Unprecedented protests have gripped Sri Lanka, with huge crowds calling for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known as Gota. The recent economic crisis has hit the country hard, and anger against the government, which was overwhelmingly popular with the country’s Sinhalese majority ethnic community when it came to power in 2019, has spilled out onto the streets.
In response, the entire cabinet resigned, but Gota and his brother – former president, now Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – have so far held on.
With the demand of “Gota Go Home” unmet, protests are spreading rapidly across much of the country, despite a government-imposed state of emergency and a short-lived social media ban.
Yet the Tamil-majority northeast of the island, a region that has seen continuous protests in recent years, has been relatively quiet. Tamils undoubtedly want the Rajapaksas gone; their grievances against the ruling family, and the Sri Lankan state as a whole, run deep. But they have good reason to hesitate before joining this protest movement. They’ve seen Sinhalese frustration with the Rajapaksas coalesce and then evaporate before, and suffered the consequences of failed promises of reform. And many of them know from painful experience that the risks for them of turning out into the streets are far graver than for their Sinhalese countrymen.
The current crisis
Sri Lanka’s troubles seem never-ending. In the decades since its independence in 1948, the small island has seen ethnic pogroms against Tamils, leftist rebellions, a Tamil independence movement, genocide, anti-Muslim violence, coup attempts, and persistent economic problems.
The current economic crisis, a culmination of decades of economic mismanagement by successive governments, has hit all communities hard. Fuel shortages, electricity outages and price inflation on essential items have made life difficult. People across the island have to queue for hours to fill up their vehicles and buy gas for their stoves. School exams have been cancelled and some newspapers stopped printing – both due to a lack of paper. Hospitals are running low on essential medicine and have been forced to cancel surgeries.
Last week, visiting Indian foreign minister Subramaniam Jaishankar took to Twitter to ask the local Indian High Commission to support a local hospital after news of its struggles were tweeted – bypassing the government. All this has been highly embarrassing for the government, keen to show the world that it is a stable destination for tourism, a significant source of revenue that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Under the Rajapaksa presidency, nepotism became the order of the day – the Rajapaksa clan occupies several key positions in the government. The president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president between 2005 and 2015 and is now prime minister. In the recently dissolved cabinet, two other brothers, Basil and Chamal, and the prime minister’s son Namal were all ministers.
The family controlled 24 percent of the national budget – with nine ministerial roles and seven out of 30 available cabinet positions in their hands until this week. The Rajapaksas and their relatives live lavishly – social media posts frequently show them in fancy cars or on luxury holidays. All of this fuelled the outrage of many of their former partisans in the Sinhala-majority south, resulting in large-scale protests, attended by a cross-section of Sri Lanka’s diverse population.
But this is not the first time the Rajapaksas have faced pressure from their main constituency. In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency to a so-called “good governance” coalition, made up of former allies and opposition parties. He lost because many of his supporters had grown frustrated with corruption and nepotism, while Tamils continued to refuse to vote for a man they sought to have prosecuted at an international tribunal for overseeing mass atrocities during the war.
However, the short-lived “good-governance” government, supported by an over-enthusiastic West and a Colombo-centric civil society, failed to deliver on their promised reforms.
The 2019 Easter Bombings, in addition to that government’s mismanagement of the economy, with corruption and disputes plaguing the coalition, laid the foundation for a return of the Rajapaksas.
In 2019, Gota, running on a hardline Sinhala nationalist platform, won with an overwhelming majority among Sinhala voters, who bought into his chauvinist messaging on the back of the bombings, which sparked anti-Muslim violence in parts of the country. In 2020, Rajapaksa strengthened his presidential powers, weakening parliament and taking the country in an ever more autocratic direction, rejecting Tamil and international demands for justice, pardoning war criminals and establishing structures that allow him to govern without the oversight of parliament.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s economy, already underperforming as a consequence of the war and longstanding protectionist policies, continued to deteriorate. Since his election in 2019, Rajapaksa has only accelerated the economic decline with half-baked policies, including tax cuts and a ban on chemical fertilisers, which has severely impacted agricultural yield. Sri Lanka’s economy, characterised by a high debt-to-export ratio, a bulging public sector and low FDI, was already ripe for collapse. The pandemic’s impact on tourism and global supply chains, along with the outbreak of war in eastern Europe, were more than enough to send the country’s economy into freefall.
The Tamil perspective
What is new for the Sinhala population, however, has been experienced repeatedly by the Tamil population over the last four decades. Engineered economic hardship was part of the Sri Lankan state’s wartime strategy. Large parts of the Tamil areas were under a strict embargo during the war, with the government restricting fuel, medicine, sweets and even electronic toys. So while the current economic crisis is difficult for people across the island, for the Tamil people, a certain muscle memory has kicked in. People in the northeast have swiftly switched to kerosene lamps and bicycles, as they did during the war. And for them, straitened economic circumstances are hardly the worst of what they have experienced at the hands of the Rajapaksas.
The current protests, while harshly critical of the president, have failed to centre his most egregious crimes. While Gota was defence secretary, Sri Lankan troops executed bound Tamil fighters, committed sexual violence against captive female fighters and shelled civilians who were queueing for food. These acts left an indelible imprint on the Tamil psyche. The protest’s key slogan, “Gota Go Home”, for Tamils is not sufficient. They don’t want him to go home, they want him to go to The Hague, to stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
That Gota’s responsibility for mass atrocities is not playing a part in the protest movement is indicative of the deep-rooted problem in Sri Lanka, one that goes beyond the Rajapaksas. The country has failed to build an inclusive society due to successive governments’ (and their voters’) insistence on Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy, and the resultant ethnocratic nature of the state and its institutions as protectors of the Sinhalese community, at the expense of Tamils and Muslims. The current protest movement’s focus on the commonality of experience, while understandable, does little to reassure Tamils and Muslims that they are safe from ethnic scapegoating for the country’s economic woes, a tactic the state has historically used as a distraction during times of crisis, resulting in pogroms against these communities.
Yet for the first time since the war, the Sri Lankan state is turning its might against its own partisans and in their outrage, some Sinhala-Buddhists are drawing parallels to the abuses suffered by Tamils and Muslims at the hands of state forces, specifically to the atrocities committed against Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war. This presents the possibility of outreach to an audience that has long been resistant to hearing any criticism of the Sri Lankan state’s Sinhala-Buddhist nature. Gota indeed must go, but for the protest movement to succeed in its stated goal of a more just, stable, and prosperous island, so must the ethnocratic state.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.