Unprecedented protests have gripped Sri Lanka, with huge crowds demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known as Gota. The recent economic crisis has hit the country hard, and anger at the government, which was overwhelmingly popular with the country’s majority Sinhala ethnic community when it took power in 2019, has spilled into the streets.
The entire cabinet resigned in response, but Gota and his brother – former president turned Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – have stuck by so far.
With Gota Go Home’s demands not being met, protests have spread quickly across much of the country, despite the government-imposed state of emergency and a short-lived ban on social media.
But things have been relatively calm in the Tamil-majority region of the north-east of the island, a region that has seen sustained protests in recent years. The 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 have seen the Sinhalese’s frustration with the Rajapaksas pool and then evaporate, and suffered the consequences of failed promises of reform. And many of them know from painful experience that the risks for them to take to the streets are far greater than for their Sinhala compatriots.
The current crisis
Sri Lanka’s problems seem endless. In the decades since gaining independence in 1948, the small island has seen ethnic pogroms against Tamils, left-wing rebellions, a Tamil independence movement, genocide, anti-Muslim violence, attempted coups and ongoing economic problems.
The current economic crisis, a culmination of decades of economic mismanagement by successive governments, has hit all communities hard. Fuel shortages, power outages and price inflation on essential goods have made life difficult. People across the island have to queue for hours to refuel their vehicles and buy gas for their herds. School exams were canceled and some newspapers stopped printing – both due to paper shortages. Hospitals are running out of essential medicines and are being 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 his struggles was tweeted – bypassing the government. All of this was deeply embarrassing for the government, which wanted to show the world that it is a stable destination for tourism, a significant source of income that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Under the Rajapaksa presidency, nepotism became the order of the day – the Rajapaksa clan occupying several key positions in the government. The President’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa served as President from 2005 to 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 state budget – holding nine ministerial posts and seven out of 30 available cabinet posts in their hands as of this week. The Rajapaksas and their families live lavishly – social media posts often show them in fancy cars or on luxury vacations. All of this fueled the outrage of many of their former partisans in the majority Sinhala south, leading to large-scale protests involving a cross-section of Sri Lanka’s diverse population.
But this is not the first time the Rajapaksas have come under pressure from their key constituency. In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency to a so-called “good governance” coalition of former allies and opposition parties. He lost because many of his supporters were frustrated by corruption and nepotism, while Tamils continued to refuse to vote for a man they wanted to prosecute at an international tribunal for overseeing mass atrocities during the war.
However, the short-lived “good governance” government, backed by an overzealous West and a Colombo-centric civil society, failed to deliver on its promised reforms.
The Easter bombings of 2019, alongside the mismanagement of this government’s economy with corruption and strife that plagued the coalition, laid the groundwork for a return for the Rajapaksas.
In 2019, Gota, running on a stubborn Sinhala nationalist platform, won with an overwhelming majority among Sinhala voters who embraced his chauvinist messages surrounding the bombings that sparked anti-Muslim violence in parts of the country. In 2020, Rajapaksa strengthened his powers as President, weakened Parliament and led the country in an increasingly autocratic direction, rejecting Tamil and international calls for justice, pardoning war criminals and creating structures that allowed him to function without Parliamentary oversight govern.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s economy, already underperforming as a result of the war and years of 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 fertilizers, which have severely hurt agricultural yields. Sri Lanka’s economy, characterized by a high debt-to-exports ratio, a bulging public sector and low foreign direct investment, was already ripe for collapse. The impact of the pandemic on tourism and global supply chains, as well as the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe, were more than enough to send the country’s economy into free fall.
The Tamil perspective
However, what is new for the Sinhalese population has been experienced repeatedly by the Tamil population over the past four decades. Staged economic hardship was part of the Sri Lankan state’s war strategy. Large parts of Tamil areas were under a strict embargo during the war, with the government restricting fuel, medicines, sweets and even electronic toys. So while the current economic crisis is difficult for people across the island, some muscle memory has kicked in for Tamils. The people of the Northeast quickly switched to kerosene lamps and bicycles, as they did during the war. And for them, the strained economic circumstances are hardly the worst they have experienced at the hands of the Rajapaksas.
The current protests, which have harshly criticized the President, have failed to focus on his most egregious crimes. While Gota was Defense Minister, Sri Lankan troops executed tied up Tamil fighters, committed sexual violence against captured female fighters and fired on civilians queuing for food. These acts left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. The key slogan of the protest, “Gota Go Home” is not enough for the Tamils. 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 plays no role in the protest movement points to the deep-seated problem in Sri Lanka that goes beyond the Rajapaksas. The country has failed to build an inclusive society because of multiple governments (and their constituents)’ insistence on Sinhala Buddhist supremacy and the resulting ethnocratic nature of the state and its institutions as protectors of the Sinhala community at the expense of Tamils and Muslims. The current protest movement’s focus on sharing experiences, while understandable, does little to reassure Tamils and Muslims that they are safe from ethnic scapegoats for the country’s economic woes, a tactic the state has historically used as a Diversion has been used in times of crisis during pogroms against these communities.
But for the first time since the war, the Sri Lankan state is turning its power 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, particularly the atrocities against Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war. This offers an opportunity to reach audiences that have long resisted hearing criticism of the Sinhala Buddhist nature of the Sri Lankan state. Gota does have to go, but for the protest movement to achieve its stated goal of a fairer, more stable, and more prosperous island, so must the ethnocratic state.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.