By R Hariharan –
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency probably reached the point of no return, after 41 members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) coalition partners withdrew their support to the government on 5 April. Two days earlier, the President had disbanded his cabinet, in a bid to form an all-party government to tide over the financial crisis. His call had no takers because the Opposition parties see Gotabaya as a loser and want him out of office. The main opposition, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the 10-party alliance as well as the JVP-led National Peoples Power (NPP) are in no mood to help him out at least for the time being. So, a temporary government led by his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, assisted by four essential ministers, is in place now.
The 31 March night public protest near the President’s residence in Colombo suburb has now snowballed into a nationwide protest movement against the Rajapaksas. It reflected the people’s total loss of faith in their handling of continuing shortages of food, fuel and essential goods including medicines.
For the first time, Gotabaya must be feeling lonely at the top. Having been accustomed to fawning public hailing him as a national hero for over a decade, it must be a rude shock to see ‘Go back Gota’ as the unifying cry of the people protesting all over the island. He now appears to be groping in the dark to find answers to the economic crisis, he does not seem to understand.
President Rajapaksa’s control over the situation probably reached the inflection point in the aftermath of the Mihirina protests. It is falling as rapidly as the chaotic situation that continues in the country. The incident showed the limitations of tear gas and water cannons used to quell public anger by force. It also showed the limitations of the government ban on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and TikTok in the era of VPN. The gory visuals of the Mihirana protest beamed on social media and the TV helped the spread of spontaneous protests turning into a people’s movement.
Of course, it was aided by the government’s hapless handling of the aftermath of the protest. In Rajapaksas’ signature style, the government blamed “unknown extremist elements” from the Opposition and social media bloggers as the culprits. The arrest of protestors, in particular the arrest of popular social media activist Anuruddha Bandara, whose #GoHomeGota2022 was espoused by the student community, added energy to the protests. It evoked the solidarity of white-collar workers, even government staff, trade unions, religious leaders, civil society and legal community to march in support of the protestors. Even the Rajapaksa scion and former minister Namal Rajapaksa voiced his opposition to the banning of social media.
In short, the protests have unified the nation that was divided due to ethnic and religious animosities during Gotabaya’s rule. People are now voicing a single demand — Rajapaksas should quit. The Opposition parties dare not offend the protest movement; even the Rajapaksas have adopted a conciliatory tone. The Opposition has quickly adopted ‘Go Gota Go’ slogan as their own. In a studied response, the Rajapaksa government seemed to have “sacrificed” Basil Rajapaksa and Rajapaksa loyalist and Central Bank governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, seen by the public as “arch-villains” for their woes.
What is Gotabaya’s game plan?
First, Rajapaksas’ political game planning should not be underestimated. They have strong survival instincts. Led by Gotabaya, they bounced back to the centre stage of power after spending time in political wilderness when Mahinda failed to get elected for a third term as President in 2015.
Second, Gotabaya is a fighter, though of the military kind. He will be hard put to be persuaded to resign. Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando made this clear in his strident speech in parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not resign just because Anura Kumara Dissanayake [JVP leader] and his men shout slogans. The president is elected by the people and he will not step down. Even Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike faced a similar crisis in 1971. Thousands of youth were killed because of the JVP uprising. Then another 60,000 youth perished in the 1988-89 period. Do not push the country back to that situation again,” he added. Was Fernando flexing the muscle to discourage JVP from indulging in any direct action? But the reality: 2022 is not 1971 and Gotabaya is no Sirimavo. Nor the JVP anymore the wide-eyed revolutionary movement it was.
During the course of veteran Gotabaya’s tenure as president, he pampered the armed forces and veterans by closing the cases of misuse of power against them and brought them within the ruling power structure. They are now playing a key role as trustworthy foot soldiers of the President in the government. They are ensuring his will is writ in the country’s foreign policy, development, defence and even in the fight against the Covid pandemic. After Gotabaya restored the presidential executive powers, he has set a precedent for military to have a role in the government.
This has given rise to apprehension, not only among the public, but even among the international community that the military might be used to bail out Gotabaya. To remove any such apprehension, Chief of Defence Staff General Shavendra Silva addressed a gathering of foreign defence advisers and attaches in Colombo on 4 April. He said, “The armed forces of Sri Lanka would always comply with the Constitution and the Army is no exception.” As a professional outfit, the army is always prepared “to provide security and protection to the State as necessary”, he added. The assurance was very much needed when Sri Lanka is seeking the help of the international community to get out of its financial logjam.
Hopefully, Sri Lanka with its strong democratic credentials will discourage any such misadventure. On the flip side, the message can also be seen by Rajapaksas’ detractors as an ominous hint that the army is closely watching those who are shouting “Go Gota Go”.
Gotabaya’s game plan seems to be a work in progress. For the time being, it is to make do with a temporary cabinet government under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to facilitate the forthcoming talks with the IMF. Out of the four ministers sworn in, finance minister Ali Sabry resigned his office within 24 hours; however, he has been ‘persuaded’ to remain in office. Evidently, he will be handling the forthcoming talks with the IMF. The Opposition has welcomed the appointment of Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe as the new governor of the country’s central bank and KMM Siriwardhana as the treasury secretary. Both have the knowledge and experience to manage the present crisis and deal with the international bodies.
The President has formed an advisory group with former governor of the central bank and former director of economic affairs department Indrajit Coomaraswamy, former chief economist of World Bank Shanta Devarajan, and former deputy director of African Department of the IMF Sharmini Coorey as members. Hopefully, the members will strategise the way out of the economic morass in Sri Lanka.
But for any strategy to succeed the country needs stability. Ali Sabry, the reluctant finance minister, pointing out this, said: “We must discuss with the World Bank and we must have bride-financing plan with ADB. If we don’t have stability, who will conduct the talks?” Political stability is the need of the hour to survive the demands of $1 billion bond maturing on 25 July, while $ 7 billion odd debt needs to be serviced during the year.
With China not very keen to extend further financial help, Sri Lanka has been increasingly depending upon India to meet its immediate needs of fuel and food. Since January, India has helped Sri Lanka with $2.4 billion, including $ 400 million currency swap and a $500 million deferment. In March, India extended a credit line of $1 billion for the procurement of food, medicines and other essential items. People have welcomed India’s timely help in sending urgently needed fuel and rice supplies on real-time basis. The credit line for supply of petroleum will be exhausted in April. But how long and how much India can help Sri Lanka is the moot point.
Moreover, external help comes with conditions: Corruption-free administration, good governance with rule of law, accountability for aberrations in governance, war crimes and human rights, and meeting the just aspirations of minorities.
Does Gotabaya’s game plan cater for these demands? That would probably require a political master plan, rather than a game plan.
It is doubtful whether the Opposition baying at his heels has the patience to allow even the temporary government to survive, at least till the government evolves a workable economic plan to be implemented.
That may require the support of the Opposition, which can only be facilitated if Rajapaksas adopt a different style of politics. Are they ready to bite the bullet? Only time will tell.
*The author is a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Views expressed are personal.