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Rajapaksa, elected in 2019 in a massive electoral victory, promised a clean, technocratic rule and competence in governance ushering in prosperity to Lanka. But it took only two years to dismantle his larger than himself image, mostly created by his role as the secretary of defence who successfully oversaw the conclusion of Lanka’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and the relentless mythmaking by a network of private media outlets led by Derana TV that created an image of himself as a “doer” based on this military success. That euphoria is already a distant memory.
Now, the country’s food and energy security has been decidedly compromised; hospitals have run out of medicines and most non-essential surgeries have been postponed indefinitely; tourist arrivals have plummeted; the country’s foreign exchange reserves have reached a dangerous low and daily life of citizens is typified by waiting in long queues for cooking gas, fuel and milk powder while most essential items are in short supply. And there are island-wide lengthy power cuts daily, impacting both industry and day to day life. Lankans have not experienced this kind of deprivations on an island-wide scale even in the worst years of its civil war.
A family matter
The conditions that led to the country’s present chaos have been going on for a long time and its most obvious roots go back to previous phases of Rajapaksa rule. A major part of the problem is linked to irrational borrowing for white elephant projects without putting in place pragmatic plans for repayment. These projects include the Rajapaksa International Airport in Mattala which has been dubbed by some as ‘the world’s emptiest airport’, the Hambantota Harbour which has now been leased to a state-owned Chinese company for 99 years and the Lotus Tower in Colombo which was supposed to be South Asia’s tallest structure that now remains empty. All of these have been constructed with Chinese loans.
Along with these wasteful projects from a planning and developmental perspective, a lingering popular perception has been that they have also financially enriched the ruling family and their political allies. Though several well-documented exposés by international media have been circulating for some time, identifying some individuals in the Rajapaksa clan and their inner circle by name in corruption allegations, none of these have been challenged in courts by the Rajapaksas. And much of the Rajapaksas’ and their political supporters’ rather obvious wealth is undocumented, undeclared and unexplained.
Moreover, most court cases implicating the Rajapaksas and their political allies have been routinely thrown out by courts since President Rajapaksa took office. One of the most powerful slogans in the protests, “Give us our money back”, comes from this situation.
Another issue that has occupied the public imagination and has manifested in the ongoing protests is the problem of extreme nepotism in governance. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the prime minister until his resignation recently under extreme public pressure. Another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, was a senior minister as was yet another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, until their recent resignations and the dissolution of the cabinet consequent to the exit of the prime minister. Mahinda’s elder son was a powerful minister too, while his second son was his chief of staff.
This is only at the pinnacle of state power. Many Rajapaksa offspring and other relatives are parliamentarians or occupy crucial government positions. Some estimates suggest that nearly 70% of the national budget was under the direct purview of politicians linked to the Rajapaksa family via kinship links. Even when compared to South Asia’s rather notorious standards of nepotism in politics, Sri Lanka’s case is truly mind boggling.
Beyond all this, the president’s rather inexplicable fiscal management with needless tax cuts had drained essential income to state coffers and the decision to ban imports of chemical fertiliser supposedly to promote organic agriculture has negatively impacted productivity in the agricultural sector. The latter has led to the escalation of prices even in locally produced food.
‘Go Home Gota’ protests
It is in this background and particularly fuelled by the lack of essential items that the protests began about a month ago, initially as small vigils in intersections in urban centres, which have now spread across the country. But the main centre for agitations has been in front of the Presidential Secretariat and the neighbouring Galle Face Green in Colombo, ensuring that the president does not have access to his office.
The protestors have named the site ‘Gota Go Gama’ (Get Lost Gota Village) that has literally emerged as a thriving community with a movie theatre called Tear Gas Cinema, library, medical centre, legal aid centre, an art space, a speaker’s corner called People’s University, a community kitchen, public toilet, regular musical and theatrical performances, and so on. Obviously, the protestors are there for the long haul and there has been continuous public support going by the way the site was supplied by well-wishers.
The protest site and by default other similar sites that have since sprung up across the country are sustained by three core political positions: non-violent protest; non-affiliation with existing political parties; and sustaining protests until the president and prime minister are gone and a new government capable of handling the country’s debilitating economic problems is installed. It was also a place of equality where Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu public worship as well as the open mingling of people of these faiths stood out as it was unusual by the standards of Lanka’s divisive politics.
This was a microcosm of the future Lanka many of the mostly youthful protestors imagined should be their future. That imagination itself was an important manifestation, given Lanka’s ethnic and religious strife in the recent past and divisive politics more generally. Equally as importantly, the protest, despite the crowds it generated in Colombo and beyond, remained remarkably peaceful, civilised and often extremely creative in expression.
May 9, 2022 and after
Just before May 9, 2022, the president had asked his brother, the prime minister, to resign during a ruling party meeting. But the prime minster and his supporters publicly claimed that he would not do so unless his supporters asked him to. In this context, he asked his supporters to come and meet him to discuss their views.
