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Cover Story: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: The siege within

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-
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Protest outside the President’s office in Colombo on April 15. The anger and resentment against the Rajapaksas rise from a deep economic crisis, which was fuelled by misplaced priorities and mismanagement.

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At a fuel station in Colombo on April 15. Daily protests across the country have been a defining feature of Sri Lanka for over a month as prices of essential commodities rise with each passing day, queues at fuel stations grow longer and longer, and planned power cuts become the only predictable part of daily life.

People, cutting across communities, are paying the price for the rulers’ misplaced policies and priorities. As the ruling Rajapaksas refuse to accede to the popular demand for their resignation, the island nation is on the verge of implosion.

On the night of Avurudu, the Sinhalese New Year, which falls on April 14, people poured out onto the streets of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, in a celebration of sorts. “Gota Go home,” they chanted in English, along with its Tamil and Sinhala versions—the three languages spoken in the island-nation. They all wanted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. This was the largest protest in the heart of Colombo in the past few decades.

Usually, Colombo empties out during the weeks of Avurudu and Vesak Poya (in May), and people travel to their home towns or go on holidays. This time around, the people in the capital city, home to nearly a fourth of the country’s population, seem to have decided that there were far more important things to do in Colombo than to celebrate the new year.

“I have genuinely not ever walked through crowds like this,” journalist Roel Raymond, who has filed a Fundamental Rights petition against the imposition of Emergency on April 1, noted on Twitter on April 14. “This is a massive demonstration against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Rajapaksas, and the current political system. Calls for justice and to return stolen money abound.”

Daily protests across the country have been a defining feature of Sri Lanka for over a month as prices of essential commodities rise with each passing day, queues at fuel stations grow longer and longer, and planned power cuts become the only predictable part of daily life. People’s misery has to be seen to be believed. The anger and resentment against the Rajapaksas rise from this deep economic crisis, which was fuelled by misplaced priorities and mismanagement.

Also read: Sri Lanka's downward spiral into full-blown crisis

People took to social media to tell their problems live even as an embattled government looked for scapegoats and excuses. “I waited for two hours in the queue to find out that they didn’t have enough fuel to continue pumping,” a frustrated Sri Lankan posted on social media along with a video of a fuel station in Colombo. “Thank you Gotabaya and on behalf of all Sri Lankans, take the message and #GoHomeGota,” he added.

Thousands of people across the country echo the slogan—of asking the President to step down (‘Island in Dire Straits’, Frontline , April 22, 2022).

On April 14, a police officer joined the protesters and appealed to his colleagues not to carry out the orders of those in power. This was the second time a police officer had joined the protest in recent times. One protester told this correspondent that this officer’s speech, in Sinhala, was powerful, and that he did not mince words on who had to be blamed for the crisis. Videos of his speech went viral on social media. He was later picked up by the notorious Special Investigation Unit of the Sri Lankan Military Police.

In another incident on the same day, people surrounded the house of Shantha Bandara, a Member of Parliament who was sworn in recently as a State Minister, and demanded that he come out and explain what he would do for the people. The police soon converged on the spot and cordoned off the house.

The Rajapaksas hang on

Even as the country slips into a governance limbo, the ruling Rajapaksas are in no mood to give in to the political solution the people of Sri Lanka are looking for—resignation of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, on April 13, made a desperate attempt to reach out to the protesters via Twitter, after backchannel attempts to invite them for a discussion failed. The protesters have set up temporary camps in Colombo’s prestigious Galle Face waterfront, across the Presidential Secretariat.

He tweeted: “I’m willing & prepared to meet with citizens currently engaged in the protests at Galle Face to hear their thoughts & complaints. Understanding that this is a tough time for all of us, I invite them to meet & discuss any possible, plausible courses of action for the sake of #lka [Sri Lanka].”

Also read: Roots of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

The nearly 2,000 responses on his timeline (as on April 14 evening) included abuse. The general theme was that he should quit, and take his brother along. Some people responded by posting pictures of the main demands of the protesters.

Pasted across Colombo, these demands are: (a) the President and Prime Minister should resign; (b) No parliamentary positions should be given for anyone from the Rajapaksa family; and (c) the 19th Amendment should be reinstated. (The 19th Amendment sought to dilute the powers of the executive presidency. It was passed in 2015. The new government of Gotabaya repealed it. The protesters want this provision back.)

The protesters also made it clear that they would not “give up until these demands were met”. Yet again, on the occasion of the Tamil and Sinhala New Year, Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted: “As the New Year dawns on our nation during one of the most challenging times for us as a people, let us come together as one, to work towards a better future for #Sri Lanka.”

His message had only greetings written, unusually, only in Sinhala. Language is a very sensitive issue in Sri Lanka and even transport buses clearly state the origin and destination in three languages—Sinhala, Tamil and English. The Prime Minister, clearly, is sending a message in his tweet. Many of the responses to it had hashtags such as #GoHomeRajapaksas #GotaGoHome and #GotaGoGama (literally Gota, Go village; meaning Gotabaya, go back to your village).

