By Mohamed Harees –
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest ” – Elie Wiesel, writer, Nobel laureate (30 Sep 1928-2016)
It was reported that over 20 children fainted after going to school without food in three schools in Vilachchiya, Anuradhapura. In another incident, in Minuwangoda, another student reportedly consumed young coconut kernel for want of a proper meal in school. As UNICEF says, ‘families are skipping regular meals as staple foods become unaffordable. Children are going to bed hungry, unsure of where their next meal will come from – in a country which already had South Asia’s second highest rate of severe acute malnutrition. Amid the severe economic crisis faced by Sri Lanka, the women of the island country too are facing another predicament. With women losing their jobs in the textile industry, are forced to become sex workers, as per a report by the ANI.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has driven millions of people into hunger, poverty, while jeopardizing their rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. The recent political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka had attracted quite a bit of attention from the analysts, academia, and media alike. Various hypotheses and questions have been put forward in popular parlance. Although the root causes of these crises go beyond the Rajapaksa regimes, and were more deep-rooted, one blunder after another by Gotabaya regime paved the way for the island’s worst crisis since independence. For so long, Sri Lanka has been taken for a ride by the major political parties under election promises and fads. For so long political servitude made Sri Lankans to pay pooja to an utterly corrupt political leadership which swung from one colour or another at elections.
This unprecedented economic crisis however appeared to change the blind pathway of the Sri Lankan electorate, when after a lapse of over seven decades, people of all nationalities came together and chose to wage an ‘Aragalaya’ and chase away one set of Robber barons who were particularly responsible for economic downfall in Post war Sri Lanka – Rajapaksas. The historic protests in Sri Lanka more or less transmogrified traditional political divisions. This in turn erased any ideological divisions that voters previously would have considered. Today, for all intents and purposes, the only division they see is between themselves and parliamentarians, particularly within the ruling party. Large-scale protests against economic mismanagement, ‘official’ corruption, and human rights abuses thus signified a historic landmark in the annal of history.
However, people of Sri Lanka who came out to the streets in millions, did not get the real change they expected and today caught in a ‘Deer in the Headlights’ mentality -a state of paralyzing surprise, fear, or bewilderment, likened to the tendency of deer to freeze in place in front of an oncoming vehicle. When Gota was ousted from power, Rajapaksas’ party, ensured that a Rajapaksa ally (outside the family ,but who will be a puppet and not a political threat to the ruling party) became the next President for the remaining tenure of office. The choice of Ranil W was therefore fairly obvious, as he has been living up to the reputation he has built as an ally of the Rajapaksas. Today, RW is virtually carrying a top heavy ‘Rajapaksa style’ team of ministers and advisors (with ‘corrupt with shady track records’), but offering temporary relief measures like making available goods albeit at high unaffordable prices. People are now showing reluctance to rise up again against RW regime in the same way they did earlier, due to a lop-sided perception that RW is different and will do anything different.
One type of incompetence that arises when a sudden and rapid change of political scenario such as when a powerful iconic family dynasty was overthrown in a matter months of a people’s struggle, is the emergence of a —deer in headlights— mentality. This mentality still persists among the people, when another Rajapaksa stooge came to power, in contrast to the wide expectation of a real political change. This type of incompetence emerges when the political environment creates novel demands for the people who often do not know how to deal with rapid changes, even when they had the capability to continue their struggle to ensure their real expectations are met. The “deer in the headlights” fear people face is a deep uncertainty and panic which tends to keep them in one place or without thinking what the next step or solution is.
Although the public protests or Aragalaya lacked specific leadership, a core constituency or class group, which commenced in the form and style it did few months ago, it was not just a flash in the pan. Although it was seemingly directed at Gota and the Rajapaksas and the economic chaos they created, the spirit of this historic struggle was aimed at revamping and cleansing the entire corrupt political culture and misgovernance which have been a bane for Sri Lanka since Independence. In fact the recent UNHC Comprehensive Report acknowledges that ‘Sri Lanka is at critical juncture in its political life, and is in the midst of a serious economic crisis which has severely impacted the human rights of all communities and people of all walks of life. This has spurred broad-based demands by Sri Lankans from all communities for deeper reforms and accountability, and gives the Government a fresh opportunity to steer the country on a new path’.
