By Jehan Perera –
For a country that experienced four months of mass protests that not only captured the attention of the world, but also led to the resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, Sri Lanka gives an impression of being remarkably peaceful and stable, at least on the surface a mere three months later. The credit for this transformation, if such a felicitous term is appropriate, needs to go to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Those in the higher ranks of government at the time of the rise of the Aragalaya protest movement have reason to be grateful to him. For months they were afraid to come out of their hiding places for fear of encountering the wrath of people who had lost half or more of the value of their incomes and savings virtually overnight when the economy collapsed. They are back in the saddle as government ministers and those who still await their return are showing signs of impatience.
When President Wickremesinghe was elected to the supreme political office in the country through a majority vote in parliament three months ago, there was a chaotic situation in the country. The roads and public spaces were filled with people from around the country who were demanding a system change and they wanted the president, prime minister and entire parliament to go home though they did not say who should replace them. The presidential and prime ministerial offices and residence were all under occupation with parliament being the next target of the protest movement. The police and armed forces were on the defensive when it came to enforcing the law. The dramatic turnaround under President Ranil Wickremesinghe may explain why former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who resigned at the height of the protests should have been complimentary towards the new president at the ruling party’s first public rally last week.
The election of President Wickremesinghe led to an immediate change in the situation with chaos on the streets being replaced with army-imposed order. The police and security forces have been strictly asserting the letter of the law on the protestors with their batons and handcuffs. The arrests and violence on the part of the security forces has continued to this day notwithstanding statements of condemnation and concern by local and international human rights groups, and even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, all of which appear to have had little impact. The police attack on a protesting mother who had brought her child to one of the protest sites, and the justification by government spokespersons including the president that the protestors were using children as human shields is an indication of who has won the day.
Underlying the reassertion of governmental power under President Wickremesinghe are two key factors. The first is the widespread recognition in the country that the protest movement was getting out of hand in taking physical control over state buildings that are central to the governance of the country. These buildings are the citadels of Sri Lankan power and ought to be as sacrosanct as the White House or Buckingham Palace are to the power centres of the US and UK. Temple Trees, for instance, has a venerable history and has been the abode of the prime ministers of Sri Lanka from the time of Independence. President’s House, where the protestors took a dip in the swimming pool, was originally called Queen’s House where the governors of the colonial period resided. The visuals of some of the protestors speaking insolently to senior members of the security forces who have traditionally been given a measure of respect on account of their guns and sacrifice during the war was also seen as excessive by many people. The question arose where might this leaderless and out-of-control protest movement stop.
The second reason has been that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, unlike his predecessor, has had less reason to be concerned about the international fallout on himself personally and being taken in by international courts for human rights violations that could constitute international crimes. In his previous spells in office as prime minister, the president always showed a commitment to the peace and reconciliation processes. During his tenure as prime minister in 2001-04 he fully participated in the Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire and negotiation process with the LTTE. During his last stint as prime minister in 2015-19 he gave his assent to the co-sponsored UNHRC resolution which his successors reneged upon to the country’s further detriment.
For the past four months since he obtained the biggest prize in Sri Lankan politics, President Wickremesinghe has been striving to stabilize the country both politically and economically. He has politically neutralised the protest movement by arresting its leaders and using the security forces to break up public protests. As a result the visible component of the protest movement has shrunk dramatically from the days when it could mobilise tens of thousands of persons from around the country. At the present time only the core group of political party members, university students and civil society activists are prepared to take the risk of engaging in public protest. Anyone who is rational will now think twice before going for a protest which the police can deem to be illegal and arrest the protestors.
Stabilising the economy is proving to be more difficult than stabilizing the polity through repression. So far the government has focused on diverting resources away from the people by means of high inflation, indirect taxation and cut backs on subsidies. Subsidised medicine for kidney patients in Rajarata is harder to access and subsidized language training for translators in Batticaloa has been withdrawn. Children are dropping out of school to go to construction sites in Colombo. Such economic stabilization methods impact most heavily on the masses of disempowered people who cannot protest anymore and so take the reversals in silence. There is human suffering that is not immediately visible on the surface though it is present in the day to day life of the great majority of people. Surveys have shown that large sections of the population have cut back on their food intake
The government now appears to be under pressure from the IMF to widen its net to take in those at the higher income levels who have so far been willing to give the president and his team a chance to revive the economy. They have, by and large, been supportive of the government crackdown on the protest movement. However, the recent announcement that the government plans to tax them through direct taxation that will reach 36 percent has led to vocal protests by some of these business and professional groups. These are persons and companies that have been transparent and show their income. The irony is that by international standards a direct tax rate of 30 to 50 percent on the highest slab is not unusual. At the base of the indignation and outrage that is being felt by those who oppose the new tax policy is the feeling that the root cause of Sri Lanka’s economic collapse is not being addressed by the president and government. The same strict adherence to law that ended the protests should be there in the collection of taxes and those involved with corruption ought to be brought to the book. It is that could ensure that we are on the right path to real freedom and democracy and move towards development.
But the reality is that those who were in positions of power at the time of the economic collapse and who can be held primarily responsible for it are back at the helm of governmental affairs. They have already commenced their campaign for the next elections articulating their confidence in winning Local Government, Provincial or General Elections even if they are conducted forthwith. Stating that they have made some mistakes, like past administrations, there is no evident sign of repentance on their part, except for the determination to take off from where they last left. There are allegations of continuing and massive corruption in the procurement of essential commodities such as gas, coal and petrol. Massive new infrastructure projects are also reported to be on the pipeline as single source and unsolicited bids. Prior to demanding that the people, both the poor as well as the professional and business classes make sacrifices, there is a need to restore moral legitimacy of the government. In a democratic polity, this moral legitimacy comes through good governance and elections and not through arresting and silencing protestors.