If you are depressed, like many millions of Sri Lankans are, by the perilous state of the country, everyday shortage of essentials and the nepotistic regime that hangs on to power, you might need something to feel positive. Ranga Jayasuriya specially for the Daily Mirror.
Look no further than protests in the Galle Face Green, and indeed, across the country. They offer a ray of hope for a future that is progressive, inclusive and tolerant.
They are a refreshing alternative to rotten and rent-seeking domestic politics. Those who have gathered across the country to air their opposition to the incumbent regime are there out of their conviction for a better Sri Lanka. They are not your usual ‘Bath packet’ and a bottle of arrack protestors.
They refused to be a sidekick of any political party. They are fiercely independent-minded to the extent that no political party dared to make a televised visit and grab a mic and speak to the media, the usual ruse of most political leaders.
They come from all walks of life; the disabled war heroes, the differently abled, university students, factory managers, the unemployed and the cosplaying youth. They are inclusive of Sri Lanka’s all communities, of all religions, and of all places. They are microscopic of Sri Lanka. They represent what Sri Lanka should aspire to be: a place that is tolerant, caring and inclusive.
Consider the ongoing protests on the Galle Face Green, where the thousands of protestors have camped up. They set up a well-oiled mechanism to cater to basic needs from clearing the trash to providing emergency medical care. Total strangers chipped in, volunteering in their expertise and bringing in food to feed thousands.
As Muslims broke fast at the protest site, the others served food. Tamils lobbied for emergency medical supplies from diaspora donors to local hospitals which are running out of life-saving medicine.
Two years ago, such unity was unthinkable. Gotabaya Rajapaksa championed Sinhala Buddhist racial exclusivism to win the presidency. For the next two years, his regime, like his brother Mahinda’s did, thrived in racist dog-whistling and overt discrimination of minorities. They pitted communities against each other. The irony is that the incompetent and corrupt regime of the Rajapaksas has finally brought the nation together. That is something to be cheerful about!
You should not have missed another important distinction: The usual culprits, the ageing monks, Octogenarian and borderline racist opinion-makers that media usually go for expert commentary on everything that matters (and who unmistakably utter some conspiracy theories and racist gibberish) have been thrown to the side-line by the youthful protestors. You did not get to hear from Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera or Gunadasa Amarasekara.
They are indeed the other side of the coin of the Rajapaksa’s regime: Backword, regressive and more often than not racist. The cosmopolitan youth offer a refreshing alternative. The young and old, opinionated and progressive protestors have raised to the moment to take back their country not just from a kleptocratic familiocracy, but also from other usual yesterday garbage.
They are the true owners of Sri Lanka’s future. Sri Lanka today is a different country than it was two years back. As much as it is poorer, it is of so much positive energy and hope. It is this new-found strength that should guide Sri Lanka – and not feudal ‘nobodies’ who become ‘somebodies’ by duping a large swathe of naïve population to get into the elected office and to rob the resources and sap the energy of the nation.
Yet, the future of the nation and of its youth is slipping through our fingers. Sri Lankans stare at the gloomy days ahead. Even with the best of the efforts, the immediate future would be one of extreme hardship and economic pain. The Rupee is on a rapid downward spiral, having lost more than 60% against the dollar within a month. Liquid foreign reserves are virtually non-existent. Temporary measures such as the Indian relief package would run out by May, exacerbating the power crisis. Hospitals are facing a crippling shortage of life-saving drugs.
Though no official numbers exists – the website of the Department of Census and Statistics has not been updated for some time- Sri Lanka’s poverty rate has increased exponentially, probably by three-fold over the last twelve months. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s overnight ban on chemical fertilizer pushed a large swathe of farming families (which number 1.8 million) into poverty. Extreme hunger is a major concern.
The Rajapaksas are accused of serial robbery of the nation’s wealth, and they did so very skilfully and invested back some of the looted wealth through the middlemen. Protestors across the country want them to go home, but reimburse their looted wealth before that. Others want them to go to jail.
Most third world rulers, who are unaccountable to their people and institutions, are crooks, but few have ruined the nation through a classic show of incompetency and politically calculated procrastination of urgent policy decisions as the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime did. The foremost of all were the much delayed going to the IMF and debt restructuring, both for a mixture of political reasons and wheeler-dealing to pay off to the bondholders who bought Sri Lankan international Sovereign Bonds at 40% of the coupon price from the secondary market.
Today Sri Lanka is a broken nation. But, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is insisting on business as usual. He has backtracked on a number of previous appointments of cronies like the Central Bank governor Ajith Nivard Cabrral and his own brother Basil Rajapaksa. Gota would throw any of his cronies under the bus for his political survival, and embrace any accommodating old nemesis. But he would not give up power.
Elections would be in two years from now, the least and cash strapped Sri Lanka is in no place for snap elections either.
How Sri Lanka would compel the Rajapaksas to give up their grip on the nation is tricky. The family expects the protests to lose stem. And the rent-seeking government MPs, even many of 41 MPs who claim they are independent, would not support the impeachment of the president.
Unless local protests are intensified in a way as they did in Tunisia or Egypt- which might also result in them turning ugly – the Rajapaksas would ignore them.
The main opposition SJB is pushing ahead with a no-confidence motion against the government, still, the required numbers are not yet forthcoming. Impeachment of the president still would be a hard sell to the government MPs, though there appears an emerging consensus for a 21st Amendment to prune the powers of the executive presidency, which still need a two-third majority in Parliament.
The international community have a role to play. So is the Sri Lankan diaspora. The international community should demand political stability and accountability in Sri Lanka before any negotiations with the IMF and any form of a substantial aid package. If nothing else, there is a good chance, that much of that relief being looted or misappropriated in the way US$ 7.6 billion of foreign reserves were burnt over two years to sustain an unsustainable Rupee peg and repay loans.
Political stability in Sri Lanka should come through Gotabaya Rajapaksa handing the reins of power to an inclusive interim government.
Sri Lankans abroad have made the world known that their country is ruined by a rogue familiacracy. They would have to chip into rebuild the nation when it is rescued. Asking Gota and Basil to come home to Los Angeles is welcome, but it would be better if they could lobby Washington to hold the duo accountable and return the looted money.
Sri Lanka which is freed from the Rajapaksas’ regressive grip would be one full of promise and hope. It should be a place where people of all communities feel at home and could thrive. The protests across the country imbibe that hope. A kleptocratic familiocracy is preventing that dream become a reality.