The High Commissioner thus urged ‘the new Government to embark on a national dialogue that would advance human rights and reconciliation and to carry out the deeper institutional and security sector reforms needed to prevent the recurrence of violations of the past…’ The wide call among protesters for therefore a “system” rather than “regime” change. However, what happened was a virtual swapping of a coughing spouse with one with a running nose as a Sinhala idiom goes! A ruler more arrogant and brutal than his predecessor!
Despite international pressure, RW’s loosely knit government consisting of the same old wine in new bottles, continues to use force and barbaric laws like PTA to gag the mouths of those who stand up for people’s right to protest against State repression and silence lawful opposition. This iron fisted approach of a ruler with no public mandate, while throwing some economic crumbs bought from borrowed or begging money sadly appears to work. Sri Lankans are seen to be falling into an awkward lull by allowing their human rights to be trampled, on the premise of getting temporary economic relief is also an ideal example of a public Mexican stand-off with the State authorities!
The same Sri Lanka which showed the world the power of the people to change corrupt regimes within a democratic setup is today showing reluctance to rise up when their rights are being grossly trampled using unfair rules in the lawbooks by a ‘Rajapaksa regime’ in another form and style. Fear has engulfed them and taken courage off their souls. ‘Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights’, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in ‘Freedom from Fear’, ‘fear tends to be the order of the day’. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
Realistically, there exists a huge gap between legitimate public sentiment and governance, with the public mood reflecting an unprecedented alienation of the citizenry from the regime, and yes! by unfortunate extension, the State. The State is totally insensitive to growing suffering of the people and fails to empathise with them. In an unprecedented scale, even the Sinhala Buddhist peasantry in the island nation’s rural heartland is totally fed up with political leadership and begun to forsake them. The nation gutted by this severe economic crisis cannot be extinguished by squirts of water by way of temporary economic perks to keep the opposition to the State at bay. This needs the commitment and backing of the entire nation, which unfortunately cannot be elicited by force or suppressing their just aspirations and rights for a rule sans corruption , social justice and freedom of expression.
Using the law enforcement authorities as a pretext for more human rights violations is deeply concerning and reflects poorly on the new administration in Sri Lanka. The powers that be are seen to virtually suppressing people’s rights to freedom of expression, and arrest anyone who raises his/her voice against the corrupt administration, demanding real change. The RW government instead of starting afresh and break off from the cycle of repression of people’s rights is today taking anti-democratic measures which are further compounding the mistrust and fear in the people of Sri Lanka.
As HRW says, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) is a legal blackhole. It has been used for over 40 years to enable prolonged arbitrary detention, to extract false confessions through torture, and to target minority communities and civil society groups.The PTA denies fundamental due process rights and removes safeguards that would help protect detainees from abuse, creating what is effectively a legal black hole. International financial institutions and governments that hold Sri Lanka’s debt or are involved in negotiations around debt restructuring have an international legal obligation to act to protect human rights in situations of economic crisis. Private creditors have a responsibility under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.
RW regime is averse to public demands and silent in committing to adopt anti corruption with appropriate scrutiny, enact procurement legislation requiring open bidding for government contracts and most important of all to recover stolen assets through UN’s StAR Initiative. As HRW stresses, Sri Lanka’s deepening economic crisis highlights the need for the government to be pressurized to give priority to the rights of the people and also insist that the government, along with the IMF and foreign creditors, act urgently to reverse the tide that is driving millions into poverty.
The Island nation, once considered a success story with its high levels of education and standard of living, has today become a nation with impoverished masses struggling to live with dignity and to overcome the economic crisis and political instability. Sri Lanka’s economic collapse no doubt needs immediate global attention, to rescue the worst affected from the ongoing crisis to avoid another human tragedy. RW’s inner agenda to maintain the politically corrupt and elitist status quo in the guise of bringing a semblance of and a deceptive economic stability should be defeated for the sake of the future progeny. The greater tragedy will thus be to let go of yet this historic opportunity to make real political changes. Ultimate force for real change should come from within. The people of Sri Lanka need to come out of their ‘deer in the headlights’ syndrome and ensure that the creation of a new clean political culture and holding those responsible for this disaster to account, be on the top of their agenda and not give up the spirit of the ‘Aragalaya’ despite RW and his camp attempting to gag their mouths with repressive laws.