25 May, 2022


Populist Politics And Anti-Popular Economics

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself” – Avraham Burg (IHT – 6.9.2003)

First they came for the pavement-traders.

Pavement-trading is not a bar to development. On the contrary; pavement-trading provides the enterprising poor with an affordable means of commercial upward-mobility. Many a rags-to-riches tale, globally and nationally, began on the pavement. And for many Lankans, pavement-stalls were a source of cheaper goods. The minor inconveniences caused by pavement-stalls could have been resolved without wiping-out the phenomenon and depriving hundreds of thousands of people of a livelihood.

But absolutism is the Rajapaksa Way.

Next they came for the urban poor.

Urban poor is not synonymous with unauthorised dwellers. Many are/were legal owners of their little houses, long-time residents-taxpayers-voters. But they had to be demonised as ‘illegals’ in order to minimise societal outrage at military-style operations which dragged out men, women and children and bulldozed their homes into rubble.

Then came the turn of small traders.

In Bastian Mawatha, Pettah, the shops were neither unauthorised nor temporary; they were permanent structures, built and leased by the state, but that was no bar to the Rajapaksas’ land-grabbing operation. Once again the army and the police descended on the stalls, with the briefest of warning; they came early morning, averting any live-media coverage of this latest ‘humanitarian operation’.[i]

The process of dispossessing will not end there. Nor will it be confined to urban centres. It has happened to fishermen of Kalpitiya. Not even Sinhala-Buddhist peasantry, the supposed bedrock of Rajapaksa power, is being spared. In Ampara, the Navy forcibly occupied the villages of Ragamwela[ii], Ulpassa and Egodayaya; these lands are reportedly being used to build hotels[iii] and a Presidential holiday resort. The proposed construction of sea plane landing-sites in four ancient tanks in Polonnaruwa will devastate the livelihoods of several farming and fishing communities.

The attempt to introduce the Sacred Areas Act demonstrates that the Rajapaksa land-hunger will not be appeased by dispossessing the urban/rural poor. Enlightened self-interest, apart from moral or humanitarian considerations, demand that middle-classes join the poor in resisting these anti-popular measures, before they too are victimised by the Siblings’ acquisitive policies.

When the Rajapaksas, under cover of anti-terrorism, sought to deport North-Eastern Tamils fromColombo, the pavement traders would not have thought that the same fate would befall them a few years later. When pavement-stalls were wiped out, small traders would not have thought that their turn would come next. When Tamils and urban poor were dispossessed, the Sinhala villagers of Ampara would not have thought the same fate would befall them.

In today’sSri Lanka, in order to be unsafe and insecure, to lose a home or a job, one does not have to be a Tamil/Muslim or a Rajapaksa-opponent.

The Rajapaksa vision of development is akin to the Rajapaksa vision of nation-building – compulsive rather than consensual, structurally unequal and profoundly anti-humanitarian. The ethno-religious populism of the Rajapaksas is a cover for their anti-popular economics, a ruse to reconcile the Sinhalese to their worsening economic plight.

The Siblings have been uncommonly successful in hiding this unpalatable and frightening reality. By isolating each target, they have managed to prevent us from forming a holistic view of the threat posed by Familial Rule. Words are distorted to obfuscate reality and ethno-religious and class prejudices are used to preclude even human sympathy. Just as Tamils were equated with Tigers and Muslims are equated with Al Qaeda, the urban poor are being depicted as unclean and undesirable, an obstruction to flood-control and disease prevention and a danger to law and order. It is being implied that Colombo cannot become a modern metropolis with clean air, unblocked drains and safe streets while the poor are here. The aim is to blunt our capacity for compassion by playing on our phobias, to persuade us to see the victims of the Rajapaksas’ development war not as fellow human beings but as ‘threats’ and ‘obstructions’.

Rajapaksa governance is tyrannical, predatory and pitiless. Rajapaksa politics objectifies people, either to be used as weapons, discarded as marginals or suppressed as obstacles. Rajapaksa economics is as family-centric as Rajapaksa politics, and irrational, sometimes to the point of insanity. Mattala airport reinforces the lesson of the Ruhunu-Magampura Mahinda RajapaksaPort: familial interests/whim/fancies will always triumph over economic rationality and national-popular needs. To sustain their development strategy, the Rajapaksas need a cowed society, a subservient judiciary and a week opposition, repressive laws and a labour force poor enough and desperate enough to work for phenomenally low wages, under abysmal working conditions.

Rajapaksa economics will have a ruinous impact not just on the poor but also on the middle classes. Already the middles classes are being compelled to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden via increased inflation. The prioritising of defence spending will leave less and less money for those subsidies and services which the middle classes need in order to maintain their economic standards and social status.

