In danger zone: Sri Lanka's downward spiral into full-blown crisis

Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic and humanitarian catastrophe becomes a full-blown political crisis, with the people taking to the streets in protest and a defiant government announcing an islandwide emergency in reprisal. Public anger against the Rajapaksas has turned the clan into enemy number one.

Published : Apr 03, 2022 06:00 IST

A Buddhist  monk and member of the Socialist Youth Union tangles with a police officer and sends his cap flying at a protest outside the President’s secretariat against the economic crisis, in Colombo on March 18.

A Buddhist monk and member of the Socialist Youth Union tangles with a police officer and sends his cap flying at a protest outside the President’s secretariat against the economic crisis, in Colombo on March 18.

A sickeningly familiar story that has played out in country after ill-administered country, of government incompetence leading to citizen unrest and violence, in turn leading to more repressive measures, is now playing out in Sri Lanka. History has been witness to the endgame too in such cases: the people do not vanish as the story winds down, the rulers do.

The Sri Lankan debacle begins with sudden import restrictions imposed about six months ago. The reason was that the government woke up quite late to the developing foreign exchange crisis and acted in a knee-jerk manner that created fear among the people and distrust of the government in the market.

The situation quickly spiralled into a crisis marked by power cuts, scarcity of fuel and other essentials and rising public anger. The people vented their anger in online public fora and later in the streets, inviting swift and brutal reprisal from the government. At the time of filing this report, protests were swelling and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had responded with yet another draconian step: the imposition of a state of emergency in the country with effect from April 1 ahead of island-wide protests planned for the week.

A gazette issued by the government said the President was taking the step “in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”.

The problem began with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna-led (SLPP) government taking its eyes off the economy and letting trusted but incompetent lieutenants of the Rajapaksa clan manage it. Nalaka Godahewa, Minister for Urban Development, who drew up a vision document for the SLPP ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2020, admitted on a local television show that because the government gave tax concessions (to the rich), revenue collections had come down significantly, by about 2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). However, there was no significant reduction in government spending.

Also read: Sri Lanka on brink of ruin

In fact, government spending went up massively on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, with revenue collections down and foreign exchange earnings dwindling, economists and nearly everyone who had followed developments in Sri Lanka were aware that the country was heading for an economic meltdown. Somehow, the government did not pay enough attention, except for replacing one incompetent person with another in a critical seat of power and enormous responsibility.

Shortage of essentials

Sri Lanka imports most of its fuel requirements, apart from many other essential items. With foreign exchange reserves declining, the government was unable to import sufficient quantities in time and keep them ready for disruption-free distribution.

At the heart of the Lankan fiasco is the shortage of two essential fuel items, liquefied petroleum gas or LPG and diesel, and the daily day-long power cuts as a result of the shortage of fuel needed to generate electricity. From March 31, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) announced a 13-hour daily power cut. The same day, the CEB chairman, a political appointee, declared: “When God gives rain and CPC [Ceylon Petroleum Corporation] gives fuel, CEB can give power.”

The shortages affect people in every possible activity. A lack of fuel means inability to get to a place of work; companies cannot function in the absence of power; mobile phone service is patchy because towers suffer from power cuts; and the LPG shortage means an inability to cook meals at home in the most populous and job-intensive Western Province, where the capital Colombo is located.

No trust in government

The shortages and the government’s mishandling of the crisis have meant that there is no public trust in the government. Hence, many people have flocked to supermarkets to pick up as much stuff as possible, forcing supermarkets to clamp down on bulk purchases and apply some sort of informal rationing.

A Colombo resident told Frontline that there was no point in buying perishable stuff in bulk any longer, even if it was available, because of the power cuts. She asked: “How and where will you store anything when there is a 13-hour power cut every day?” She also said that it was not prudent either to cook every day if one lived in an apartment because of the gas shortage. In short, you cannot cook in bulk because you cannot stock it in a refrigerator; and you cannot cook every day because you use up too much LPG. “What do I do?” she asked.

