Following the resignation of Sri Lanka's longstanding and now reviled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Thiruni Kelegama examines the roots of the current crisis in Sri Lanka, and what must happen for the country to begin its recovery.

It has been six days since the world watched protestors overcoming tear gas, breaking the barricades, and entering the presidential offices and the President's and Prime Minister's official residences in Sri Lanka. Thousands had walked to Colombo on 9 July to protest against the government's handling of the devastating economic crisis that brought the country, once the envy of South Asia, to the brink, demanding the formal resignation of the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the biggest step of the mass protests calling for Rajapaksa, and his family, to step down which started in March.

Shortly after, Rajapaksa promised to step down on 13 July. However, instead of the promised resignation, Rajapaksa – who remains immune from prosecution for his role in presiding over the economic crisis and human rights abuses during the 26-year civil war as long as he is President – fled the country to the Maldives on a military jet, appointing Wickremesinghe as Acting President. This appointment only led to the protestors storming Wickremesinghe's office, disrupting national television, demanding that both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe resign along with the entire cabinet.

The acting President responded by declaring a state of emergency and curfew, which he rescinded shortly after, while ordering the military, which exercises immense power in the country, with the task of restoring law and order. The end of Wickremesinghe's first day as acting President saw clashes outside his office with security forces using tear gas and water cannons at protestors leaving 84 injured and the death of 26-year-old Jaliya Dissanayake. Instead of delivering his resignation on the promised date, Rajapaksa spent the night on a Saudi Arabian flight carrying him from Maldives to Singapore; a plane Bloomberg states has become the world's most tracked flight. On landing in Singapore, his resignation followed – via email – which is to be announced officially today by the Speaker following necessary legal checks.

Rajapaksa's resignation is of immense importance. First, it signals that the resounding demand that all protestors – not merely the protestors at the Aragalaya and the "Gota Go Gama" campaign – have been articulating since March have been met. Or as Harshana Rambukwella writes "democracy in action". Second, it demands that Wickremesinghe follows suit with his resignation to pave the way for the appointment of a new prime minister. They will lead an all-party interim government that will run the country until elections can be held. This can be seen as the first step towards achieving economic stability.

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At present, Sri Lanka is in the midst of a devastating economic crisis which led to declaring bankruptcy on 13 April. It defaulted on its $51 billion of foreign debt in May, exhausted its foreign currency reserves and is struggling to import food, medicine and fuel. Fuel is being rationed for essential services and to date sixteen people have died waiting in fuel lines. Food inflation is at 60 percent with the World Food Programme issuing an urgent warning that Sri Lanka is presently in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Only a new inclusive administration will have the power and credibility to resume negotiations with the IMF for a bailout loan, which is of urgent necessity. It is also the responsibility of a new administration to ensure that this loan will have stronger public financial management and stronger checks and balances in place in order to ensure that there is no repeat of the loans that Rajapaksa and his government took.

But one cannot ensure economic reform without political reform. The cause of this economic crisis can be traced to Sri Lanka's foreign currency shortage. This has stemmed from the reduced tourism following the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, the COVID-19 pandemic, a ban on chemical fertilizer to promote organic farming and ill-conceived tax cuts.

However, its roots are deeply entrenched in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This project of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism did not start with the Rajapaksas. It started with the Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 and continued with various policies by successive governments which ensured the majority status of 75 percent of the country's Sinhala population while firmly delegating the Tamils and Muslims as minorities.

It is this majoritarian ethno-nationalism that Gotabaya, and the Rajapaksa family, exploited to remain in power for almost two decades while exacerbating ethnic and religious polarisation that only increased since the end of the civil war in 2009. The resignation of Gotabaya as President, and the end of the Rajapaksa project, is a vital and long needed step towards ending this long-standing iniquitous vision that brought Sri Lanka to a stand-still today.

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