With their humanitarian operation, the Rajapaksas increased the psychological divide between the North and the South. With their economic policies, they will exacerbate the class-divide. The Rajapaksas understand the danger of a unified opposition. The last thing they want is a broad, ethno-religious, class-caste coalition. They want to fragment Lankans, to prevent any solidarity, cooperation and even sympathy, across ethnic/religious/class barriers.

Thus their use of proxies, such as the Bodu Bala Sena, to nurse the fires of racism. That way, the victims of Rajapaksa rule can be hoodwinked into to seeking refuge in their parochial identities, as Sinhalese/Tamils/Muslims or Buddhists/Hindus/Christians/Muslims.

And to rise up against each other, rather than against their common oppressor.

Their Colombo Plan

The city of Colombo is a hub of pluralism, a place where people of every ethnicity, religion, class and caste live cheek by jowl. It is this heterodoxy which gives Colombo its socio-cultural character and political complexion. This rich diversity would be alien to the Rajapaksas of Medamulana, used to lording it over poor Sinhala villagers.

It is also a political-threat; the Rajapaksas cannot occupy Colombo electorally without transforming it demographically. Not only are Colombo’s poor pro-UNP; they are also ethno-religiously pluralist, culturally heterodox and, in their boisterous irreverence, immune to our Ruling poseurs.

And it is they who have kept Colombo a Rajapaksa free-city, far.

In the Rajapakse-worldview, Colombo’s poor are not just alien, socially, sociologically and ethno-religiously; they are also dangerous, politico-electorally.

This Colombo is the natural home of anti-Rajapaksa politics.

The UNP of Ranasinghe Premadasa or JR Jayewardene would have fought unconditionally to protect this anti-Rajapaksa Colombo. Unfortunately neither Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Sajith Premadasa seems greatly interested in the matter. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s main enemy is Sajith Premadasa and Sajith Premadasa’s main enemy is Ranil Wickremesinghe. Neither prioritises the necessary struggle against the Rajapaksas. Both seem reluctant to seriously antagonise the Rajapaksas. Each seems to regard the Siblings as a tactical ally against the other.

Both are allowing the Rajapaksas to win the battle for Colombo, by default.

If the Rajapaksa’s Colombo Plan succeeds, it will have a devastating effect not only on the waning political fortunes of the UNP but also on the chances of mounting a successful fight-back against familial rule, someday.

[i] http://www.dailymirror.lk/caption-story/25331-pettah-vendors-plead-as-shops-destroyed.html

[ii] On the night of 17th July, 2010, an armed gang set fire to Ragamwela. According to Panama Mudiyanselage Bandara, a resident of Ragamwela, “They took us out and threatened to kill us. They had two T 56 rifles. I managed to flee but by the time I turned back they were setting fire to everywhere” (BBC – 18.7.2010). When some of the villagers ran to the nearby STF post for help and protection, the STF personnel refused to intervene. The police prevented the inhabitants from returning to their burnt-village and the Chief Sanganayake of Wellassa-Digamadulla was barred from observing ‘vas’ in the village temple.

[iii] The Navy reportedly destroyed an ancient archaeological site, theSamudragiriTemple in Ragamwela.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Yet another piece of intelligent, honest and skilled journalism. Thank you, Tisaranee.

  • 0

    Unfortunately the traders at Bastian Mawatha do not have anyone to speak or fight on their behalf. The opposition is silent and now mayor muzammil is working hand in glove with the SOD. In other places the people are much more organised and vigilant.

    People of Colombo should not be taken for a ride by anyone. However now there is no credible alternative as the UNP is fast losing its support.

  • 0

    Come hell or high water, people have to vote for the UNP in every election that is held in the future. MR is using some disgruntled UNPrs in the party who cannot be given plum posts in the UPFA as fifth columnists to destabilize the party. The JVP too including Sarath Fonseka and his supporters have to put their differences aside to fight the Rajapaksa family dictatorship. The state media is used to great effect sling mud at the party by MR and company. Hopefully in 2016 when the next presidential election is held, the majority will realise the mistake they made in 2010 and rectify it at the ballot box. If people vote overwhelmingly for the joint opposition led by the UNP, I doubt that MR and family will have the guts to alter the results through a computer jilmart. Let’s see if the majority use their brains come 2016.

    • 0

      He won’t hold any election if he is going to lose and he will keep on winning by hook or by crook like Mugabe. Only another 30 years of hardship worse than the 70,s when it hits their tummy that folk will vote for a change without Ranil and Premadasa. Sinhala folk expecting the IC to come to their aid when they don’t have any resources explain the mind-set. Today the Americans need Chinese money to fight the Chinese so the Chinese have invested heavily in Afghanistan’s resources and are turning the 100% poppy created by Anglo US forces (the price of the substance in the UK and US dropped by half ) to Saffron the most expensive spice. The Graft Indians who were given the contracts by the Americans 2 years ago have refused to put their feet on the ground for fear of being blown up as the real enemy.

