The present governmental line is that protests should be within the law. This makes it difficult, and also risky, to engage in public protest when that law is emergency law. The arrests of university students at separate locations at different times is are acts of repression. The government is openly showing its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention.
The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumors.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.
Human Rights watch has pointed out that “These provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.” The government has used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralized. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.
Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilization. The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13 hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement. It was during the period of long power cuts that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centers to hold candlelight protests. However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilometer long lines in front of fuel stations is much less common. Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.
The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population. The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed. The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items. However, these funds will dry up soon. The question is what will happen after that. There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage. The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.
The World Bank has given an indication that they are not convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka. It has issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place. Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertilizer, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households. To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”
The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws. There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments. However, the fuller picture needs to be seen. The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss making state institutions.
The hoped for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”
Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices. The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.
The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States. The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place. Hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.