Gotabaya tweeted new year’s greetings in Sinhala, telling people that the country will “overcome the current economic crisis with unity and understanding”. Journalist Munza Mushtaq, among many others, responded in the same language, which, roughly translated, would mean: “Prosperity comes to Sri Lanka when you go home. When you go, take the whole family.”

Even earlier, on April 11, Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to assuage the agitating people through an address to the nation that the government would get its act together quickly. He said that the government was working tirelessly to address the problems, and asked people to be patient. The response from the people was filled with ridicule and derision.

Also read: Inherited problems that led to economic crisis

Even as it appears increasingly to be a people versus Rajapaksa struggle, the news website The Leader published an article in Sinhala quoting government sources that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son and former Minister, Namal Rajapaksa, is likely to be appointed Prime Minister, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the protests, which are largely led by the youth. This speculation comes at a time when Gotabaya is considering forming a new Cabinet in the near future.

Journalist Saroj Pathirana discounted this theory. “Namal has even declined to join the new Cabinet of Ministers, let alone becoming new Prime Minister, sources from the Prime Minister’s office tell me,” he noted.

Like the protesters, the government too is using the same medium, but only to divide them. Sanjana Hattotuwa, who does research on disinformation, posted on his Twitter handle on April 13: “100s of pro-GR [Gotabaya] or pro-MR [Mahinda] FB [Facebook] pages producing posts like this [he added pictures], instigating hate, unrest & corrupting protest narrative. #GoHomeGota protests framed & dismissed as a project by TNA [Tamil National Alliance], NPP [ National People’s Power, a coalition of political parties in Sri Lanka] or JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna]. Gotabaya is still projected as saviour. Rajapaksas doing what Rajapaksas do.”

Bankruptcy & debt default

On April 12, Sri Lanka finally took the most difficult financial decision in recent times: to stop all international debt payments until the country’s economy improved. A release from the Ministry of Finance said: “It shall therefore be the policy of the Sri Lankan government to suspend normal debt servicing…for an interim period pending an orderly and consensual restructuring of those obligations in a manner consistent with an economic adjustment program[me] supported by the IMF [International Monetary Fund].”

Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt is $51 billion. The release further stated: “The government is taking the emergency measures … only as a last resort in order to prevent further deterioration of the Republic’s financial position and to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all creditors…in the comprehensive debt restructuring that now seems inescapable. The government has taken extraordinary steps in an effort to avoid a resort to these measures, but it is now apparent that any further delay risks inflicting permanent damage on Sri Lanka’s economy and causing potentially irreversible prejudice to the holders of the country’s external public debts.”

Also read: Why Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt

Sri Lanka’s Daily FT headline on page one screamed the next morning: ‘Sri Lanka declares bankruptcy.’ This is the first time since Sri Lanka became independent that the country had defaulted on its external debt service obligations. Market borrowings form the largest pile of the debt (47 per cent). All ratings agencies have downgraded Sri Lanka. “This wasn’t unexpected as we knew home-grown [solutions] of Ajith Nivard [former Central Bank of Sri Lanka Governor] wouldn’t work,” said W.A. Wijewardena, former Central Bank Deputy Governor.

What infuriates people is that all this was foretold. On April 12, Deshal de Mel, an economist, shared on Twitter an internal government note from December 4, 2019. It said: “It is evident that the recent tax revisions will have a significant threat to Sri Lanka’s medium term debt sustainability…. If Sri Lanka loses access to global bond markets due to an unsustainable fiscal position, there is an increased likelihood of default on external debt for the first time in post-independence history.”

This note turned out to be prophetic. It added: “Even without a default, in the medium term these tax reductions will generate pressure for higher domestic interest rates, weaker currency, and higher inflation.” The tax reduction referred to here is what Gotabaya gave Sri Lanka soon after he was elected President in 2019. The tax cuts were a popular measure, and Gotabaya’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), won a landslide victory in the ensuing parliamentary elections. Ordinary Sri Lankan citizens are now paying the price for this largesse, which was accentuated by the COVID pandemic and declining foreign remittances.

Meanwhile, SriLankan Airlines placed an advertisement on its website for the lease of 40 aircraft. An aghast Harsha de Silva, a Colombo MP, said: “Sri Lanka is bankrupt … where the hell is money for this nonsense?”

SriLankan Airlines clarified that all aircraft operated by the airline are leased and that the leases were expiring over the next few years. It said: “Replacement leases can be taken at significantly more favourable market rates…. This exercise is targeting an overall reduction in the airlines cost structure, continuing to the cost restructuring carried out successfully over the last two years. The number of aircraft sought to be replaced over several years is 21 and not 42 as incorrectly reported.”

After the clarification, Harsha pointed out that “this is certainly not priority during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. People need fuel, gas, cancer drugs, milk powder; not aircraft.”

Also read: Sri Lanka's forex crisis bodes ill for tottering economy

Charitha Herath, MP, joined Harsha in expressing his deep shock over the advertisement: “True. It is an utter joke to publish such a notice by a state-owned enterprise which is already making huge losses.”

