciliation, there’s never been any [addressing] of all the missing persons, or of the war crimes of the Rajapaksas.”

As of now, Gotabaya is in Singapore, but only on a temporary basis. Thus far, he hasn’t asked for or been granted asylum, the Straits Times reports; thus it’s unclear how long he plans to stay.

Mahinda and his son Namal, the former sports minister whom Bloomberg reports is being groomed for a future in political leadership, will not leave Sri Lanka, an unnamed aide told Al Jazeera last week. Meanwhile Basil, the former finance minister and the brother of Mahinda and Gotabaya, was reportedly turned back at the airport by officials, according to Bloomberg.

In the immediate term, though the protests have been significant, sustained, and have brought about some victories, “much of what we’ve seen in terms of the protests in Colombo and international media is actually a very urban progressive elite that is on the streets, that is asking for a fundamental reset of the country,” Xavier said, adding that “the majority of the Sri Lankan electorate, I would risk, is still behind the Rajapaksas. This is the conservative, rural, southern vote of the majority ethnic group called the Sinhala group. So therefore, no solution in Sri Lanka can happen without that popular support, particularly when the very painful reforms period will begin in a few months.”

Furthermore, the fact that crackdowns have already begun two days into Wickremesinghe’s tenure, despite the fact that the protests have been largely peaceful, doesn’t bode well for the future. When asked if she thought the Rajapaksa dynasty would face justice for the downfall of the Sri Lankan economy, Arulingam said, “Not anytime soon.”

Correction, 8:20 pm: Ranil Wickremesinghe is the head of the United National Party, not the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. A previous version of this article misstated his political affiliation.

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