    • 0


      Without an independent election commission and foreign observers presence SL can’t afford to have another presidential election, period. foreign observers must resume their duties before the nominations and must conclude their duties only after the smooth transition of the power! can SL afford to have another 2005, 2010 type elections ? it is pointless to go on usual blame game after the irrevocable calamity !
      Here are few other factors that are detrimental to the final results, it’s not just computer jilmart come in to play

      1) Brazen state media abuse ( TV ,Radio , Print , internet etc )
      2) Flagrant state resources abuse (man power , vehicles , buildings, three forces and police )
      3) Mammoth dansals from dawn to dusk
      4) Continues harassment and intimidation to Opposition candidates and it’s supporters
      5) Denial of locations, power supply, road access and media access.
      6) Sudden transfer of all the key police personals
      7) Offering plum jobs and distributing job applications.
      8) Chasing away voters.
      9) chasing away the opposition members from the counting centers After the wee hours.
      10) Of course the icing on the cake “ computer jilmart “

      All the opposition parties must boycott the presidential election if there is no independent election commission and credible foreign observer present.

  • 0

    One more analytical study – by an enlightened Sinhalese well endowed to see and this across ethnic prejudices – of the Rajapakse mindset to maintain their Oligarchy – familial rule, if you like – for a long time to come. More by foul means than fair buried in the genes. Colombo is the obstacle and, therefore, Colombo will be changed – in nuanced ways. If the Sinhalese thought forced Colonisation is the fate of only the Demilas in the East (now spreading to the North) now it is the turn of the Sinhalese, Muslims and others in the metropolis, who were not pro-UNP but more political savvy. The Compagnie Vidiya area (Slave Island, Colombo 2) and the 3-seat former Colombo Central will look ethnographically different in 3-5 years from now. The regime will please the majority Sinhala chauvinist cabal now the country is theirs, while emptying the coffers and investing in the USA, Canada,
    Europe, Singapore and Australia the bulk of the plundered loot. Now that the Tamils are “tamed by the force of an over-sized army” there will be an attack of two of significance on Muslims and their successful enterprises to the applause of the JHU/BBS that now rule the streets.

    A little power supply here; a few roads repaired/redone here and there; ditto Chinse-built bridges in the Tamil areas will be exhibited to bought-over foreign media as evidence of the “the freed-Tamils are now happy and very much with us” project. Quislings and cheer-leaders will be identified in the Tamil side to take forward the regime’s propaganda agenda. One is already campaigning for a separate “Eastern Consciousness” to create divisions in the fast uniting Tamil Nation of the North-East. The same sources also, while the “handlers” obviously watch, demand why Sinhalese should not be brought in large numbers to the North. It would appear the danger to the Tamil Nation, in a way, is not from outside but from the disgruntled within.

    All this while the country is economically sliding and the Tamils of the North are denied the right to run their own local affairs. The self-inflicted head-aches to the regimes and the isolation of India, the UNHRC and the world is another matter. If that special friend of the regime Kamlesh Sharma does not perform, as he appears to have promised The Family, it will more be Sogam (Sorrow – in Tamil) than CHOGM. From the regime’s perspective it will be more throgam (double-crossing, in this context)


  • 0

    This is all about the Colombo elite losing power,isn’t it?.

    Ranil and his whizz kid Harsha are wasting their time to attack Rajapaksa regime on Economy ,Development, Standard of Living and Environment.

    Aren’t they ?

    Instead they should take cue from Ms Thisaranee and make a list of surefire vote catchers, such as

    Bring back the Slum Dwellers to Colombo.

    Bring back the hawkers on to Galle Road.

    Don’t force people in Colombo to keep the environment clean.

    No Mattala, Airport, No Magampura Habour , No Tourist Hotels No Sea Planes .

    We will bring all that money to help Colombo inhabitants, just like our Prema and JRJ did.

    Perhaps a few more that will help even further ,

    We are classless, casteless , multi ethnic, and TNA won’t ask separate Homelands .

    And we will ban Sinhala Buddhists.

    • 0

      Isn’t there a limit to your dishonesty and deceit? What Tisaranee has (very accurately) identified is the monstrous social injustices of a bunch of plunderers who claim to be a People’s Government of some kind. The only thing more dishonest than what you have to say is what they are doing!

  • 0

    Ms Tisaranee Gunasekara,

    No doubt you are a brilliant journalist and excellent at expressing your sentiments of the Rajapaksas which I share with you.


    As you may know too much of anything is not good.

    So my fear is, that too much of Rajapaksa bashing might trigger a form of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ resulting in those who love to hate them end up loving them.

    Think about it!

