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MW Weekly: Protests Rage in Sri Lanka; Car Bombing in Russian-Held Ukraine; Islamic State Resurfaces in Yemen
Sri Lankan Protestors Cause President to Flee Country
On July 9, thousands of people (some estimates say tens to hundreds of thousands) gathered in Colombo to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They descended on downtown Colombo and stormed the President’s House. Videos came out of protesters swimming in the pool and lifting weights in the gym. Protesters also stormed the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s official residence (which they set on fire). At least 39 people were injured in the protests, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against crowds. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (who has been the prime minister four times previously) said that he would resign once a new, inclusive government was established. President Gotabaya said that he would resign on July 13. On that day, Gotabaya fled to the Maldives, and Ranil was appointed as acting president.
The protests are in response to the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka; protesters have accused the government, and specifically the Rajapaksa family, of gross mismanagement of the economy. The country is deeply in debt; it owes over 50 billion USD to creditors. Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt in May for the first time in its history. The term ‘debt trap’, became mainstream after China took over the Hambantota Port, in Sri Lanka’s south, in 2017. Mahinda Rajapaksa (Gotabaya’s brother), who resigned as prime minister in May, was the president who invited Chinese investment there in the late-2000s/early-2010s. The port was also named after him; Hambantota used to be a Rajapaksa stronghold; it is where their ancestral home is. The home was set on fire in May.
Sri Lanka has also been dealing with a foreign reserve crisis for years. Last year, the government banned the use of chemical fertilizers for crops, in hopes that the country would turn to organic methods. The move backfired, crop yields decreased significantly and the shortage of fertilizers motivated farmers to take to the streets over the last year. Sri Lanka’s economic problems were exacerbated recently due to the current rising global fuel prices, which increased inflation considerably. In the last few months, there has been a shortage of food, fuel, and medicines, amongst other items. Hours-long power cuts are the norm. Former garment workers have turned to prostitution to try to make ends meet. Daily economic activity has been brought to a standstill, and people are struggling to survive.
Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May, after protests broke out in late March. The peaceful protests turned violent after pro-government supporters attacked anti-government protesters. In the ensuing violence, at least eight people died and over 200 people were injured. A politician (belonging to the ruling party) was beaten to death by protesters. Ranil Wickremesinghe then took the post, promising to deal with the economic crisis. But protesters demanded the removal of the Rajapaksas from power, and anti-government tensions did not decrease.
The Rajapaksa family has been a major player in Sri Lanka’s politics over the last two decades. Gotabaya won the 2019 presidential election, and Mahinda was sworn-in after the coalition that backed him won the 2020 parliamentary elections. They were voted in following the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist bombings, which killed over 250 people, mainly in Colombo. The Islamic State later claimed the attacks. The Rajapaksas were seen as strongmen, who could help ameliorate the country’s security environment. This is because they were the ones who presided over the end of the civil war, which ran from 1983 to 2009, and according to some estimates, resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people. Near the end of the war, Mahinda was the president and Gotabaya was the Defense Secretary. The war was due to tensions between the minority Tamil population of Sri Lanka, and the majority Sinhalas (the former are predominantly Muslims, while the latter are Buddhists). India had supported the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, at least initially, until they killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. After the Easter Sunday attacks, the public voted for the Rajapaksas because they believed they would prevent more terrorism.
The Rajapaksas dominated Sri Lankan politics in the past, and they tried to do so again in 2019 and 2020 when they won landslides. Members of the family held several cabinet posts in the government. In 2020, the administration passed the 20th Amendment to the constitution, which essentially gave the president (Gotabaya) wide-ranging powers. This is another major grievance that protesters have; the amendment was viewed as something that suppressed democracy and the check and balances prevalent in democracy. The Rajapaksas are also accused of stoking ethnic and religious tensions, as they tried to appease the Sinhala Buddhist majority. The current protests in this context are very interesting; they are seemingly inclusive and protesters are not divided upon ethnic or religious lines.
Sri Lanka is in a very precarious situation. There is no easy solution for its economic issues. There are several dynamics that are underpinning tensions. People seem to be done with the political elite. The expulsion of the Rajapaksas may ease tensions for the time being, but the next government’s position will not be stable either.
