At the height of the protest movement, rich and poor alike got together on the streets to protest against the acute shortage and non-availability of fuel, gas and electricity. There was a unified countrywide demand for change that brought down the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That unified demand no longer exists because those with money in their hands can afford to pay the higher prices and get on with their normal lives. They would prefer a life without protests on the streets as they can make ends meet. But for those who cannot afford their previous lifestyle, which is the majority, there is much dissatisfaction which will undoubtedly take a rebellious turn as witnessed in the continued protests by students.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken over the reins of the state in which a principal feature is the crackdown on the protest movement. Since his advent to power, prices have continued to soar which has made life unsustainable for wide swathes of people who were surviving at the margins prior to the economic collapse. It is reasonable to believe that the university students whose street protest in Colombo was violently broken up this past week, with over 80 of them being arrested, are representatives of those people whose incomes do not permit them to have a normal life anymore. At the present time, the most optimistic scenarios give five years of economic hardship before there is a turnaround. The president and his supporters need to consider whether five more years of repression is possible or desirable.
The problem is that the government is trying to alleviate the symptoms of the crisis by borrowing more and continuing with the practices of the past. The government is failing to address the root causes that brought the Aragalaya into being, as much as it failed to address the root causes of the ethnic conflict. Repression in the latter case led to three decades of war, but with no political solution, as evidenced by the difficulties the government is facing today in Geneva. The hoped for peace dividend at the end of the war in 2009 did not materialize and the military budget got bigger which contributed to the budget deficit.
The student protestors who are being subjected to police attacks are those who would be finding it difficult to live with dignity amidst the severe cost increases. By utilizing water cannons, tear gas and baton attacks and arresting the students and charging them before the courts, the government is sending a message to the larger society that protests over economic hardships will not be tolerated. The government’s concern may be two-fold. First, that if the protests are not nipped in the bud, they will grow again due to the increasing hardships people are going through and become an uncontrollable protest movement as in the recent past. The declaration of High Security Zones in Colombo is a sign that the government is taking maximum precautions. Second, an IMF requirement for funding is political stability.
Previously High Security Zones, were promulgated in the North and East at the height of the war to safeguard the military bases from enemy attack. The Bar Association has condemned this move as inimical to democracy and said that it will be carefully studying the provisions of the order issued by the President and will take appropriate legal action to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are secured. The strength and popularity of the Aragalaya during the period of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa showed that the government had lost its popular mandate to rule. This can be seen even now in the fact that its leaders cannot step onto the streets to mingle with the public unless accompanied by large contingents of bodyguards. They will see their survival through the prism of national security.
During his last days in office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to form a small all-party cabinet comprising 15 ministers who would work together to address the immediate problems of economic crisis, come up with a mutually accepted national economic plan and hold fresh elections in six months. This was the statesmanship that was expected of President Ranil Wickremesinghe when he became president. His focus on crushing the protest movement came as a surprise but was justified on the basis of the need for law and order. It was expected that he would similarly crush corruption and self-seeking practices which also violate the law. But these expectations are yet to materialize.
The reappointment of the same set of politicians who were in the seats of power under the former president and failed to stop the economic crisis, cannot inspire hope that they will provide a solution. They seem to have no idea of a solution to the overall national crisis. They are adept at speaking about the problems but not at presenting the solutions. In this context, the appointment of a large number of ministers at a time when there is hardly any money available for development projects is seen by people as unjustified. They are seen, with mounting hatred, as being part of the problem that will not go away until that entire set of politicians goes away.
In this bleak situation, academic staff at Jaffna University have set an example that the government can follow in winning the hearts and minds of students instead of punishing them so severely. It started when one of the faculty members observed his students come for his morning class without having had their breakfast. He started with giving the students in his class crackers and bananas. Next he was able to motivate two more of his colleagues to contribute to providing a free meal. This was three months ago. Today, the community action has increased to a level where they are able to supply more than 1200 students with a meal every day.
At a time when the government is being asked for evidence of its commitment to reconciliation and justice at the 51st UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, the Jaffna academics have shown a spirit on the ground that the government needs to take on board nationally. Their establishment of a community kitchen for their students who are from all parts of the country and of different ethnicities and religions is national reconciliation in practice. As in the case of civil society initiatives, the academic staff at Jaffna university have shown on a micro level what the government needs to do at a macro level. Civil society can generate community support. It is the duty of the government to provide systemic support.