COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — After weeks of turmoil over Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and growing resentment toward his government, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered the public a sacrifice, urging nearly his entire cabinet, including several family members, to resign en masse while promising reforms.
On Monday, Sri Lankans responded unequivocally, defying Mr. Rajapaksa’s state of emergency to attend protest rallies. “Gout, go home!” they chanted, repeating a refrain urging the president to resign and return to the United States, where he has dual citizenship. They promised to march until he personally left office.
Mr. Rajapaksa and his family have been notoriously reluctant to use threats and violence to silence critics, since the three-decade civil war that ended in 2009. Now, widespread defiance of his government’s stay-at-home orders has sparked a confrontation. in which the looming question is whether Mr. Rajapaksa will withdraw or respond with characteristic force.
There are already signs of the latter.
On Thursday, anger directed at the president reached his doorstep, as protests outside his residence in Colombo turned violent.
Police used tear gas and water cannons on the crowd and arrested dozens of people, including journalists.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, said many of those detained had been tortured in custody.
Shortly after the protests, Mr. Rajapaksa’s government imposed a state of emergency on the island, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and making it illegal for people to leave their homes.
Over the weekend, hundreds of people were arrested in Sri Lanka’s western province, which includes the capital Colombo, for violating the curfew.
Even more protesters took to the streets on Sunday; and on Monday, some 2,000 people broke through barricades trying to reach one of the prime minister’s residences, located some 125 miles outside of Colombo. They were repelled with tear gas and water cannons.
The scope and energy of the protests in Sri Lanka suggested that Rajapaksa’s cabinet reshuffle has done little to satisfy demands that he step down.
At least five rallies took place in Colombo, while protesters also rallied in the hillside city of Kandy, some 90 miles east of the capital; on the tourist beaches of Galle, about 90 miles to the south; and in Chilaw, some 50 miles to the north, in a province ruled by a former Navy commander close to the Rajapaksas.
“We don’t know who will be next in power, so our future is uncertain. But at least we are fighting for it. I’m glad so many people are expressing their anger,” said Rashika Satheeja, 42, who works in advertising in Colombo and was among the hundreds who demonstrated in the city’s Independence Square.
The protesters promise to continue.
“The current situation is a complete repudiation of the Rajapaksas. People have no other calling than to ask everyone to leave, to leave politics, because they have been greedy, incompetent and cannot govern,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.
“It is uncompromising word from the ground that the Rajapaksas must go,” he said.
The Rajapaksas once garnered widespread support among Sri Lankans, as the family was hailed for ending the country’s civil war and creating an economy that became a model for other nations seeking to rebuild.
Now, for the president, the cost of acceding to the public’s demands to resign may seem intolerable. In California, where Rajapaksa lived before running for president again in 2019, he faces civil charges related to atrocities committed when he was secretary of defense during the brutal final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
During his two and a half years as president, he assumed greater powers through a constitutional amendment and halted criminal investigations against him and his family. But his immunity from prosecution disappears the moment he does, analysts say.
“People say, ‘Gota, go home,’ but he can’t go home because there are too many cases against him,” said Murtaza Jafferjee, director of the Advocata Institute, a think tank. “If he is no longer head of state, all protections are gone.”
Still, while Sri Lankans have been enduring up to 13 hours of daily power outages during the hottest time of year, long lines for fuel, and shortages of staples like powdered milk and rice, their determination is likely to harden, analysts say.
The problem for the Rajapaksas is that there is no easy solution to the economic problems plaguing the island.
The stock market was delisted after a sharp drop in the benchmark stock price index on Monday. The Sri Lankan rupee depreciated further, having fallen 33 percent against the dollar since the beginning of the year. And the government doesn’t have the money to import much-needed goods.
A habit of bad debt that began during the decade-long presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s older brother, had been left largely unaddressed when two catastrophes destroyed Sri Lanka’s most important tourism industry: the 2019 Easter terror attacks. that killed more than 250 people and the coronavirus pandemic.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government responded to the blows by cutting taxes and going deeper into debt, adding to the debt load his brother had taken on to finance large infrastructure projects that are not yet profitable.
Billions of dollars in debt payments are coming due and many analysts are predicting a default. Meanwhile, the government has too little hard currency to import basic goods like medicine, food, and fuel, causing shortages, prolonged power outages, and unprecedented suffering across the island.
Earlier Monday, Rajapaksa invited members of the opposition party to join his cabinet, but none accepted the offer.
Harsha de Silva, an economist seen as a possible replacement as finance minister and a member of the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, said he would not join the government before elections could be held.
“I will not accept a ministry without a new mandate. We need a proper team to do this. We need a new mandate,” she said.
Even Mr. Rajapaksa’s political allies have revolted. Several political parties in his ruling coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, have demanded that he appoint an interim government made up of the 11 parties represented in the Legislature.
Among them, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party announced that it would leave the government as of Tuesday.
“We will be sitting independently in Parliament from tomorrow. We hope to be part of an interim government, but we have to decide how we are going to work according to the demands of the people,” said Dayasiri Jayasekara, secretary general of the party, in an interview with The New York Times.
He went on to say that a snap election was not an option given the current state of the economy, because the government could not afford the cost of holding one.
“We must form an interim government and find a solution to the economic problems,” he said.
After his initial resistance, President Rajapaksa said last month that the government would seek help from the International Monetary Fund, but any financial support would take at least several months to execute, said WA Wijewardena, a former deputy governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank.
“What needs to be done right now, whatever government is formed after the fall of the current administration, is to reach out to the people and tell them the truth,” said Mr. Wijewardena. “We have great pain right now, and that pain must be borne by all of us, and we have to sacrifice ourselves to rebuild the economy.”
Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and emily schmal from New Delhi.