By Harsha Gunasena –
Sri Lanka has become a bankrupt state. Sri Lanka has stated that it is impossible to repay the foreign debts obtained and therefore suspended the repayments. There is a shortage of essential services and goods such as electricity, gas and fuel. There were spontaneous protests by the people throughout the island without any political leadership. These protests were peaceful and nonviolent. The main protest site ‘Gota Go Gama’ at Galle Face Green was attacked on May 9th by the goons provoked by the politicians led by then Prime Minister. It was of a violent nature and the counterattack spearheaded by the general public throughout the island was also of a violent nature.
As a result of this, then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government had to resign, and the President appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new Prime Minister. Nonviolent public protests continued. The Masses came to Galle Face Green in numbers and stormed the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat and to the office of the Prime Minister. The resignation of the President was imminent. Later the private house of the Prime Minister also was burnt down.
The President left the country without resigning. He wanted the diplomatic status until he reached his destination. Later from abroad he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe the acting President. Subsequently he tendered his resignation and the Parliament according to the provisions of the constitution elected Ranil Wickremesinghe the President.
The Former President did not use power against the public protests. The only power used against the protesters was the attack spearheaded by the former Prime Minster on May 9th. We learnt subsequently that it was happened without the consent of the former President. The reason for not using power may be that he was well aware that there was a huge public disapproval against him. His intention seemed to be to convert his state of failure to a state of success prior to the end of his term.
The power of the state was not used against the people at the time of the people occupying state property on July 9th. There was no possibility of using power against such a vast gathering of people.
Our country faced three armed struggles and strugglers were not successful of acquiring state power or persuading the leaders of the governments to resign. This struggle popularly called Aragalaya which was nonviolent in essence but was violent in certain instances and was not an armed struggle at any event, was able to make changes at the top of the government forcing the President, Prime Minister and the Government to resign. It was a victory of the people and the honour should go to the youth who protested continuously day and night and the general public who supported it.
It was a victory of the people since the government which was overthrown triggered this economic catastrophe. The Former President admitted it when he addressed the nation on May 11th prior to the appointment of the new Prime Minister. He admitted that his pet project, organic farming was a failure and it was wrong not seek the assistance of IMF at the appropriate time. However, after making such colossal bad decisions which led the country to such a calamity, he did not think that it was appropriate to resign. Therefore, the move to send him away by force was justified.
We have to look at the total issue at last in the point of view of the state. People create the state and the people appoint governments to run the state. It is the duty of the state to protect the people. If the state does not do that then the people have the right to request the government which was appointed by them to leave. However, in this whole process the state should not disintegrate which will cause anarchy.
The strugglers tried to encircle the Parliament at the last stage and there was a move to occupy it. However, there were some leaders of the struggle who did not agree to that move and hence it did not materialize. If it happened, it would be anarchy.
What the strugglers should have done was to conclude the struggle and leave the occupied places soon after the former President tendered his resignation since the main demand of the struggle was his resignation. The Former President did not know the time he should leave, and the strugglers did not know the time to end the struggle. Therefore, the strugglers had to force the former President to leave the office and they have created the opportunity to the new President to force them away from the occupied Presidential Secretariat.
That forceful evacuation created widespread protests locally as well as internationally. We look at the problem in the point of view of the people in general. It can also be viewed in the point of view of the government. However essentially the problem should be looked at in the point of view of the state as well. The State is not the government. People appoint governments to run the state. We all should protect the state. In the case of a foreign invasion people join the war in order to protect the state and not to protect the government.
The strugglers as well as the people wanted the former President to resign. The slogan was “Gota Go Home”. It was not the intention of the strugglers or the people who supported them to disintegrate the state. The mechanism used by the strugglers to chase him away was to forcibly occupy his official residence, the President’s House and his office, the Presidential Secretariat. After his resignation a new President was appointed. Thereafter those who occupied the President’s House left the place and those who occupied the Presidential Secretariat continued to stay. This cannot be approved by the state. Therefore, the incumbent President using the same methodology used by the strugglers to occupy the place took steps to remove them from that place. In both instances the methodology used by both parties was the same. There was no use of arms. The former President as well as the strugglers delayed their respective exits, and they faced the same consequences.
Hunting of the strugglers subsequently was a result of a straight-line thinking. It is well evident that all are not treated equally.
Now what we should do is not to plan the methodology to remove the President. All should get together and plan to get out of this mess. Although the immediate reason for this economic disaster was the series of immature decision taken by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government starting from the reduction of taxes and thereby reducing the government revenue, the country was heading in this disastrous path for decades. The reasons were the long-standing deficits of the government budget and the long standing shortfalls of the current account of the state. i.e. import expenses were more than the export income. These reasons should be removed to get out of this situation. Reduction of budget deficits would secure the IMF loan but to have economic recovery the focus should be export led growth.
The positive point is that the IMF is now emphasizing on the concept of social safety net. They were not sensitive enough to this aspect in the past and now they have realized that the entire system would collapse if this aspect is not properly addressed.
IMF would provide assistance to Sri Lanka if the proposals of the country adequately address the causes which led us to this situation. Our proposals should get the approval of the Parliament. Since when the governments are changes there are drastic policy changes in Sri Lanka if all the parties in the Parliament approve these proposals there is strong possibility that IMF approval can be obtained for those proposals.
In addition to that Sri Lanka needs the consensus of all the debt holders including the holders of international sovereign bonds to restructure the debt. Sri Lanka has taken loans from China and China has already disagreed to the proposal of restructuring debt citing the reason that all the other borrows might have the same request. China suggested that fresh loans could be given to repay the old loans. However recently China agreed to restructure the loans given to Zambia.
To handle China in this respect is a colossal task. The main reason is the prevalent power struggle between the USA and China. India is also involved. The issue of Chinese vessel has created tensions among Sri Lanka, China and India.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was identified as a person with a bias towards the West. Recently he expressed his views of the Ukrainian war and the views were against the West. He said that the war was started by Europe, and they should resolve it. Then criticizing the stance taken by the Ukrainian President he said that Zelenskyy’s responsibility was to safeguard his citizens. He said that Asia was neutral at the voting of the resolution against Russia at UN General Assembly citing that China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh abstained from voting.
This stance is different to the policy of former President J.R. Jayewardene that to support the friends. At the resolution of Falkland war, he decided to vote against Argentina in favour of the UK. This was done setting aside the advices of then Foreign Minister A.C.S.Hameed. This stance is different to the foreign policy of Rajapaksa brothers which is based on the benefits. This stance is closer to the foreign policy of Sirima Bandaranaike.
When he was the Prime Minister in 2015 to ease the debt burden he has decided to lease the Hambantota port to a Chinese company. India and the West was critical of that decision. He also has taken steps to convert the ownership of the portion of Port City allocated to China to a long term lease.
I think the best person to handle China, India and the West is Ranil Wichremesinghe. He should follow the advice he has given to the Ukrainian President.