Photo courtesy of Global Times
We all knew 2022 would be a challenging year for Sri Lanka even before its arrival. But no one expected it to be this difficult, hurtful, unpleasant, yet memorable. The country was still at the tail end of the pandemic when the year started but no one had time or curiosity to talk about Covid as the other issues people were grappling with were more pressing. On the economic front, the year started with fear of a looming food shortage; then came the dollar shortage, which paved the way to the shortage of pretty much everything else. By May Sri Lanka became the first Asia Pacific country to default on debt in this century and then declare bankruptcy soon after. On the political front, Sri Lanka was one big hot potato throughout the year, making international headlines specifically between March and July. The list started with social unrest, followed by the collapse of a powerful regime, the government losing its two thirds majority, the president fleeing the country and the parliament electing a national list MP from a single seat party as the country’s next president. After going through all the drama within the first seven months, the country then transitioned into a stage that can be best described as the fire under ash or silence before a storm.
I am bringing your attention to the long lasting impact made by a few important events happened in 2022. When I say impact, it is about impact on the people’s opinion on four important topics: the organic fertilizer policy, loss of faith in the parliamentary system, barring dual citizens from entering parliament and the iconic protest movement – the aragalaya.
The year 2022 inherited the fertilizer topic from the previous year as much of the fertilizer policy debate and the actions took place within 2021. However, 2022 became important for this topic because it started with the signs of a food shortage, which was partially caused by the mockery the government made of the fertilizer policy in the year before. It was about the decision made in early 2021 to go one hundred percent organic and to ban chemical fertilizer almost immediately. Many were skeptical but had sincere hope that the policy changes were part of a carefully thought out plan but the truth was that there was no plan at all. When this policy was reversed seven months later, the damage was already done. Rice production dropped by 20% within six months and the drop in the yield of many crops in the next year was already predicted to be as high as 50%. With the reversal of the policy, the damage to the economy may recover slowly in a few years but the damage done to the public perception is hard to recover. Going organic is a good thing and something that needs to happen at one point but after witnessing the mess made by the policy changes, organic fertilizer now has a negative connotation; some even hate it. Not all farmers are able to analyze what happened and understand that the fault doesn’t lie in the organic fertilizer itself. Also culturally we are quicker to kill the messenger than the message. This bad taste will go on for many years to come and it will not be easy to implement anything that resembles organic any time sooner even with a good plan.
The second topic is the loss of faith in the country’s parliament. It’s more about the entire political system than the parliament itself, which faced grave challenges during the past year. At one point it was on the cusp of immediate collapse and barely survived. First, the government didn’t see or ignored the economic meltdown and most importantly failed to take action to prevent it from happening despite having a strong two-thirds majority in the parliament. Even during and after the collapse of the regime, most of the MPs were still looking for ways to further their own interests. Even in the darkest hour during the economic meltdown, the debates that took place in the parliament had little value or relevance. There are 29 national list seats in the parliament, out of which 17 belonged to the ruling party, that could have been used to bring a few external experts who could make things better. It was only used once, that too was an incorrect choice. By the middle of the year, the actions (or rather the inactions) of the country’s parliament clearly showed that it was no longer representing the wishes of its citizens. But there wasn’t anything that could be done; the wishes of the people and the parliament ended up in a stalemate. This lethargic and unreasonable behavior of the parliamentarians was the reason behind the reject all 225 slogan that became popular during the protests despite the impracticality of it. The slogan was simply a voice of frustration rather than a real wish. It simply questioned the point of maintaining a parliament that doesn’t represent the people’s wishes. I believe the year 2022 will go into the record books as the year Sri Lankans lost faith in the current parliamentary system almost entirely. This is not about losing faith in a political party but about losing faith in the supreme legislative body in the country. The consequences can be disastrous as regaining this trust will take quite some time.
The third topic is barring dual citizens from entering parliament. When Sri Lanka passed the 21st amendment to its constitution in October 2022, dual citizens lost their ability to contest in the future elections. This was the third time such changes had been made to the same clause within just a few years. No one can argue about the right a country has to pass laws that suit them. However, does this amendment really help the country? Some 135 countries including Sri Lanka currently allow for dual citizenship. In general, a dual citizen is allowed to enjoy all citizenship benefits in both countries. Some countries have special laws to prevent dual citizens getting into sensitive positions such as the presidency, which is understandable. However, putting a blanket ban to bar all dual citizens from entering the legislature is not so common. In fact, smaller countries are the ones that can benefit more from allowing dual citizens to engage in national level politics as it can re-attract some of its brains that left years ago for various reasons. The decision to allow it or not should have been based on what is more beneficial to the country. Laws passed to keep one allegedly corrupt person away from parliament will certainly discourage many other honest dual citizens who are eager to contribute to the development of the birth country. This is not a loss that can be calculated and analyzed in economic terms but it is something that the country will only realize when we look back years from now.
Despite having many unpleasant experiences in 2022, there is at least one positive experience that we all can continue to celebrate. This is about the courage, the unity and the commitment displayed by the common people while exercising their right to protest and oust a corrupt and failed government. It was no easy task to launch such a massive campaign in a country that had no prior experience in doing such things with no political party affiliation. Despite getting beaten by the government sponsored thugs and having to witness violence including a few deaths elsewhere in the country, the protestors in its epicenter near Galle Face kept their cool. They never gave up on the peacefulness of their act during the four month campaign. Maybe for the first time in a long time communal, religious and party lines didn’t seem to matter. Solidarity was the only word that mattered. Although all this happened in response to the results of unwise politics and politicians that misused democracy, how it happened and the results achieved proved one thing – they proved that we are still a vibrant democracy, a democracy still capable of conducting peaceful protests. The protest campaign added a new word to the international vocabulary – aragalaya. Media outlets around the world adopted the word aragalaya rather than trying to translate and lose the meaning, as the word meant something unique and genuine. It was a proud moment in history for Sri Lanka and a moment that made a long lasting positive impact on the peoples’ power.