The 50th day anniversary of the Aragalaya took place in a generally calm manner. There were special events organized on Saturday including a march from Independence Square to the Galle Face protest site. I met a veteran Colombo-based Tamil journalist who was one of those who made the trek, along with his teenage son. They had come to express their solidarity with the protestors and not to engage in confrontation with the government. So they did not join the smaller group that decided not to stop at the Galle Face protest site, but went on to try and forcibly enter the President’s House. This group was pushed back by the police who tear gassed them to prevent their entrance to the road that led to the President’s House.
The government’s intention to appoint a full complement of ministers and state ministers, and the jostling for positions amongst them, seems to suggest an attitude of business as usual. This is quite astonishing as it was just two weeks ago that no government member felt safe from the wrath of mobs that formed themselves very swiftly and apparently spontaneously to attack their homes and properties. Last week they overrode the opposition’s demand for time to debate the motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having led the country to disaster. They also scuttled efforts to nominate a female legislator to the post of Deputy Speaker, disregarding the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which could have sown the seeds for consensual governance. They gave priority to their own personal concerns of getting compensation from the state for their losses.
The economy is continuing to deteriorate with barely any dollars in the government’s possession even to pay for essentials such as fuel and medicine. The people will not be able to tolerate more weeks and months of shortages of essential supplies that force them to line up in queues for hours. There is anger seething in people who spend hours standing in queues and those who have seen their real incomes fall by more than a half as prices soar and the rupee sinks. Even though the present economic crisis has its roots in the political system and its weaknesses, the priority at the present time is to salvage the economy and get more dollars to pay for the import of essential commodities. The anger that is building up in society was seen on the fateful evening of May 9 in the attack by government affiliated goons on the GotaGoGama and MinaGoGama protest sites and in the retaliation that followed.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation has been overshadowed by the violence that took place immediately prior to it and after it. The PM’s meeting in the morning with local councilors of his party, numbering over a thousand, was followed by their attack on the demonstration site on Galle Face Seafront outside the PM’s residence. For over a month this had been the location of peaceful protests by mostly youth from all over the country, but also families, office workers and Colombo residents on an ad hoc basis. The wrecking of the demonstration site led to large scale mob attacks against the residences of government ministers, many of which were torched. A government MP has also died in the melee.
There has always been something special about Sri Lanka. In 140 AD the geographer Ptolemy drew a map of the island that made it much larger than it is. This was probably on account of the stories he had heard about its diversity, where forests, mountains, oceans and cities inhabited by diverse peoples could only have existed in a much larger entity. At the time of Independence from colonial rule, the British colonial administrator Leonard Woolf was so enamoured of the country and its potential that he described it as the Switzerland of the East. After Independence, too, the country retained its attraction to foreigners. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore wanted his country to emulate Sri Lanka as late as the 1960s.
There are indications that the government delegation that went to meet with the IMF in Washington did not obtain the immediate relief in the form of a quick transfer of dollars into the government’s coffers that they hoped for, and indeed, the country at large hopes for. Instead, the IMF appears to be saying that the government should first present a concrete plan as to how it is going to pay back the huge loan aggregate before the IMF provides any assistance. This would require the government to present a proposal of how it is going to save money by cutting down on expenditure to repay the outstanding loans. Further, it would require the government to go to its creditors and seek to get some write-offs and also extend the period of repayment. This may be possible with foreign governments whose loans we need to repay if there is sufficient goodwill and a desire to help.
Faced with the challenge of showing a stable government, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a new cabinet together with a large ministerial contingent. Leaders of government in other democratic countries would have resigned for less. Sri Lanka has effectively declared itself to be bankrupt under this government by reneging on the repayment of international debt. This has happened at a time when mass protests against the government are gathering strength. The continuation of mass protests at Galle Face during the traditional New Year which is always reserved for family reunions is a sign that the protests will not gradually go away. Instead of traveling back to their homes in the villages, entire families, young and old alike, left their homes to come to Galle Face. It seems they come on pilgrimage to the site of democracy and many do not go back but pitch tent.
Any governmental anticipation that the ongoing mass protests will fizzle out with the onset of the monsoon rains and the forthcoming Sinhala and Tamil New Year seems unlikely to be realized. The heavy and continuous rains did not deter the tens of thousands of people protesting against the government in Colombo near the Presidential Secretariat and also elsewhere in the country where smaller protests are continuously taking place. The protestors are standing their ground and not withdrawing. They are being supported by the general public who come and offer them food, drink and tents. It looks like they will continue to stay until their demands are met. They scored an initial success when the entire cabinet resigned with the exception of the prime minister.
The government is under siege as it is not delivering results to the people. This is especially true of the economy where the situation is deteriorating by the day and the country is borrowing endless billions from foreign countries that have a stake in Sri Lanka. There is a seemingly endless drop in the value of the Sri Lankan currency, sharply rising costs that are beyond belief, and the worst may be to come. The increases in prices of basic commodities, accompanied by shortages, have severely impacted upon the standard of living of the general population and even prompted the government to call out the army to maintain social peace where queues have formed, as at petrol stations. The fear and deference that people once gave to the government leadership, both on account of war-time victories and ruthless governance, has given way to jests and insults. This is the way in advanced democracies, and it is time that Sri Lanka should be this way, to give no room to political leaders to act inappropriately.
Shortages of petrol, diesel, kerosene, cooking gas, milk foods and skyrocketing prices are reminiscent of the situation that once prevailed in the war zones of the north and east. The people in those parts tell visitors that they are able to cope with the shortages as they learnt to do so during the war. They ran their vehicles on kerosene, could not provide their children with chocolates and paid Rs 800 a kilo for sugar. In a twist of fate, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who gave leadership to the war effort now faces a similar situation in the entire country. During the war he gave his generals the authority to plan out and implement their strategies while using his relationship with then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to give them the covering space and resources necessary. Now he needs to give those ministers of the government who are capable, the same degree of autonomy.