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Two men at the heart of the crisis in Sri Lanka

NEW DELHI – As the crisis in Sri Lanka reached a climax this weekend, two men at the center of the turmoil caused by the country’s economic collapse vowed to heed the call of tens of thousands of angry protesters and resign.

One is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the last of six members of the country’s most powerful family still clinging to power.

The other is Rajapaksa’s Prime Minister-elect, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned opposition politician who was brought in to lead the country out of the abyss.

Huge crowds descended on the capital Colombo on Saturday, storming Rajapaksa’s official residence and occupying his waterfront office. Hours later, as leaders of political parties in Parliament called for both leaders to step down, protesters also stormed Wickremesinghe’s residence and set it on fire.

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The culmination of months of protests on Saturday led to the two agreeing to step down. Rajapaksa, whose whereabouts are unknown, said he would leave his post on Wednesday, according to the parliament speaker. Wickremesinghe said he would leave as soon as the opposition parties agreed on a unity government.

Here’s a closer look at their rise and fall:

GOTTABAYA RAJAPAKSA

For decades, the powerful landowning Rajapaksa family dominated local politics in the rural south before Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005. Appealing to the nationalist sentiment of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority, he led Sri Lanka to a triumphant victory over ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, ending a brutal 26-year civil war that had divided the country. His younger brother Gotabaya was an influential official and military strategist in the Ministry of Defense.

Mahinda remained in office until 2015, when he lost to the opposition led by his former aide. But the family returned in 2019 when Gotabaya won the presidential election on a promise to restore security after the Easter Sunday terrorist suicide bombings that killed 290 people.

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He promised to bring back the muscular nationalism that made his family popular among the Buddhist majority and lead the country out of economic crisis with a message of stability and development.

Instead, he made a series of fatal mistakes that led to an unprecedented crisis.

As tourism collapsed after the bombings and foreign loans for controversial development projects – including a port and airport in the president’s home region – had to be repaid, Rajapaksa defied economic advisers and pushed through the biggest tax cuts in the country’s history. It was supposed to boost spending, but critics warned it would cut into government finances. Pandemic lockdowns and the ill-advised ban on chemical fertilizers are further hurting the fragile economy.

The country soon ran out of money and could not pay its huge debts. Shortages of food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine fueled public anger against what many saw as mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

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The family’s breakup began in April, when growing protests forced three of Rajapaksa’s relatives, including the finance minister, to quit their cabinet posts and another to quit as a minister. In May, government supporters attacked protesters in a wave of violence that left nine dead. Protesters’ anger turned to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was pressured to resign as prime minister and took refuge in a heavily fortified naval base.

But Gotabaya refused to go, prompting chants in the streets of “Gotha go home!” Instead, he saw his savior in Ranil Wickremesinghe.

RANIL WICKREMESINGE

A six-time prime minister, Wickremesinghe’s last stint was perhaps his most challenging. Appointed in May by Rajapaksa, he was brought in to help restore international confidence while his government negotiated a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund.

Wickremesinghe, who was also finance minister, became the public face of the crisis, delivering weekly addresses to parliament as he began tough negotiations with financial institutions, creditors and allies to fill the coffers and give some relief to impatient citizens.

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He raised taxes and promised to overhaul a government that increasingly concentrated power under the presidency, a model many say has led the country into crisis.

In his new job, he left little doubt about the difficult future. “The next few months will be the most difficult of our lives,” he told Sri Lankans in early June, a few weeks before he told parliament that the country had hit rock bottom. “Our economy has completely collapsed,” he said.

Ultimately, observers say, he lacked both the political clout and public support to get the job done. He was a one-man party in parliament – the only MP from his party to hold a seat after suffering a humiliating election defeat in 2020.

His reputation was already tarnished by his previous tenure as prime minister, when he was in a rocky power-sharing arrangement with then-president Maithripala Sirisena. The breakdown in communication between them was blamed for intelligence lapses that led to the 2019 terror attack.

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With no respite for people queuing for fuel, food and medicine, Wickremesinghe became increasingly unpopular. Many of the protesters say his appointment simply put pressure on Rajapaksa to resign. But analysts doubt whether a new leader can do much more, instead fearing that political uncertainty will only intensify the crisis.

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Find more of AP’s coverage of Sri Lanka at https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka

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Two men at the heart of the crisis in Sri Lanka

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