By Kumar David –
My title is not entirely true. The chaos caused by the pandemic is both stampeding the Gota-Mahinda regime’s rush to stamp out opposition and curb public protest, it is also accelerating the intensification of anger against the regime and weakening it. For a hard-hitting summary about the former, assuming that Colombo Telegraph readers may not all read the Sri Lanka Sunday Times as well, I recommend that readers see that Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena had to say on the web version of the paper last week in her Focus on Rights column:
Having endorsed Ms Jayawardena’s approach I will use my column today towards anticipating how events may unfold in the next twelve or so months. I begin by supplementing the news that people in Moratuwa have come out in protest on the streets and the Attorney General’s “Parody of justice and the Rule of Law”, with another snippet of news from Eheliyagoda. Vasu was surrounded by an angry mob and had to be rescued by the police, a foretaste of things to come and it will be worse for MPs who are in any case hated and known to be crooks – thankfully Vasu is neither; perhaps people are making a start with those known to be traitors to their principles.
Previously in this column I have described the next period of say 5 years as one of rising autocracy and suppression of rights, but the sudden social, economic and political power-balance changes brought about by the pandemic has made it necessary to change this expectation. It will be more correct to define the coming say two years as a phase of rising conflict between swelling mass anger and state whose authoritarian thirst is not yet assuaged. The factors creating this new situation are:
* Covid-19 will remain with us probably all of 2021 and into 2022 and the proportions of the pandemic seem to be worsening.
* Prices of food and essentials are rising and shortages are manifest; these trends will worsen for some years.
* Going to work is getting harder and as the economy worsens formal unemployment will rise.
* There seems little prospect of international rating agencies lifting Sri Lanka above junk status in the foreseeable future. This is will aggravate balance of payments deficits and contribute to shortages and rising prices. The rupee has fallen to about LKR 200 to a US$ and could drift to about 250 by end 2022.
* The Rajapaksa siblings seem to be clueless what to do. Gotabaya’s military cabal I guess will want to go out guns ablaze if civilian unrest multiplies
* The political side will strain every nerve to put the blame on the Muslims and the Tamils.
* The negative debt repayment outlook will drag on but Sri Lanka may be able to avoid default. However there is a limit to what China will do to bail out this beggar.
* The opposition SBJ, TNA and Muslim parties are gutless and cockles. The masses are not willing to rally behind the JVP, so clear-cut political alternatives are not on the table.
This is the reason why I now prefer to describe the coming years as a period of increasing conflict rather than rising authoritarianism. Authoritarianism will certainly try to increase its heft; 20A give it a degree of constitutional over and the coming new constitution will make matters much worse. On the other hand mass anger may hold these dangerous trends and ambitions in check to some extent. It’s better to leave forecasting open – “unknown unknowns” as Rumsfeld called it.