Missing both legs and one arm, former special forces soldier Thushara Kumara is an unlikely critic of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a wartime defense chief who became Sri Lanka’s president in 2019.
But the 43-year-old army retiree is one of several dozen veterans currently camping out at a protest site near the president’s office in Colombo, after losing faith in a leader who stubbornly resisted calls to resign when the economy began to implode and most of his cabinet resigned.
“We have dedicated our lives to saving this country and it is extremely sad to see what has happened to it now,” Kumara said, sitting surrounded by old comrades, many with prosthetic limbs.
Weakened by the pandemic, the Indian Ocean island’s economy was accelerated towards disaster by a spike in global oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. Public finances were already in a precarious state, in part due to populist policies, including tax cuts.
Rapidly dwindling foreign currency reserves have left Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million, without enough dollars to pay for vital imports of fuel, food and medicine, and violent street protests have erupted this month as power shortages and blackouts became acute.
Earlier this month, Sri Lanka launched talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a program to stabilize the economy. The government is also in talks with several countries and multilateral agencies to line up about $3 billion in bridge financing and has suspended repayment of part of its external debt to divert funds to pay for essential imports.
Amid the unfolding crisis, street protests have taken place across the country, with thousands of people joining some demonstrations.
“I am receiving a pension from the taxpayers of this country, and we have a responsibility to step in now and support the brave efforts of these young people to save this country,” Kumara said.
“They are fighting for the future of this country,” said the veteran, who had served in the military for 16 years. “That’s why we are here.”
A father of three, Kumara lost his limbs in a mortar blast weeks before the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists in May 2009.
Rajapaksa and his brother, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ordered the offensive which ultimately broke rebel resistance, but thousands died in the assault.
At the small but growing protest camp near the Colombo waterfront, people of all ages and faiths, including Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast, saffron-clad Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns wearing clothes, gathered together.
Although there were only a few dozen army veterans, their presence indicated that discontent had reached even Rajapaksa’s most ardent supporters.
Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Nalin Herath declined to comment on the veterans’ involvement in the protests, although he said the military supported the government’s stance of allowing peaceful dissent.
“The Secretary of Defense has made it clear that there will be no obstruction to peaceful protest,” he said.
The veterans, some of whom have traveled hundreds of miles from their homes, sleep on thinly padded mats near the busy beachfront road, taking turns to use public toilets further down the scenic beach.
“We are used to difficulties. So we’re not too worried about meals,” said Uditha Roshan, 40, sipping ginger tea provided by volunteers as passers-by stop to take selfies with the men, most of whom are amputated.
Many veterans have said they will no longer vote for Rajapaksa, having backed him in 2019 when he campaigned for national security in an election that came months after the Easter bombings rocked the country.
“He will no longer have a chance to be a presidential candidate,” said HMS Mahindasiri, 40, a double amputee who voted for Rajapaksa three years ago.
“People don’t trust him.”