On May 9, hundreds of them came to his official residence, The Temple Trees in Colombo, from all over the country accompanied by well-known party mob leaders. After demanding from the prime minister that he did not resign, they stepped out of Temple Trees armed with large sticks and proceeded to assault the protestors peacefully agitating outside the premises and burnt their tents and other makeshift structures. All this took place in a high security zone and under a state of emergency declared by the president on May 6.
Encouraged by the inaction of the large police and military presence, Rajapaksa supporters marched to nearby Galle Face Green, the main protest site. There too, under military and police non-intervention, they burnt the library, art space and many other iconic protest structures that had come up organically over the previous four weeks. This unprovoked and orchestrated violence emanating directly from the prime minister’s official residence was in stark contrast with the four weeks of non-violent anti-government protests.
But things changed within half an hour. In addition to belated police action to push the marauders away, residents from nearby Colombo 2 and workers in construction sites in the vicinity came to the rescue of the protesters, alerted by WhatsApp messages asking for help and live social media and television coverage of the assault. Before the end of the day, the hitherto peaceful demonstrations had taken a decisively different turn and moved away from the non-violent ideals of the young protestors who had so far maintained the centre stage of agitations: many of the vehicles that ferried Rajapaksa gangs were burnt or severely damaged, and some were driven into the nearby Beira Lake while the captured culprits were also dumped in the same body of water while others were stripped, publicly shamed and photographed and these images circulated on social media.
By nightfall, nine people were dead across the country and about 65 houses belonging to ruling party politicians, including the ancestral home of the Rajapaksas, were burnt. As a consequence, the man who instigated this violence, the prime minister, resigned in the evening, and fled with his family to the highly protected naval base in Trincomalee on May 10.
Resurrection of Ranil Wickremasinghe and what’s next
Among the most vociferous slogans in the ongoing agitations was “We don’t want all 225”, referring to the protestors’ lack of trust with all the parliamentarians representing different shades of politics from the left to the right. It was a clear indictment of the polity’s dissatisfaction with the nature of Lankan politics in general.
In this context, President Rajapaksa’s appointment of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe as the new prime minister on May 12 shows that neither he nor his new prime minister have any interest in listening to the rather vociferous demands for total political change demanded by people. Wickremasinghe in his previous three incarnations as prime minister never completed a full term. Moreover, the United National Partly led by him failed to secure a single seat in parliament in the last Sri Lankan general election in 2020. Wickremasinghe lost his own seat. Thanks to the benefits of the system of proportional representation, he appointed himself to parliament based on the overall votes his party had acquired. But in doing so, he overlooked many other party members who had acquired much more votes than him. To put it more bluntly, Wickremasinghe has been soundly rejected by the voters as late as 2020.
In this context, appointing him as prime minster at a crucial time like the present is not only illegitimate and antidemocratic, but is also a decision popularly despised. However, already the ambassador of the United States has congratulated him, while the Indian High Commission in Colombo tweeted a welcoming tweet. This seeming ‘international’ recognition comes so rapidly, even when he is yet to establish his majority in parliament, given his well-established neoliberal and pro-Western credentials. And in so doing, the global as well as local well-wishers conveniently forget Wickremasinghe’s implication in political violence in the 1990s as well as his shielding of political allies from corruption investigations and litigation in the short-lived 2015 government in which he was the prime minister.
Moreover, Wickremasinghe is perhaps the greatest protector of the Rajapaksas. In the 2015 government, Wickremasinghe played a crucial role in ensuring that a number of critical cases involving the Rajapaksas never went to court ensuring they could quickly reestablish themselves and emerge victorious in the 2020 general election and pave the way for the present crisis. So, by picking Wickremasinghe as prime minster, the president was not looking at the long-term survival or recovery of the country, but the survival of himself and his family. Sadly, the first committee Wickremasinghe appointed to take charge of crucial day to day services does not have any experts, but merely a group of close political allies with dubious track records.
Lanka’s greatest misfortune is that it does not have any serious political options. Even if the exit of the Rajapaksas is somehow completed, it does not necessarily mean there is competent leadership within the present parliament capable of democratic governance and not tainted by corruption, criminality or engagement in political violence. So, with the economic crisis still unresolved, the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the appointment of Wickremasinghe is not a solution. It is merely the enactment of yet another political drama no one wanted and distracting attention from the pain the polity continues to feel.
If the ongoing protests diminish through fatigue and fail to monitor Wickremasinghe in the same way the Rajapaksas have been monitored and publicly reprimanded over the last four weeks with many important victories, Lanka’s fall into the abyss will not only be inevitable but extremely painful as well.
Sasanka Perera is Professor of Sociology and Dean of Social Sciences at South Asian University, New Delhi.