Also read: Which way Sri Lanka?

That is not all. Bank ATMs do not function for a large part of the day because of the massive power outages. A customer at an ATM on the outskirts of Colombo said: “You can’t keep too much money at home out of fear; and now, you can’t get money out when you need because the ATMs don’t function.”

Impact on small business

Small businesses are the worst hit as a result of the blackouts. Bread-based snacks are the most popular short eats in the island. But in many places, the lack of power has meant that it is not possible to heat the snack before it is served to a customer. While the big outlets somehow manage to access diesel and run their operations, at a scaled-back level, small businesses do not have the luxury of sending someone on a mission across the island to obtain diesel and a generator to keep the business running.

But big businesses are also complaining. An employee of a construction major, describing how his work was getting affected, said: “Our company moved the material that arrived from abroad to a warehouse a few days ago because if it stays in the port we have to pay too much money. Now, we are unable to find diesel to move the material from the warehouse to the construction site.”

Another person from the poultry industry said a major chicken farm was forced to cull its entire batch because freezer trucks were not available. He said: “Once the chicken is mature, there is no point keeping on feeding it. This is a loss to the farm. Diesel shortage and power outages mean limited availability of freezer capacity. What else does a farm do?" He added that culling and scaling back of operations were the only options left. One farm did this and chicken prices have more than doubled in the past month.

Fishermen’s problems

On March 30 and 31, fishermen in many parts of the island stopped venturing out to sea. A fisherman told Frontline over phone from Jaffna: “My uncle and two of his friends went out at 4:30 a.m. looking for kerosene. By 2 p.m. they gave up. There is no kerosene [used in smaller boat engines] or diesel anywhere to be found.” The same sentiment was echoed in Galle, which is over 400 kilometres from Jaffna. Anecdotal evidence from the stretch from Colombo to Unawatuna, a 122-km coastal road that this correspondent travelled, revealed that trying to locate kerosene or diesel was a daily chore taking up most of the day for many people.

Even if they do manage to obtain kerosene or diesel and venture out to sea, there is another problem: most of the catch has to be sent to Western Province, but with diesel hard to find, it is impossible to access refrigerated trucks that can make the journey. On April 1, most of the fishermen in the north had halted operations because they ended up spending more money trying to get kerosense and diesel than they made from selling their catch locally.

Also read: All at sea

This has resulted in a steep rise in fish prices. Fish is a cheap source of protein for the majority of the population. The cheapest fish variety is typically what is left out after sorting a catch. This mixture of fish is sold cheap, for about 100 Sri Lankan rupees. The price of this mixture has tripled already, and one fisherman said that if the current trend holds, the price will go up further, forcing the poor to opt out of this source of nutrition.

Fishermen in Rajapaksa’s hometown Hambantota have been protesting every day for the past few days. Others along the southern coast, in Galle, Ambalantota and elsewhere have been joining the rising tide of protest every day.

Namal gets trolled

Putting up a brave face, Namal Rajapaksa, heir apparent to the throne and one of six Rajapaksas who are Ministers, said on Twitter on March 30: “Firstly I want to state that I apologise for all inconveniences the people have had to endure. These are difficult times but I believe we will overcome them…”

He was trolled mercilessly. Sachi, a graphic novelist, asked: “Inconveniences? Four people have died in queues so far and the Government doesn’t even have the spine to acknowledge. I dare you to visit a fuel queue on your own.” Andrew Fidel Fernando, an author, said: “Hi, nice to see everyone. Let’s all meet up again in the replies on Namal’s next tweet.”

