During his time in office, the elder Rajapaksa went on a borrowing spree mainly for vanity infrastructure projects funded by the Export-Import Bank of China and most built in or in the vicinity of his hometown of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. These include an international airport at Mattala, a huge cricket stadium, an international convention center, a port facility and a hospital which was recently the subject of an investigative documentary by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All are white elephants that generate no income but have the government scrambling to pay off loans obtained to build them.
The ports, shipping and aviation minister Nimal Siripala de Silva recently stated that Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which hardly has any air traffic, is losing 100 million rupees (US$275,000) a month. This is in addition to the cost of servicing the related US$ 210 million loan that the country must pay Chinese banks. According to reports, nearly 2000 acres of forested land had been cleared to build the airport, displacing wildlife including elephants.
Since it was built, the cricket stadium has hardly hosted any international tournament which usually brings in good revenue. The harbor has barely any traffic and the convention center has hosted few conferences. In Colombo, the government borrowed US$514 million to build a tower, which is topped with a lotus bud, the symbol of the Rajapaksa-dominated SLPP.
The fuel, food and medicine shortages have galvanized the citizens into action, with even the normally apolitical and people of all income levels demanding that Gotabaya Rajapaksa step down. While decisions and actions of previous governments have contributed to the current catastrophe, people have placed most of the blame for the country going bankrupt on the mismanagement over the past two years under Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Farmers were first to launch protests, burning effigies of the president and government ministers. They understood that their livelihoods were under threat without the fertilizers needed to grow their crops and bolster yields. The dissent gathered momentum, with small groups protesting at street corners and ultimately congregating outside the presidential secretariat on seaside Galle Face Green in Colombo in late March.
Angry members of the public have defied emergency orders and a curfew imposed by the government to deter them. Those unable to reach site of the demonstrations stood outside their homes or at street corners calling on the Rajapaksa family to step down – “Gota Go Home” has been the constant cry from occupants of the “GotaGo gama” or village erected mostly by young people opposite the president’s office.
The protests have the blessing and backing of civil society groups and several members of the clergy. While the main opposition political parties have given their tacit support, they have so far refrained from participating in any organized protests or events.
This has turned into Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the popular protests that have erupted across Asia including in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar, with Galle Face comparable to the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Similar encampments have sprung up in provincial capitals around the island and Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been forced to hole up in the presidential palace, about a kilometer from his office.
The protestors want the Rajapaksa family to leave office and to be investigated for alleged bribery and corruption. They are also pushing for “system change”, an end to the untold privileges enjoyed by the financially and politically powerful and the corrupt system that political patronage has fostered.
His authority challenged, President Rajapaksa has admitted making mistakes – the decision to enforce organic farming was one of them, he said. Hoping to appease the public, he had elder brother Mahinda step down as Prime Minister. Yet, Gotabaya, 73, stubbornly clings to office, claiming he wants to serve his full five-year term. “I can’t go as a failed President,” he declared in an interview with Bloomberg on June 6.
After his brother stepped down as prime minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa introduced some cosmetic changes. Ignoring calls from political parties, civil society groups and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka to form an all-party interim government that could work on stabilizing the country, he installed Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician, as prime minister. Wickremesinghe, also 73, has served as PM several times before, stretching back to 1993. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, which had alienated several countries by ill-informed decisions to spurn funding for projects such as a light railway from Japan, hope Wickremesinghe can repair the damage and help raise the millions of dollars needed to restore the economy.