By Siri Gamage –
The situation in Sri Lanka seems to be moving from bad to worse with the recent civil unrest and popular protests. A curfew and emergency have been declared by the government to bring the situation under control. With or without these measures, there is no normalcy in civilian life due to the shortages of food, fuel and other essentials. Friction in the governing coalition and the inability to bring the prevailing crisis to an end is appearing in bits and pieces. Opposition parties and coalitions are not yet united for a common agenda either. By and large, the Government actions seem to be reactionary i.e. responding to situations rather than being proactive. In this context as several writers have pointed out there is the possibility that people’s anger can translate into violence followed by state repression and violence. This is not an uncommon experience for Sri Lankans as they have witnessed similar situations after the country gained independence -though the reasons this time are very different. They don’t deserve to be in the current situation that is causing distress to many – young and old.
To keep order there has to be a functioning government which commands the people’s trust. If the people’s trust is lost, any legitimacy acquired through past elections can evaporate like a corn of ice cream placed under the sun. Today, the people’s trust in the political system and process is at a low mark due to various events and trends visible during the last few decades including the semi-feudal governance system in place (in the name of representative democracy), the lavish lifestyle of politicians when the common man is struggling, waste and corruption plus heavy borrowing. Breakdown of supply chains and the disturbances in the supply of goods and services required for the people to live a normal life -due to the foreign exchange crisis – have created less than ideal conditions affecting most layers of society, particularly the middle and lower classes. When the people’s lives are materially affected, political rhetoric involving ethnic groups, religions or opposition parties have less effect to deflect the popular anger.
The current crisis has a domestic as well as an international dimension. Failure in past policies and programs by governments of all colours is the key to understanding why we are here today? More critically, apart from understanding the causes of current failures, all those in power, in the opposition as well as in civil society need to focus on the way to get out of the current crisis in the next 2-5 years. Otherwise, the ship will sink and all will face a dire situation. We need to move forward as a nation and to overcome current difficulties collectively. The government alone cannot find solutions to the crisis of current magnitude. It has to involve the people, meaning people’s representatives, without distinction for a commonly agreeable program of action based on common principles. To arrive at such a common program, government and opposition parties should meet without preconditions, engage in an open dialogue, request all parties to submit proposals for a solution. Before such a meeting a discussion paper prepared by the government experts should be placed before all parties or their representatives. It should identify the nature and gravity of the problems facing the country, available options in the view of the government, and potential consequences of following each option, and any alternative suggestions or options to handle the situation in the short and long-term. Thus, the all-party dialogue can be better informed. Party representatives should be invited to bring along a few specialists or resource persons with them to such a dialogue. No one will expect the parties to agree on a common program of action in one meeting. There has to be follow up meetings within a few weeks or a month’s time until the action plan is agreed upon. Urgency of the matter should be utmost in the minds of all who take part.
The freedoms that Sri Lankans enjoyed after the end of war with the Tamil Tigers should not be curtailed on the grounds of violence by unspecified groups. Ruling under emergency for a prolonged period can re-introduce all sort of deformities to the governance system as sell as civilian life. It can affect future tourist arrivals as well. International reactions can also harden if there is state violence.
The international dimension is the main driver of current crisis i.e. foreign exchange problem created by the drying out of income usually available through tourist dollar and the transfers of money by domestic workers and others who were employed in west Asia and elsewhere. Some describe this as a debt trap because much of the available and borrowed foreign exchange is to be used to service loans taken earlier by the government/s. Since independence, Sri Lanka has been depending on foreign loans to implement various projects including in infrastructure, health, water, agriculture, hydro power and higher education. Though much of such loans were obtained with a nominal interest rate, the servicing of them have become a problem due to the lack of foreign income with the onset of COVID pandemic. This has led to import restrictions of essential goods leaving long lines for items such as gas and petrol, food, and the rest. The government is attempting to address the debt payment issue with further borrowings from India, China and potentially the IMF. However, it is failing in providing the essentials for civilian life in a timely and accessible manner due to the shortages both in foreign exchange and essential goods. Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions imposed on Russia by western countries are not helping the situation.
If an all-party dialogue as suggested above cannot be realised due to the intransigence of the ruling coalition leadership, opposition parties should set aside their differences and come together and formulate an action plan. They can make such a plan a condition for their support to the government in the parliament and outside. In the first instance, it should be presented to the government for further discussion. Points scoring for party benefit should be avoided. Government as well as the opposition should act responsibly in the current circumstances with the long-term prosperity and security of the people and country in mind. Only then, the order will be re-established with popular consent.