Abhinesh, a Sri Lankan citizen, asked: “First, is there any power cut at your home?” Namal responded: “Yes.” Immediately, many on Twitter descended on him asking if the news put out by Newswire, stating that the President’s house, Parliament and the housing scheme for members of Parliament were exempted from power cuts. Namal responded: “I don’t know about others, but I know that I have been experiencing the power cuts in my residence.” He was again trolled massively. An academic asked him if he was doing something about it or if he too had given up on the government. Lakshman Daniel, a priest, asked: “After so much of lying all these months, you guys expect us to still keep believing your words? Must be joking.”

Rising frustration

The growing frustration over the inability to make ends meet has driven many people to take to the streets. For instance, on April 1, the day Gotabaya Rajapaksa proclaimed a state of emergency (late in the night), there were at least six protests in and around Colombo alone: at Reid Avenue, VMD Park, Negambo, Bandaragama, Nugegoda, and Kohuwela junction.

But the protest that sparked multiple such events across the island happened in Colombo’s Mirihana suburb, near the President’s residence, on March 31. Mirihana, an upper middle-class area, has also been experiencing massive power cuts. According to eyewitness accounts, every day a handful of residents would stand in front of the road leading to the President’s house to mark their displeasure.

On March 31, this protest was posted across multiple social media accounts and the crowd swelled in about an hour. By around 8 p.m. a massive crowd of at least 5,000 people had gathered on the road. The police initially tried to pacify the crowd but later began pushing them back as the crowd surged and repeatedly chanted slogans asking the President to resign.

The police action, which was telecast live on a few ‘daring’ news channels, attracted more people to the venue. By 8:30 pm, the police and members from other security branches sealed off all roads leading to the venue. The protesters stayed put, even as the police asked them to disperse.

As is the norm in Sri Lanka, riot police, water cannons and armoured vehicles were all deployed by the government in a show of brute power. In the melee, it appears that some miscreants set fire to a police vehicle, giving the police the excuse it needed to attack innocent civilians. Namini Wijedasa, a notable journalist, said in a widely shared Facebook post: “People were angry. Incandescent. They railed, first against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and, second, against the Rajapaksa clan. It was unlike any other protest I had seen in recent times because it was ‘ordinary, middle-class folk’. They were friends. They were young, educated, white-collar workers….people who thought that real problems, where you couldn’t afford to eat or had no means to earn a living, happened to others.”

Obviously, the government pushback was vicious. More than 50 protesters were arrested and charged. (When they were brought to the court for remand, more than 300 lawyers received them, clapping and raising slogans in their favour. Not one lawyer left the court room until all the cases were heard. The lawyer fraternity, though not officially, has decided to defend all of them pro bono).

Also read: One law, many problems

A release from the President’s media division on April 1 claimed that the protest was an extremist conspiracy. It said: “It has been revealed that a group of organised extremists who were among the protesters near the Jubilee Post in Nugegoda had started a riot and created a violent situation. This group, carrying iron bars, clubs and sticks, had provoked the protesters and marched towards the President’s residence in Pangiriwatta in Mirihana, causing a riot. Many of those involved in this violent incident have been arrested and many have been identified as organised extremists.”

It added: “They had led the protest shouting the slogans ‘let’s create an Arab Spring in this country’. Detainees have revealed that the riot was carried out using social media anonymously to provoke people in order to destablise the country.”

The government’s spokespersons who were defending the government that day, including Keheliya Rambukwella, Health Minister, could not answer the media, which for once was asking searching questions about the protests. This was because most of the mediapersons at the press conference had been at the protest site too, and the government’s fiction in the press release did not cut much ice with them. For once, almost in unison, they reflected the mood of the people, and asked what the government was doing to mitigate the sufferings of the people.

The Rajapaksa clan

To keep public anger simmering, there needs to be a focus, an enemy, so that the discontent can be sustained to a level where the ruler can be deposed. In this case, the anger has a focus: the Rajapaksa family. For the first time in the history of independent Sri Lanka, it is not a minority community like the Tamils initially or the Muslims later, who are being seen as the enemy. It is a bunch of hardcore Sinhala chauvinists from Hambantota, the Sinhala heartland. The members of the Rajapaksa family, who spurned the Tamil and minority vote and who were embraced by the Sinhalese in the 2019 presidential election as their own, are now being branded as the enemies of public good. While mismanagement of state affairs is the main reason for this, the optics of seven members from a single family occupying positions of power has added fuel to the discontent.

