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Explainer: What has led to the violence and protests in Sri Lanka?

SINGAPORE — Sri Lanka has been in a state of chaos since Monday (May 9), after government supporters attacked unarmed protestors calling for the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, as the nation battles its worst economic crisis in decades. 

Explainer: What has led to the violence and protests in Sri Lanka?
Protesting Sri Lankan university students, demanding the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, clash with police officers near parliament in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo on May 4, 2022.
  • Sri Lanka has been in a state of chaos since Monday, after thousands of government supporters attacked unarmed protestors in Colombo 
  • At least nine people have been killed and about 200 injured
  • Protestors, angry over the handling of an economic crisis afflicting the nation, were calling for the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa
  • Sri Lankans have been suffering from months of power cuts and shortages of essentials such as fuel and cooking gas
  • Factors such as the loss of vital tourism income have contributed to the crisis, the nation's worst since independence in 1948

SINGAPORE — Sri Lanka has been in a state of chaos since Monday (May 9), after government supporters attacked unarmed protestors calling for the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, as the nation battles its worst economic crisis in decades. 

The bloody violence led to the resignation on Monday of Mr Rajapaksa's brother, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, the less powerful of the siblings, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly two decades. But for now, his younger brother is refusing to step down.

Since Monday, at least nine people have been killed and about 200 injured, while shops near the capital Colombo and houses belonging to various government officials have been torched. 

Many Sri Lankans, who have endured months of power cuts, shortages of essentials such as fuel and cooking gas, and soaring food prices, are deeply unhappy at how the Rajapaksa brothers have handled the economic crisis. 

WHEN DID PROTESTS START? 

The protests, which have been largely peaceful, started in Colombo in mid-March and have grown over the weeks.

Things turned violent on Monday after government supporters, armed with sticks and clubs, attacked protesters who were camping outside the president's office at Galle Face in Colombo. 

About 3,000 supporters had attended a speech by former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at his Temple Trees' residence, where he pledged to "protect the interests of the nation".

After leaving his residence, they began destroying tents of protesters camping outside the prime minister’s and president’s homes, setting fire to anti-government placards and hitting the protestors. 

Three people including Amarakeerthi Athukorala, a member of parliament from the ruling party, were killed that day. 

Athukorala shot two people and then himself after being surrounded by a mob of protestors at Nittambuwa, a town on the outskirts of the capital. 

Police fired tear gas and water cannon in a bid to manage the escalating violence and an immediate curfew was declared over the entire country, the second time one had been imposed due to the protests. 

Despite the curfew, attacks and violence have continued. According to Bloomberg, there have been two consecutive nights of arson attacks by mobs, with many targeting property belonging to the Rajapaksas and other politicians. 

The resignation of the older Rajapaksa as prime minister hours after the clashes broke out has done little to calm the anger over the economic crisis.

"I am resigning with immediate effect so that you will be able to appoint an all-party government to guide the country out of the current economic crisis," the outgoing prime minister said in a letter to the president.

Mahinda Rajapaksa and his immediate family are currently taking shelter at a naval base in the north-east. 

They were evacuated by troops from his official residence in Colombo on Tuesday, after protestors broke past the main gate and attempted to storm the main two-storey building. 

SRI LANKA'S ECONOMIC CRISIS

The country of 22 million has been hit by the worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. 

Analysts say that economic mismanagement by successive governments weakened Sri Lanka's public finances, leaving national expenditure in excess of its income and the production of goods and services at inadequate levels, Reuters reported. 

A series of bombings of churches in 2019 took a major toll on the tourism industry, a vital source of national revenue.

The subsequent Covid-19 pandemic has also battered the economy, further crippling the tourism industry, as well as hurting the domestic economy. The war in Ukraine has only added to the economic pain, with higher energy prices, for example.

The plunge in tourism revenue has contributed to a steep drop in foreign reserves, needed to pay off national debt, forcing the government to ban the import of many essential goods such as fuel and medicine. 

However, even as the crisis escalated, the Sri Lankan government initially decided to wait in hopes of an economic recovery, instead of seeking help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other countries. 

It was only in April that the government finally started talks with the IMF about a plan to help the country. 

WHAT IS NEXT? 

Despite the escalating violence and demands for his resignation, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa has refused to step down, though he announced on Wednesday that he would give up most of his executive powers. 

It was his first address to the nation since the start of a month-long protest campaign calling on him to quit. 

He added that a unity government will be announced in the coming days. 

"I will name a prime minister who will command a majority in parliament and the confidence of the people," Mr Rajapaksa said in a televised speech.

But time is of the essence.

Reuters reported the country's central bank governor saying on Wednesday that failing to find a solution to the crisis in the next one to two weeks would lead to power cuts of up to 10 to 12 hours per day, as well as his own resignation.

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Sri Lanka economic crisis protests

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