Photograph by Pranith Wirasinha

“Beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?”

Do you hear the people sing (Les Misérables)

“I’m 89 years old,” the grandmotherly protestor holding a hand-drawn placard says. “For the last…89 years I have not gone through so much misery. Every time in the night when the light goes off, I cry… I’m going to the polima (queue) in my old age trying to get gas. I stand in the polima to get a packet of milk in my old age… What is the meaning of this? Haven’t they got a heart?” (Newswire – 6.4.2022).

That misery is worse now, and will become infinitely more in the coming months. The discussions with the IMF seem to have ended inconclusively. Other than trying to lease national assets (the list reportedly includes Katunayake, Ratmalana, and Mattala airports and the southern part of the Colombo Port), the Rajapaksas have no economic plan. They have abandoned even the pretence of governance, their energies focused on staying in power. 

The Rajapaksas will not go into the powerless night peacefully. They have a world to protect, and will protect it to death, the country’s and ours. Already one life is lost, two children made fatherless. The residents of Gota-Go-Gama marked the wanton murder of Chaminda Lakshan by laying wreaths outside the Temple Trees. 

Nothing, however, was farther from PM Rajapaksa’s mind than political obsequies. Just hours previously he had informed Neth FM that he will remain prime minister, even in the event of an interim government being formed. “What use of interim governments when people with varying policies can’t see eye to eye?” he asked rhetorically, pertinently. 

The Rajapaksas know what they want. The opposition doesn’t. The Rajapaksas are concentrating their energies and efforts on jamming every constitutional highway and byway to their ouster. The opposition is too busy squabbling over power that is not yet – and may never be – theirs. The SJB and the JVP are wasting time and energy on who can organise a bigger march, probably as a prelude to a future presidential contestation between Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The 11 party ‘Independent group’ is opposed not to the government but to Basil Rajapaksa; their aim is a palace coup to install Dulles Alahapperuma as prime minister under a President Gotabaya.

(A necessary digression. This week the Chinese Ambassador paid a public call on the leaders of the 11 parties in parliament, in a none-too-subtle message to the Rajapaksas about the wages of flouting Beijing’s authority. Obviously China sees Basil Rajapaksa as America’s and India’s Man and plans to regain its grip on Sri Lanka by engineering a power-shift within the regime. China is also pushing the old free trade deal idea as their ‘solution’ to Lankan crisis.). 

A three-pronged effort is needed to eject the Rajapaksas from power peacefully and constitutionally.

The first prong is present, nationwide public protests. 

The second prong is a constitutional path to a post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. The opposition needs to unite around a single roadmap. A major shift in the parliamentary balance is needed to oust the Rajapaksas constitutionally and that won’t happen while the opposition remains in its current state of infantile disunity. 

The third prong is the entry of organised labour into the struggle. The strike option needs to be used, though in a way that minimises the impact on the already suffering masses (for example, the health sector should be kept out of it). The business community, if they are sincere about their vaunted support for change, should become a part of this, paving the way for an unprecedented employee-employer general strike.

The revenge of the economy 

In a yet another first, the Cabinet gave permission to “cut down trees in state-owned plantations and sell the timber to pay statutory dues of thousands of employees,” according to a report in The Sunday Times

This news is not from April 2022, but November 2013. The Rajapaksas have habitually caused economic havoc because of their habit of treating Sri Lanka as a cornucopia for themselves and their political and business acolytes.

The national health system is on the verge of collapse because the country lacks foreign exchange to import essential medicines. Yet private hospitals are not facing such an existential crisis. The paucity of foreign currency is affecting the printing of exam papers and school text books, but not the importation of designer goods. Odel, now owned by the owner of Asiri Hospitals (who was appointed by President Gotabaya as Sri Lankan chairman), this opened an exclusive Polo Ralph Lauren outlet in the New Galle Face Mall this year (some of those products have to be imports). 

The ship of the nation, state, and people is sinking, while the Rajapaksas and their acolytes lack for nothing. 

The current crisis cannot be resolved without ousting the Rajapaksas constitutionally and peacefully. That is a necessary precondition, but not a sufficient one. Even without the Rajapaksas, the road ahead would remain tortuous. Just as there are concrete proposals for an alternative political system, there must be concrete proposals for an alternative economic system. If the opposition does not possess an economic road map, we will lose our way again.

Even with workable economic policies and international backing, conditions will worsen before they get better. For the ordinary man and woman, already overburdened, life will get worse. Prices will rise while real incomes fall and living conditions decline. A large swathe of the lower middle class will sink below the poverty line, a process that is already in motion.  

Any massive creation of new poor is deadly for political stability. Beset by unfamiliar economic woes, shamed by social degradation, and fearful for the future of their children, they will be especially vulnerable to any extreme ideology (religious or secular) or ultra-right solution, including a military one. 

Sri Lanka cannot emerge from this economic morass without a great deal of economic pain. The question is who should bear the brunt of this pain? Since austerity of a sort we have never known before is inevitable, which segments of the population should tighten their belts most? How will a post-Rajapaksa government increase revenue and decrease costs?