That is not all. In the middle of the worst economic crisis, Sri Lanka’s Lankadeepa newspaper revealed that actor Bandu Samarasinghe, who supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the last election and who was not “accommodated” in a suitable post, was made Consul General in Milan, Italy. “So far no official announcement has been made over the new appointment,” the website Newswire reported. The government later clarified that his name was proposed but no decision had been taken yet.

The protesters are wary of the opposition political parties too. Just a few years ago, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) shared power, and it was their bickering and lack of governance that propelled the Rajapaksas to power, via a newly founded political party, the SLPP.

The UNP has since split, and its leader, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesimnghe, who holds the reins of a weakened party, has been seen as talking sense in parliament and outside. Many protesters, however, do not want him either as he is also seen as part of the problem.

Although Sri Lanka’s tentative opposition political parties have shed their lethargy and come out to protest in parliament and outside in the recent past, there is a clear divide between the political parties and the protesters. Regardless of this, the left-leaning JVP and the opposition combine, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), are working to unseat the government. On April 14, the JVP announced that it would hold a public meeting and protest march again through April 17-19 in support of the public demand that the President and Prime Minister must resign.

On April 13, Sajith Premadasa, the Leader of the Opposition, said that he had signed an impeachment motion against the President and a no-confidence motion against the government. Sajith Premadasa, son of former President R. Premadasa, who was assassinated on May 1, 1993, is best placed to challenge the government in parliament but had not talked about moves such as a non-confidence motion or impeachment until now, even though signatures were being collected for the motions in March. “Without change, we will not stop,” he tweeted. “SJB signing No Confidence Motion and Impeachment Motion. Constitutional Amendment to abolish Executive Presidency & Repeal 20th Amendment on the way.”

Communal unity

One feature of the agitation is that all communities that have a stake in Sri Lanka are part of it—Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim. Muslims have been seen praying at the Galle Face protest site, and Tamils and Sinhalese have been seen respecting the sentiment of Muslims. In fact, one of most widely shared WhatsApp message on April 13 was this: “From tomorrow onwards, 14.04.2022, let’s call it the ‘Sri Lankan New Year’ and not Sinhala and Tamil new year as we are all Sri Lankans.”

Also read: Free speech under threat amid political turmoil

C.V.K. Sivagnanam, deputy general secretary of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), said on April 9 that “Sinhala youngsters carrying placards questioning the fate of Tamils taken away by Gota’s army in 2009 is strong dawn of realization & understanding grievances of Tamils. It would augur well for both communities & the country if that leads to political solution.”

Turning to India, China

Even as the stalemate continues, Sri Lanka took the first steps to avert further deterioration of conditions, with top representatives from the government approaching both India and China for help. Meanwhile, the government continued negotiations with the IMF to figure a way out.

India had already agreed to provide $1.9 billion in loans, currency swaps and credit lines. In addition, India was considering providing $2 billion in various forms of support. Sri Lanka wanted more, to the tune of $500 million, and help with extending the deadline to pay dues to the Asian Clearing Union.

China has provided nearly $3 billion under various arrangements. This is in addition to the $3.5 billion debt that it already owes China. The food aid and the financial packages put forth by both China and India are keeping Sri Lanka afloat for now. Hence, Sri Lanka has a narrow time limit to finalise its arrangements with the IMF, because once the aid runs out, Sri Lanka’s food shelves will run dry.

The protesters are not pleased with these developments. “The aid will mean that the Rajapaksas control distribution, and this will help them remain in power,” one IT professional told this correspondent. “India should have distributed the aid to us with the help of international relief organisations. The government will not to do it properly.”

Also read: ‘They kept denying that there was a crisis’

A few Tamils who lived through the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka were of the opinion that India was making the wrong move again. “Helping the Sri Lankan government now is equivalent to working against the will of the people. Doesn’t India see that Sri Lankans across the world are protesting? India is helping the Rajapaksas now,” a representative of the group, who did not want to be named, said. A Sinhalese professional shared his sentiment. “This government is the reason for our problems. Why is India helping them and not the people?” he asked.

China too was told in no uncertain terms what the sentiment of the protesters is. A massive signage ‘Gota Go Home’ was fixed across the fencing of the Port City, the multi-billion dollar Chinese tax-free island project in Galle Face.

The competitive assistance provided by India and China is not enough for Sri Lanka to tide over the political and economic crisis that has engulfed the country. Economists are of the opinion that regardless of who is in power, the pain following a restructuring will be felt by most Sri Lankans for a long time. Herein is the problem: do people have the patience to put up a few years of hardship before the economy turns around? According to a few responses from the ground, it appears unlikely.

The political turnaround will be more tricky. An intelligence official expressed concern that there could be some “melodrama” involving someone in high office, such as an attempt on his life. This will apparently happen a few weeks after the country appears to head towards stability. This staged event might be used as an opportunity to turn one community against the other. Right now, the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims have come together to protest. But if a clever game is played, the majority community, the Sinhalese, could be “won over”, by portraying one of the two minority communities as villains.

Either way, in the end, people have to pay the price for the economic profligacy of those it selected to rule. The question is, how big will be the price.

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