Why have Sri Lankans turned against their own government?

In recent weeks, protests have broken out in Sri Lanka, a South Asian nation, as the country’s economy remains on the brink of collapse. A lack of foreign reserves and crippling national debt have caused fuel and food shortages, which in turn have sparked demonstrations by frustrated residents.

More than 200 people have been injured as a result of clashes between government supporters and those calling for change, the BBC reported on Tuesday, and eight people are believed to have died, including a lawmaker. On Monday and Tuesday, arson attacks destroyed more than 50 homes of government officials.

Why are people protesting?

Demonstrators from the Popular Liberation Front, many carrying red flags, animate a massive protest of hundreds of people, with a white columned building in the background.

Protesters from the Popular Liberation Front protest against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on April 19 in the capital Colombo. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. A lack of foreign reserves has stalled imports of fuel, medicine and food. Since March, Sri Lankans have been forced to wait in long lines to buy essential items. Power outages soon followed, due to shortages of imported oil.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has blamed global problems, including the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for rising fuel costs.

However, the country had long been experiencing economic difficulties. Rajapaksa came to power in 2019, months after the Easter suicide bombings that killed 290 people. The attacks stunted the country’s tourism industry, which generated $4 billion in 2018. Rajapaksa told the population he would reverse the economic downturn, and days into his presidency he introduced a combination of sweeping tax cuts, said to be the largest in the country. history.

When did the protests start?

A protester in a pink shirt holds up a portrait of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Government supporters hold up the portrait of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at a rally outside his residence in Colombo on Monday. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

On March 31, protesters demanded the resignation of President Rajapaksa after trying to storm his house. On April 1, a state of emergency was declared in the capital, Colombo, and the city was placed under a curfew.

On April 2, another 36-hour curfew was imposed ahead of massive anti-government protests. All 26 government ministers resigned on April 3, as protests intensified in the capital. All cabinet government officials have resigned except the president and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, three other members of the powerful Rajapaksa family joined other lawmakers in resigning from their posts.

What has happened in the last days?

The protests turned deadly on Monday after five people, including a politician, were killed. Prime Minister Rajapaksa resigned in response, which failed to calm the protesters. Late at night, more than 50 homes linked to the ruling party were set on fire. The luxury holiday resort owned by the former prime minister was attacked, as was the home of former tourism minister Sanath Nishantha. A museum dedicated to the father of the Rajapaksa brothers was also burned down.

The next day, the government ordered soldiers to open fire on anyone causing “harm to life” or seen looting public property. A police statement said 38 houses and 47 vehicles had been burned across the country, Reuters reported. According to the BBC, the former prime minister has been transferred to a secure naval base.

A burned out blue bus leaned at a steep angle into the water from a dock.

A bus burned near the official residence of former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday, a day after protesters set it on fire. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, President Rajapaksa urged citizens to reject “racial and religious disharmony”, despite the fact that the protesters participating in the demonstrations are from all ethnicities and religions. Rajapaksa was defense minister in the last years of the country’s civil war, in which the Sinhalese majority defeated a minority rebel, the Tamil Tigers. After the war, which ended in 2009, he was accused of committing human rights violations by crushing the separatist group. He denied doing anything wrong.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington, DC, that he was concerned about the deployment of the military and about reports of violence against peaceful protesters. He called for a full investigation into anyone involved in the violence.

Cover Thumbnail Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

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