Is the opposition willing to impose more taxes on the wealthy, to increase personal and corporate income taxes, over the objections of their moneyed-backers? The IMF will not oppose such a measure. On the contrary the IMF currently advocates such measures: “Higher taxes for the rich will reduce inequality without hitting growth… Now it seems that it’s time for the politicians to start translating this into policy as soon as possible.” 

Remember the time when gas cylinders exploded because of an arbitrary change in their composition? Its victims included a former soldier (who had been disabled after a mortar attack). This Menikhinna, Kandy resident was injured by a gas explosion on July 17th and died on August 23rd 2021. According to media reports, at the time of his death, he was still pension-less. 

When presidential soothsayer built a hotel in Anuradhapura, labour was provided by the army.

The two stories, in confluence, are emblematic of everything that is wrong with our mammoth defence budget. What a post-war Sri Lanka needs is a lean and a smart military. Instead, our military is like our political class, corpulent, unintelligent, guzzlers of national wealth, and focused not on national defence but on defending their own corporate, organisational and personal interests and fiefs. 

Is the opposition willing to end this travesty by reducing and streamlining defence expenditure? After all, if guns continue to claim the largest share of the budget, the spending cuts will have to come from education, health and public welfare. This will impede national development and increase public discontent. 

Is the opposition willing to cut the unjust and unmerited privileges the political class has ladled out to itself over time? Will the opposition announce its willingness to end the most egregious of these privileges starting with pension for parliamentarian, duty-free vehicles, official residences for ministers (including the payment of utility bills)?

The National Audit Commission has recommended that the loss of revenue from the Rajapaksa sugar scam (amounting to 16.8billion rupees in just four months) be reclaimed from those businessmen who were its major beneficiaries. The chairperson of the Human Rights Commission has backed this recommendation, pointing out that “the arbitrary and unreasonable use of state powers affects the economic, social, and cultural rights of citizens.” Will the opposition adopt this recommendation as part of its policy package?

What is the opposition’s poverty alleviation programme, taking into consideration the rapid increase of those living in poverty (the figure may be close to about 50% now)? 

The roots of the failure of the 2015 government can be traced to its unwillingness to depart decisively from Rajapaksa economics. Post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka cannot afford to remake that mistake. As economic pain renders the present becomes more unbearable and the future more uncertain, the tendency towards nostalgia would gain ground. As Mahinda Mahattaya, Gota Sir and Basil Sir become rehabilitated in public memory, the Family will ride to rescue, be it from their homes, behind bars or abroad.

Dawn or Dusk?

The 1848 revolutionary wave in Europe began with a series of pro-democracy banquets in France. The government of King Louis Phillipe had banned the gathering together of more than six people in public. To circumvent this, the French resistance started holding subscription banquets. The first was held in July 1847 at the Chateau-Rouge Dance Venue. After a series of such political banquets across the country, a final one was planned for 21st February 1848 in Paris. The government banned it. And the 1848 revolution began. 

Leaders who dream of tyranny hate laughter. A mocking song would hurt them more than a fiery slogan. Irreverence and joy can be as political as unsmiling contemplation of the ills of the world. 

Lankan protests seem to be helping the nation to find its submerged brain, heart, and backbone, to think about issues, reach out to racial/religious Other, and stand up to the powers that be. 

A hospital building in Galnewa was opened by village people. An underground pedestrian crossing in Matugama was opened by a little boy. Motorists peacefully objected to arbitrary road closures for VIPs and persuaded police to open them..

A Tamil couple came to Gota-Go-Gama before going on their honeymoon, the bride still in her wedding finery, holding afloat the national flag. Protestors of all ethnicities sang the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil. A young Muslim mother brought her baby to the protest for a kind of revolutionary baptism; the protestors held the baby aloft reverently before handing him/her to the waiting mother. In a country plagued by rape and abuse, women can be both active and safe in today’s physical and political space of resistance. 

This is the Lankan nation in embryo, a glimpse of what we can be. Whether this potential is realised or become a memory depends on whether the Rajapaksas can be ousted constitutionally – and how a post-Rajapaksa administration handles the all important question of distributing economic pain.

As economic and social misery mounts, the public’s energies will be increasingly spent on survival. If the opposition continues to quibble and meander, this historic opportunity to save and remake Sri Lanka will be dissipated. The current stalemate will end in a Rajapaksa or a Rajapaksa-Shavendra or – the worst possibility – a Shavendra solution. And the dawn at Galle Face will be followed not by a new morning, but by a night worse than any this long suffering land has known. 

The GotaGoGama protestors and others like them would know the danger of such a military solution. But for the new poor or soon to be new poor (who were preponderant in the protests that followed Ceypetco fuel price hike) the entry of the military will be a welcoming development. The soldiers – like monks – are their brothers and sons in uniform. They will hail a military solution, until the military turns the guns on them.