Among them, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was considered brash and outspoken but honest. That image is now in tatters; instead, he is now seen as yet another Rajapaksa hanging on to power. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is the binding force of the family. He is the peacemaker and the dealmaker. He is the reason why the Rajapaksas are still in power. He has managed to garner the support of 159 MPs in the 225-member Parliament. Unless Mahinda is unseated through a defeat on a no-confidence motion on the floor of Parliament, dislodging the Rajapaksas will prove to be difficult.

Basil and Chamal are the two other Rajapaksa brothers who are in positions of power. Basil, once part of a three-member Sri Lankan team that negotiated with India during the Eelam war years (2006-09), is clueless now as Finance Minister. The quiet Chamal, who was previously Speaker of the Parliament, is the Home Minister.

Mahinda’s son Namal Rajapaksa is the Youth and Sports Minister who was seen as suave and urbane. Videos surfaced of him surfing in the Maldives last month, and public anger has been directed against him ever since.

Like Namal, other members of the family are in positions of power because they belong to Sri Lanka’s first family: Yoshitha Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s son, is his Chief of Staff; Shasheendra Rajapaksa, Chamal’s elder son, is a State Minister, while Shameendra Rajapaksa, another son of Chamal, is the Director of Sri Lankan Airlines. Besides, close relatives have been given plum posts in diplomatic missions and public sector undertakings.

The public did not have a problem with the country being run by the Rajapaksas as long as the clan delivered. But the current crisis, which has turned from an economic one to a political crisis purely because of the miscalculation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has thrown up the question whether this is the beginning of the end of the Rajapaksa clan’s stranglehold on state power.

Opposition lethargy

Political parties of the opposition have so far not been very active in anti-government protests. There have been a few meetings by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and a protest in Parliament, but organised protests are beginning only now because the people have begun asking questions of the opposition too. On April 1, as many as 11 political parties that support the government asked the President to dissolve the current Cabinet and form a caretaker government instead.

Most people that this correspondent met across several towns in the south did not have any high hopes from the opposition too. One person wanted to know why the leaders were not interested in the people’s woes. A person waiting in a queue said: “The only politician who has visited a petrol station is the Indian [External Affairs] Minister, S. Jaishankar. Where are our Ministers and elected representatives?”

Many others joined in, expressing similar views: that all politicians are the same and that the people will only be replacing one set of incompetent people in governance with another set. There was one startling suggestion from a young man, who wanted to know if the “Indian government and all other foreign governments can send relief directly to us, instead of giving it to the government?” He added that he did not trust the “government people” to give it to the people of the country. This is the level of mistrust of the political class.

Also, a majority of those Frontline spoke to, across towns, did not believe that the Army was a responsible, non-corrupt organisation. Some of the responses were: “They are the same”; “They are supporting the government in power”; “They are running everything”; “They are part of the problem.”

Also read: Under fire

Roshan Mahanama, former captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team, was among those who weighed in on the problems on Twitter. He said: “I am writing this post with a very heavy heart as I am hurt and sad to see the state of my country which is on the brink of an economic depression, caused by our incompetent power-hungry rulers.” He added: “I must say that I love my country and I am more patriotic than most of these so-called leaders, as I did not leave the country when I got an opportunity. I request all of you to set aside religion, race, political class, beliefs and stand as one nation at this point in time…. Let us raise our voice and say ‘enough is enough’. I stand with the people of this country, joined by a common purpose to take our beautiful motherland out of these dark times and create a peaceful environment for our future generations.”

