Photo courtesy of FP News

The present economic failure in Sri Lanka is a long running trajectory. The term failure is used deliberately to account for the decades of failed political leadership that has hauled the country into a race-to-bottom scenario. While the face of the political enterprise has looked different at different points in time, both the present and the past political leaders remain culpable for driving the country to its current predicament. Each successive regime has failed to blueprint a political-economic system to sustain prosperity for the people.

The country now lies at long term debt of 51 billion dollars; economic failure, as staggering as it can look in statistical language, is always felt most disturbingly in the lives of suffering people. As long queues are formed in attempts to acquire essential goods ranging from medicine to fuel – everything and anything that the import economy has sustained thus far – we witness the systematic extermination of people in Sri Lanka, extermination meticulously masked as an economic crisis beyond the control of the government. Four individuals died while queuing to acquire medicine, fuel and gas. Three of them passed out as they stood for over half of the day while one was stabbed in a conflict. The important question here is not how they died but who actually killed them.

Who killed whom?

In supplying, rationing and denying basic means for its people’s survival, it is the power (i.e. the government) that determines who lives and who dies in any state. A government often validates its decision based on abstract ideals such as sovereignty, nationalism and patriotism. Therefore the question of who dies and who lives in this context remains deeply political. This is echoed in writings of philosophers such as Foucault and Mbembe who comprehended conceptions such as biopower and necropolitics. Biopower is useful to articulate the way in which a state governs the life and death of all people and administers populations according to the state’s dictates. To make the administration process easier the state will create norms for its population to organize itself according the state’s desire. The process is based on an ideology and the government plays the key role in making sure that those who cannot conform to the desired ideology are immediately eliminated.

Deciding who lives and who dies is necropolitics where the government makes the choice on who is allowed to live and who has to die. Those who die in the queue were eliminated because they were unable to conform to the new norm of the state – a life of sacrifice in an economic crisis. However, this extermination does not account for murder. It is disguised as consequences of an economic crisis and factors beyond the control of the state. The deaths are the ultimate sacrifice made by people for the government to maintain its control. Therefore the ideology of sacrifice, re-vamped as the new norm of the Sri Lankan state, is thrust on the population that is left to organize itself or face the threat of extermination.

The ideology of sacrifice 

The call for the population to make sacrifices for the incompetency of the government has become common parlance where the term sacrifice has featured in presidential and prime ministerial speeches at different points of contemporary Sri Lankan history. President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa uses the word sacrifice explicitly and implicitly in many of his orations, which could lead one to surmise that sacrifice is the mantra of his regime. In his special address to the nation on March 22, 2022, President Rajapaksa implied that sacrifices should be made by the populous for him and his government to deliver results of their political mandate. Although the exact word maybe not be used,  phrases and terms such as “placing the utmost trust in the leader” and “responsibility of people” imply sacrifice of one’s rights, including the right to life, to an all-encompassing leader/state. In the present case, sacrifice involves the systemic extermination of individuals by the government where lives lost in the queues do not account for murder. Agamben, a political philosopher who comments on the concept of “homo sacer”, notes that power can eliminate an individual without the death being considered murder by the law of the land. Similarly, when an individual is exterminated at a queue as they stand in a futile attempt to sustain their lives, they are killed. However, that death is not considered murder in Sri Lanka.

Slow extermination and immediate extermination

What is critical in understanding the nature of systemic extermination in Sri Lanka is the slow and immediate nature of the killing that is currently taking place – the lives taken by power as people queue to buy essential items and lives that are lost as people re-organize themselves and wait for the government to temporalily relieve scarcities based on the interests of the political elite. Lives that are dismissed as regions in the country endure blackouts spanning more than 13 hours a day. Lives that are denied as routine surgeries are suspended due to lack of essential medical drugs. These are only a handful of inequalities that are evidence of the continued hierarchization of the lives that matter and the lives that do not. Those who do not die in the queue die slowly everywhere else. Exasperation is felt in an uncertain future of interminable debt and potential public unrest. The governing political elite remains arrogant and free in their power often dismissing their own culpability for their failures and the lives they take in guise of an economic crisis.

Any hope for emancipation?

The hope for emancipation is bleak but is not impossible. In fact, the exhaustion of being continuously dehumanized by the state is a beacon of hope to achieve true transformation. However, it cannot come through political leaders who demand “utmost trust” and treat emancipation as a gift that they should hand out to the people. Their political slogans are mere monologues that represent hollow promises and manipulate the public conscience. To put simply, if we continue electing political leaders expecting them to gift emancipation, a day of true transformation will not dawn. What is required is the understanding that transformation should be critically led by the people who are continuously dehumanized and whose lives are dispensable at the whim of the political elite. As for the political leadership, the words of Brazilian philosopher and educatorPaulo Freire are of utmost importance – transformation cannot be done for the oppressed; it is done with the oppressed.

Piyumani Ranasinghe is a Masters candidate at the University of South-Eastern Norway, specializing in human rights and multiculturalism.