President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Freezing as Protests Escalate in Sri Lanka

  • The Sri Lankan President is facing increased pressure to resign as economic crisis deepens. 
  • The crisis is brought on by Gotabaya’s failing government and exacerbated by global affairs. 
  • The results reveal shifting dynamics as regional powers vie for influence. 

Why is Gotabaya’s heat level Freezing? 

Answer: As the Sri Lankan people grow disillusioned, Gotabaya is met with a freezing pressure to resign. 

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is losing heat daily, as protesters in Colombo demand his resignation amidst the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. As inflation rises and power cuts ravage the nation, the populace look to their government as those responsible, and opposition leaders have called for the complete resignation of the existing government. 

Former Minister of Defence, President Gotabaya assumed office in 2019 with a broad nationalist rhetoric and promises of unifying Sri Lanka with sustainable development and strengthening national security. However, the President’s career has just as much been punctuated by accusations of human rights violations, the threatening of journalists that question the military and corruption. 

The President’s reputation as a stern leader and his inability to govern has manifested into condemnation and as the Sri Lankan economy dwindles, so too does its populace’s tolerance. The cabinet has resigned en masse, leaving only the President and his brother, the Prime Minister in office. In an economic crisis that spells danger for the country and its leaders, Gotabaya is freezing up, with no sign of recovery. 

What is changing Gotabaya’s heat level? 

Answer: The deepening economic crisis has numerous causes, leaving Gotabaya with fewer options. 

The public demand for President Rajapaksa’s resignation is fuelled by Sri Lanka’s worsening situation; a multifaceted economic decline engendered by domestic mismanagement and exacerbated by international crises. The situation is bleak; Sri Lanka has depleted its foreign exchange reserves and can no longer afford fuel imports, with the Sri Lankan rupee now sitting as the worst-performing currency in the world. 

The international crises are self-evident, both Covid-19 and the Ukrainian invasion have devastated the Sri Lankan economy. The crisis is an exponentially worsening situation, as the number of international visitors declines, so too does the economy, and vice versa.

The island is heavily dependent on tourism, a sector that has rapidly declined over the last few years. Even before the pandemic, which brought on a 70% drop in tourism revenue, the sector saw disruption following the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, losing $1.5bn that year, and has since seen little respite. 

In another example of international dissension’s far-reaching consequences, President Gotabaya is also suffering from the invasion of Ukraine. A major part of the leader’s recovery plan hinged on the attraction of tourists to reinvigorate the sector, two of the target countries for which were Russia and Ukraine. Equally, disruption to trade has been another outcome; Russia is the second-largest importer of Sri Lankan tea, the island’s principal export, and since the invasion, an income stream that has seen significant losses. These developments, compounded with increasing global oil prices, have left Gotabaya little room to breathe.

Whilst blame for these international crises can hardly be placed at Gotabaya’s feet, the opposition has criticised the President for his government’s irresponsibility that has aggravated the situation. 

Such criticisms include those of ‘poorly timed tax cuts’ that have induced the severity of the crisis. In 2019, Gotabaya cut the 15% VAT in half to alleviate financial pressure. The result, however, was huge economic loss in a time when obligations were high and only made worse by the pandemic. 

Following this, the Central Bank began to print more money, in another criticised attempt to solve financial woes. This move saw inflation soar, hitting a record high of 17.5% in February. These cascading errors have heightened the crisis, and as such Gotabaya is facing increased pressure to resign. 

As international actors in China and India step up to aid a leader who can no longer govern alone, Sri Lanka is in danger of succumbing to international dependence; owing far more than it can afford to other nations will leave Gotabaya at the mercy of leaders like Xi Jinping, and already there are increasing fears for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

China is often cited as a cause for the nation’s issues. As of yet, Xi Jinping has not granted any concessions to Gotabaya, and the Chinese strategic trap’ Sri Lanka finds itself in is only exacerbated by the current climate, but should the President’s requests be granted, increased dependence on China is inevitable.

A blizzard of disruptions in Sri Lankan trade and tourism have frozen President Gotabaya’s plans for recovery in place, with Sri Lanka’s defaulting on debt repayments beginning.

What is driving Gotabaya? 

Answer: In a situation beyond the leader’s control, Gotabaya is looking to his neighbours for relief. 

President Gotabaya is driven by a desire to stabilise Sri Lanka, meaning the curbing of protests and securing of the country’s fuel prices and supply, the latter of which explains soaring prices for medicine and food. Following the demonstrations, Gotabaya released a statement condemning an ‘extremist group’ for inciting riots, deploying security forces across the capital. Evidently, President Gotabaya is desperate to cling to his position, while reaching out for any form of international aid. 

The President has attempted to reach out internationally to improve the state of the economy, with varying success. Agreements with New Delhi for a $2bn line of credit have been made by Prime Minister Modi and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa  (another brother of the criticised democratic dynasty). Gotabaya is also seeking a further $2.5bn from Xi Jinping and the restructuring of debt repayments. 

Initially, Gotabaya’s government refused to negotiate with the IMF, unprepared to make the requisite economic reforms; the coalition partners would not compromise on structural adjustments or the reduction of subsidies.

As the crisis has deepened, however, the President and his administration have reconsidered, announcing an arrangement that aims to cut the country’s trade deficit

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Sri Lankan crisis promises strategic gains for whoever steps in to help Gotabaya.

President Gotabaya’s need for international aid opens doors for neighbouring countries to gain an influential foothold in the region. 

India’s Modi and China’s Xi Jinping are key players here, and the former will see this crisis as an opportunity to wrest Sri Lanka away from the latter’s influence on the island, diminishing Gotabaya’s international temperature. From the aforementioned Indian lines of credit afforded to Sri Lanka, Modi aims to mitigate Xi Jinping’s control in the region, and these efforts are already manifesting results; India recently won contracts for power plants on Sri Lanka’s northern islands, a project originally designated to China. However, while India shares a maritime border with Sri Lanka, this does little to weaken Chinese influence as relations between the two became more strained over the course of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (the current PM, and Gotabaya’s brother) presidency.

 Sri Lanka adopted the Chinese model of infrastructure-led development in the early 2000s, an important first step to increased Chinese influence. Earlier this year, China seized a Sri Lankan port as the island could not meet one of its many debt repayments. These strategic ports are fundamental for the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI), and Xi Jinping has invested billions in the nation to better exert its influence. 

The question of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka is not to be overlooked, and the incorporation of the island into Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road directly advances his interests in terms of international economic interconnectivity. The motivation of these goals have been questioned by other superpowers, and the U.S. has expressed opposition to Chinese expansion. 

Up to now, China has been unable to exert complete authority in Sri Lanka due to its proximity to India, but the current economic crisis provides the opportunity to realise Chinese ambitions to encircle nations like Sri Lanka, creating a more regular presence in the region. This presence is particularly worrying for Modi; having one of the largest global superpowers in your backyard is of course a cause for concern, but there are also interests at play that go beyond neighbourly relations. Since the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or Quad in 2007, a key goal of member nations has been to maintain Western interests and influence in the region, combating the rise of China. The opportunity for Xi Jinping to capitalise on the Sri Lankan crisis poses a threat to this, and will be another consideration for the Indian Prime Minister.

President Gotabaya, without a cabinet, pressured by his people’s disdain, is also freezing internationally, now at the mercy of giants around him. Whether he will retain his presidency is yet to be seen, but what is clear is that the leader is scrambling to find allies, desperately searching for any port in a storm. 

Ross Hardy

R&A Alumno