Photo courtesy of ABC News

The newspaper headlines say it all – gas shortages, no money to import medicine, there will be no bread soon, staple vegetables are unaffordable, power cuts are starting and there is only enough fuel for two weeks while the government begs for money from friend and foe while selling off the country’s assets in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable crunch to come. Stubbornly refusing to go the IMF in spite of the fact that any conditions it imposes will improve long term stability, the government continues to apply plasters to cure cancer.

Any protest, no matter how small, is being ruthlessly supressed. Even a woman who gave an interview about her difficulties while waiting to buy gas in Matara was questioned by the CID. When the president was booed by people waiting to buy milk powder in a queue as he was passing by, the CID harassed the shop owner and tried to locate the hooters.

In a case of shooting the messenger, a minister who dared to voice his concerns from within the fold was dismissed while there are regular resignations of professional, educated technocrats who were supposed to get the country back on track.

It seems that every deal the government goes for is being criticised and sometimes taken to court from the Trincomalee oil farm to the Eastern container terminal and the Yugadanavi power station. The signs of corruption are everywhere.

The recent events in Kazakhstan, where protests over increased fuel prices forced the government out, demonstrate what happens when people are pushed to the brink. However it came at a heavy price with 164 deaths and over 5,000 arrests when, as in Myanmar, the government went the heavy handed route by firing upon and killing its own citizens. Countries such as Lebanon, Venezuela and Zimbabwe show what economic ruin looks like.

So whither Sri Lanka?

Groundviews spoke to Executive Director of Centre of Policy Alternatives Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu about Sri Lanka’s woes and what 2022 may hold in store.

What did 2021 reveal about the country’s leaders?

The year 2021 was the year in which the myths of the SLPP government being staffed with professionals and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being able to provide decisive leadership unravelled. While the pandemic adversely affected the situation, the political management has been pathetic. We are in a situation where the 6.9 million people who voted them in don’t have three meals a day or money to buy medicine or milk powder; farmers have no fertiliser and there are many shortages. The government has shown that it has scant regard for institutions and the system of governance. The distinction between the state and government has blurred and when this is underpinned by those in robes and in uniform, it is extremely dangerous for us as a functioning democracy.

Going into 2022, what do you see as the most pressing problem? 

The most pressing problem is how to surmount the economic crisis. We have so far survived by getting money from here and there but it’s like putting plaster on a badly damaged leg. Structural conditions need to change so there is no option but go to the IMF. Interest rates will go up and the exchange rate will fall but these are sacrifices we have to make because of the mess we have got into. We can’t keep printing money because it leads to inflation as can be seen by soaring prices. There are food shortages due to the fertiliser issue. We have never been in such a parlous situation as we are in now. There is no escape from going to IMF and accepting conditionality.

Are human rights issues taking a back seat because of the economic crisis?

The international community is aware of our situation. In March for the Geneva sessions we have to come up with a written account of what has happened in the past year and another resolution may be passed. These issues won’t go away. Another army officer has been banned from going to the US. The government through G.L. Pieris will want to engage with the international community and the diaspora and civil society. They will take a conciliatory tone. GSP+ is on the line as well. A new Constitution has been crafted but no one knows what is in it. We have known that for the last few years the security apparatus has been questioning activists and conducting surveillance of NGOs for the creation of fear and intimidation, especially in the north and east. It is a distraction to focus on a minority. The President, even though he was elected by Sinhala Buddhists, is supposed to be the president of all citizens. The one country, one law does not make any sense unless there is equality before the law and there is rule of law. The idea of Sri Lanka being a diverse society has gone out lock, stock and barrel.

What will be the government’s response to its waning popularity?

Local Government and Provincial Council elections are due this year. The government will get a lot less votes because it is unpopular but it can’t keep postponing elections. President Rajapaksa has a military mindset that does not enable him to think politically or have compassion for people’s woes. You can’t just give orders and have them followed. The country has become a family business that is not well run. So far we have not had riots although there have been people demonstrating but not in large numbers. There is the recent phenomenon of people hooting at the president and Rajapaksa family members so people won’t tolerate this situation for much longer and they will come out on the streets out of desperation. Hopefully there will be no violence but violence can be manufactured and that’s where the heavy foot comes in. The question is whether the ordinary soldier will obey orders from the top or not. When there is rioting the army is called out and it becomes an even more potent force. All these are problems we have to surmount in 2022.