The economic situation in Sri Lanka continues to deteriorate on multiple fronts though slowly enough for people who can afford to pay higher prices not to notice too much. For the past four months or so there has been a relatively steady supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. The long queues are no longer to be seen. The rationing system for auto fuel has been effective at curbing demand for it and at conserving dollars. Cooking gas is freely available. The prices of all these essentials have escalated three fold giving rise to inflation. But those who can afford to pay at least double or triple the prices they used to pay, because their income levels are high, are satisfied that they do not have to wait in long lines as in the past. Most of them are no longer members of the protest movement. Indeed, some of them have even become supporters of the government crackdown on the Aragalaya.
The government is facing the strongest resolution yet by the UN Human Rights Council during its 51st session in Geneva. This will be the 9th resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC since 2009 when the war ended bloodily on the military battlefield in circumstances that generated worldwide attention. On every occasion, successive Sri Lankan governments have strived to ensure that there will be no more resolutions where the country’s human rights record is scrutinized to the detriment of the country’s international reputation. But to no avail. This has been due to the fact that what successive governments have promised has not been delivered by either them or their successor governments.
The Paris Club has declared its satisfaction at the agreement reached between the government and IMF regarding a USD 2.9 billion loan to be given over a period of 48 months. The loan will be made under the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility, which helps countries deal with balance of payments or cash flow problems. The Paris Club is an informal group of rich countries which have given loans to less developed countries. They seek to find solutions to the repayment difficulties experienced by those countries which invariably occur. The enlightened self-interest of the countries that constitute the Paris Club can be seen in their member countries’ provision of time, space, advice and more loans to ensure that the original loan obligations to their countries are respected.
The ruling party has requested President Ranil Wickremesinghe to facilitate the return of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the country and his appointment as prime minister. The former president left the country when large numbers of protestors who had been actively protesting against the economic collapse and corruption in the country took over his presidential residence. Few would wish to see a former president going from country to country seeking asylum. Even those who have supported the protest movement are unlikely to oppose his return to the country. However, any attempt to promote his active participation in political affairs is likely to be controversial and would also go against the “Gota Go Home” struggle’s main objective and can undermine the government. In fact, the signs of a power struggle are becoming evident which will be detrimental to the stability that the government needs to secure the future of the country.
Early this year the government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amended the Prevention of Terrorism law. It accepted the position that the law was in violation of international standards and wanted to show it was committed to improving its human rights record. The ground was set to mitigate the pressures from the UN Human Rights Council and other international bodies. However, the government’s plans now appear to be veering of course. This is reflected in the appeal of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to President Ranil Wickremesinghe not to sign the detention orders of Inter-University Students Federation convenor Wasantha Mudilage and two others. She said “I call on President Ranil not to sign their detention order, doing so would be a dark day for Sri Lanka.” The significance of the detention orders is that they were issued under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind was a state of war in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all.” Therefore, it was necessary for them to come to an agreement. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.
The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept. It is a necessary element for international support to come in. One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi billion dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept. The protest movement has not mobilized public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinhe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.
The government’s efforts to suppress the protest movement by the targeting of its leading members individually is polarizing the country more than ever before. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of the protests, the government is targeting prominent and key members of the protest movement with flimsy charges and under conditions of Emergency Law in which the regular law and its protections can be suspended in their operation. The Fitch Rating of Sri Lanka dated July 28, 2022, states that the government’s parliamentary position appears strong, but public support for the government is weaker. It is therefore important for the government to hear the legitimate voices of the protesters and find ways and means of engaging with them in a meaningful manner rather than suppressing them.
Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been nominated by the SLPP general secretary as the ruling party’s candidate for election to the presidency to take place in parliament on July 20. There is controversy over this nomination as the SLPP chairman and other party members have denied this. The controversy extends also to the larger society where the acting president has become a polarizing figure. To his supporters he is the best hope of a return to the status quo that existed before the economic collapse of the country. There is confidence in his experience and ability to negotiate with the international community. To his detractors, he is the person who is keeping the old order and its corruption – which gave rise to the economic collapse alive — so that they may return to power in the future. An objective assessment is required in terms of short term and long term outcomes.
There is an anxious calm after the unprecedented events of July 9. The Presidential Secretariat, President’s House and Temple Trees, which contain both the prime minister’s official office and residence, are in the hands of the people rather than the rulers. The Aragalaya protestors who occupy these buildings of state coexist in the same space with the security forces personnel who were stationed there to protect those state properties. There was an obvious trust among those who took part in the protests on July 9 that the state’s response would be a benign one. They felt that they were taking part in the protests as part of a national cause that the security forces would respect.