Herein also lies Sri Lanka’s problem: who or what is the alternative to those in power? An official said that this correspondent was framing the question wrong. He said: “You should first remove these people [the Rajapaksas]. Everything else comes later.”

From the actions of the President, it is very clear that he is not going anywhere; the Rajapaksas are digging in. There are reports of difference of opinion among the brothers, but Mahinda’s visit to the President the day after the Mirihana protests put to rest any speculation that there was any serious difference of opinion within the clan. The Rajapaksas control state power, they control most arms of the government, and they have established a working relationship with India and a partnership with China. As long as the police and the Army are willing to do the government’s bidding, they cannot be dislodged from power.

However, there are two riders to this: one, if the politically ambitious Army Chief and the patriotic Defence Secretary decide to go by the book and not kowtow to the Rajapaksas, there will be a sudden change in Sri Lanka. Two, if 47 of the 159 MPs supporting the ruling party decide to vote against the SLPP government, then Mahinda’s government will fall, leading to a series of changes. But both possibilities are far-fetched.

Fear of India, no anger against China

Both India and China are keenly watching the unfolding situation and have helped the country out in terms of food and financial and material aid. While Indian politicians and officials stay in the limelight in Sri Lanka, the Chinese embrace the media for specific purposes. Across the southern skyline though, from Colombo to Hambantota, most of the high-rises are Chinese-built, and many are Chinese-held. Regardless of this, it is India that gets the flak for what Sri Lankans see as acts of omission and commission on the part of the overbearing northern neighbour.

India’s historical support to Tamil militants at one point of time in the past has resulted in even the well-heeled Sinhala aristocracy’s irrational anger against the country. In a group interaction with Frontline , one person expressed fears that Indians would buy up land in Sri Lanka; another was apprehensive that India would push for taking away the Tamil-speaking northern areas using the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution; yet another attempted to explain the crisis by raising the question of “who benefits if Sri Lanka falls”.

Also read: Distress and divide

In their view, the Sri Lankan economic crisis, although a self-created one, was aggravated by India’s ‘games’. Nothing would flatter South Block or the Research and Analysis Wing more, since India has steadily lost clout in Sri Lankan affairs in recent times.

Another discernible response to the crisis was the lack of anger against China on the surface. Asked why, a protester in Kaluthara in the south, said: “These guys screwed it up. Why blame China or anyone else?” The Chinese presence in Sri Lanka cannot be missed: as you drive out of the airport, you have to take the Chinese-built expressway to get to the city. As you near the city, you pass an interchange, held together in one stretch with gold-coloured steel wire rope—again Chinese-built. The most imposing structure as one enters the city is the Chinese-built Lotus Tower. Across the city, the Chinese have bagged construction projects, and signs in Mandarin are a familiar sight.

More repression ahead

The imposition of the emergency gives even more powers to the government to repress people, since “the public security ordinance describes emergency as a clear situation of exceptional threat, danger or disaster, where the government can be given powers not permitted during normal times”, according to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lanka-based think tank. In making the proclamation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has forced opposition political parties to react, converting what was essentially an economic problem into a political crisis.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has demanded a withdrawal of the ordinance and has asked the government not to use it “to stifle peaceful protest and dissent or to make arbitrary arrests and detentions”. Several politicians too have demanded that the ordinance be rescinded.

But the government appears to be in no mood to relent. The chief weakness in its strategy is the inability to find someone to blame the economic woes on. Until the conclusion of the Eelam war in May 2009, and even for a while later, the Tamils were the Sinhala establishment’s favourite scapegoat. After the 2019 Easter bombings, a new target, Muslims, had arrived, since all the men who were part of the attack were Muslims.

This propelled the SLPP to power in 2020. The India card has been played and worn out. The government is looking for a new demon. Unfortunately, there appears to be no one in sight. As for the people, the villain is clear: it is the Rajapaksa clan. The battle between the people and the Rajapaksas has begun.

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