- Analysis by Uday
Russian-Appointed Administrator Killed by Carbomb in Kharkiv Region
On July 11, the leader of a Russian-occupied town in the Kharkiv region was killed by a car bomb, reportedly planted by a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group. The victim was identified as Yevgeny Yunakov, the chief administrator of Velikyi Burluk.
The attack is the latest in Ukraine’s campaign to undermine and disrupt Russia’s attempt to politically integrate invaded territories into its orbit, seemingly for the long term. On the same day as the car bombing, the Russian-appointed leader of Melitopol, Andrei Siguta, was reportedly attacked by a gunman at his house. A Russian-appointed official in the occupied portion of Zaporizhzhia Province, Vladimir Rogov, claimed on his Telegram channel that the gunman was discovered by authorities in a wooded suburb of Melitopol after the attack and subsequently died in a shootout.
Reuters notes the recent history of such attacks inside Russian-control Ukrainian territory including a June 24 car bombing that killed a senior official in the Kherson regional administration. The tactic sends a violent message that if you work with Russian authorities while they’re consolidating control over an area of occupied Ukraine, you can become a target.
First Islamic State Attack in Yemen Since 2020
On July 10, the Islamic State (IS) claimed its first attack on Yemeni soil in more than 22 months. Amaq News Agency’s statement details a suicide bombing against a convoy of Houthi militiamen that included leadership figures. The IS perpetrator was allegedly riding a motorcycle and followed the convoy, ultimately advancing on the target and detonating his explosive vest.
Damien Ferré, a Senior Analyst at Jihad Analytics, believes the attack to be significant “as the group showed its presence in the country via recent photo reports (bay’a to the new Caliph and Ramadân) but it had not conducted any attack since August 2020.” He says the operation may provide a propaganda boost in demonstrating “that IS maintains its capacity to be present in all its official provinces, even those inactive for a long while.” Thus, he claims, similar attacks may follow in arenas of little or no recent activity such as the Caucasus.
Jihadism researcher Daniele Garofalo adds that the Islamic State in Yemen has faced a series of challenges, including pressure from hostile actors such as Houthi militias and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He says the group “may have taken time to reorganize, prepare, and replenish their ranks,” raising the possibility that foreign fighters have arrived from abroad to shore up the group’s operational position.
Conflict Photos of the Week
What We Are Reading
• “Nato and EU states are pushing for better tracking of weapons supplied to Ukraine in response to fears that criminal groups are smuggling them out of the country and on to Europe’s black market. Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine, western states have pledged more than $10bn in military support, from portable rocket launchers and armoured vehicles to rifles and vast amounts of ammunition.”
• “Never have protests turned deadly in three Central Asian states in the same year. At least 272 people have died since January in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan after authorities suppressed protests. All three cases share similar traits. In each, authorities turned off the internet, blamed unnamed foreigners, and resorted to extreme force.”
• “Taliban security forces in eastern Afghanistan have extrajudicially killed dozens of suspected members and supporters of a local affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group, according to Human Rights Watch. “Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, residents of Nangahar and Kunar … have discovered the bodies of more than 100 men dumped in canals and other locations [between August 2021 and April 2022],” the report said.”
• “Company executives are increasingly concerned about the possibility of war over Taiwan, according to consultants who have seen a sharp rise in demand for briefings following the invasion of Ukraine. Eric Sayers, head of the Indo-Pacific practice at Beacon Global Strategies, said China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong coupled with the Ukraine invasion had “rapidly accelerated” the fears. “A year ago Beacon would occasionally be asked a question or two about Taiwan from our clients,” said Sayers. “We are now being asked to brief CEOs directly on Taiwan politics and the military situation [and to] organise meetings with senior US officials or retired military leaders to understand how they view the situation.””
• “A watchtower being built on the Afghan-Tajik border that is manned by members of the "Tajik Taliban" has caught the attention of Tajik officials. The Taliban and Tajik militants who have joined forces with the Taliban are building a new observation post directly across the river from Tajikistan's Darvaz district.”
Enjoy the weekend!