  • 0

    Urban renewal in the capital and physical infrastructure in the country are the only two redeeming acts of the government. For over half a century laizzez faire approach by both municipal administration as well as the central government brought Colombo to this pass. Path of least resistance and unpardonable inaction caused the degradation.

    The government had two options. To beat Mumbai, Kolkotta and Chennai for the best slum in the universe or to go the way of KL and Singapore. The latter is obviously the chosen path. What was festering needed the surgeon’s knife and what is seen is only the incision. To remove the gangrene a major operation is due.

    The pavement is for the pedestrian and not for the hawker. If this was not learnt for 60 years, it has now to be taught the hard way. The same holds for encroachments. It was not under state programmes that they occupied state property. It is realized that cleansing the Augean stables is a societal obligation the state owes to the citizenry. The operation is painful and in the absence of pain killers needs to be endured for the good of all.

    To redress the lapses of the past while acknowledging the intractable, perhaps spatial dispersal to a Greater Colombo is compulsive. Going apace is vertical growth in the heart of the metropolis. This is inconceivable without de sterilizing prime land. The process is protracted and arduous and may need a quarter century. Considerations of equity will require subsidised housing for the displaced and shop accommodation at subsidised rates for the hawkers. But none of these can detract those in governance as sequential action is not practicable. For once since independence, urban planners have been unleashed from the constraints of impotence and finance. Recent experience has also displayed the wisdom of twinning defence and urban development. For a start let Colombo cease to be a ‘soft city’.

    • 0


      I agree with you . However, I think the solutions being sought should include,
      1. Providing alternative employment or places to carry out their trade to the pavement hawkers.
      2. Providing alternate housing at ground level for the slum dwellers, in the greater Colombo areas. They cannot be dumped in high rises , as they are not used to living in such environments. They need land to grow a garden and hang out their clothes to dry. They will make the high rises their new slums, if forced into them. This can be seen in the Maligawatte housing scheme.

      3. Provide a modern rapid transit system for them to travel back and forth from the periphery of greater Colombo to the centre.

      The human factors should be taken into account and solutions provided, while undertaking much welcome urban renewal projects.

      Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

    • 0

      CHANAKYAN is correct. This is absolutely true.

      The slums in Colombo are the abodes of drug peddlers, prostitutes, rogues, murderers and the rest of the vermin.

      Believe me I live close to one in a highly residential area in Colombo 05. Over the years these slum dwellers have been multiplying and expanding at such an alarming rate, that very soon they will take over most if not the entire Colombo 05 along the Wellawatte canal bank.

      If they were peaceful neighbours it wouldn’t have mattered, but they are not.

      I’m sure this is not an isolated case, so there must be many more spread across the city and the suburbs.

  • 0


    It is not a question of taking out and bringing back into Colombo
    slum dwellers. It is a question of creating prosperity and economic
    conditions to lift the slum dwellers from their wretched condition and take them to a new Comfort Zone and out of their label as slum dwellers. Can and will your heroes do it outside their 24×7 pre-occupation of making filthy lucre in massive surreptitious land sales.

    That transformation is what that great Patriot and Nationalist LKY did in Singapore as you know all too well. That man will be remembered in history for a long time for the good he did – and in a clean and open way.


    • 0

      Give us a break Sengutuan.

      How long did it take your hero LKY?.

      And did he have a Diaspora , TN Govt based in NYC, Sambandan and a whole host of powerful enemies waving red cards ?.

      If it is so much plundering how come your powerful NOGs only focus on HR violations and violations against even hard core Welikada mates?.

  • 0

    Political parties set up around the period of independence from Britain are no longer relevant; nor do they function in the best interests of the people; they are systemically self-serving entities that sap the resources of the land.

    What young people might need to consider in the next generation is a system where social leadership reverts back to those respected individuals who actively contribute to society rather than make pretence of social service with unjustly expropriated resources through an unrepresentative political framework…

    • 0

      Agreed but Utopian Concept by Sinhala Buddhist is surprising when the root cause of all evil is GREED – Gautama. What you are suggesting does not work even in the west eg. Shrub bLiar (money for 5 generations)

  • 0

    I think all these fake show off projects will come to an end pretty soon.

    Now Parliament in-house troubles are looming when Vimal Weerawanse openly accusing Tres. Secretary P.B.Jayasundera for not relesing funds for housing projects while both Education and Health ministries are under funded.

    With IMF 1.5 Billion emergency loan being denied, govt is in serious financial crisis, and in coming weeks cash flow crisis will hit all corners of economy.

    As Dr. Harsha say now Govt. is running on Saline….struggling to breath, while opposition and trade unions are gearing for another attack, while currency notes are printed in house hold computers.

    Hope and pray that Kan Getta will not attack Central Bank US $6.5 Billion Gold stock and 7 Billion dollar foreign reserve breaking the iron safe.


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