By Mohamed Harees –
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!
The French Revolution was a watershed period of social and political crisis in France that began in 1789 and lasted until late 1790s, which played a critical role in overthrowing their own monarchy, establishing a republic and shaping modern nations by showing the rest of the world the power inherent in the will of the people. Though Marie Antoinette may not have actually said, “Let them eat cake,” the French monarchy and aristocracy displayed an almost laughable disconnection from common people in the decades leading up to the French Revolution. Though historians have been right to point to a variety of French Revolution causes – ranging from economic and social issues to questions of political representation – it is also true that French royal excess played no small role in driving a wedge between commoners and royals.
Considering the decadence, cluelessness, and outrageous choices of the monarchy, it almost seems like the French were begging for revolution. From the ostentatious Palace of Versailles to out-of-touch political decisions, the extravagance of the Louis line ultimately led to the monarchy’s downfall. Royal decadence in an age of moderation and Enlightenment led the French to question the role of monarchy in an increasingly democratic age. What happens now in Sri Lanka throws many parallels with the France of King Louis and Marie Antoinette! Rajapaksas’ out-of-touch political decisions which led to an unprecedented economic crisis, chronic corruption governing their rule and their extravagance are ultimately leading to this ‘Monarchy’s downfall too. Yes! the unravelling chaos begged like the French then, for a revolution or an uprising.
Ever since they assumed power on the merits of having provided leadership to bring an end to a bloody war in 2009, the corrupt Rajapaksa family has drastically weakened democracy in Sri Lanka, Once feared by the country’s most powerful, this family dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka virtually sucked the soul and wealth of the nation; while the people’s standard of living has been taking a nose-drive, compared with their South Asian neighbours. However, President Gotabhaya’s rule could be aptly referred to as the most inept, incompetent and corrupt regime in recent history, despite obtaining a massive mandate in November 2019, from a predominantly Sinhala Buddhist electorate based on a racist and supremacist agenda as well as wide 20A powers. Together with his brother Mahinda as PM, another one Basil as Finance Minister and few more Rajapaksas in the cabinet, the family ran a filthily corrupt and nepotic administration, controlling almost 70% of the Budgetary allocations.
In a subcontinent that’s dense with political dynasties, the Rajapaksas are in a class by themselves. Rajapakse family truly lived in a lap of luxury with ill-gotten resources and income, which drove a wedge and disconnect between these ‘royals’ and the commoners. News reports that the president and his ministers are exempt from the power cuts, along with opulent displays of wealth by family members, have only increased anger. Thus, two and a half years since, the Rajapakse administration, now faces a stirring civilian resistance that is picking up momentum daily while the Parliament, amidst mutinies, is debating ways and means of satisfying public aspirations fury .The outrage and mobilization of the nationwide protests — online and on Sri Lanka’s streets — was “unprecedented , in the country’s history.- ,a nonpartisan and an uprising without communal division
People wanted answers and a regime sensitive to public suffering, unable to face an economic crisis, the worst in living memory. It was not just Covid related. In fact, it was engineered by the inconsistent and inefficient policy measures taken by the Gota administration which led the country to go out of foreign currency to pay for imported goods, which naturally caused massive discontent, with people unable to find gas, fuel and basic items of food such as milk powder as well as medicines. The economic meltdown has left the city’s roads eerily empty as fuel pumps run dry. Five elderly people have died after collapsing in queues over the last few weeks. People felt that the ruling Rajapaksa family, should be booted out with many not only calling for their immediate resignation, but also be made accountable for looting the nation. The country’s chief power regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) also went to the Supreme Court, pleading a violation of its fundamental rights; first time that a state regulator pleaded a violation of the Constitution to enforce essential service functions.
Now they see their effigies being hit and burned in the street, and furious public are carrying placards not just calling for their immediate ouster shouting ‘Gota-go-home’ and also calling them to be brought to account and their wealth confiscated and for them to be jailed too. Their houses and those of the politicos in their administration are being surrounded by thousands of protesters, many of whom who voted for them. Their ethno-nationalist government which sat securely in power till recently which drove Sri Lanka into a grave economic crisis, amid continuous corruption, is facing mounting resistance. Protests have been mostly led by grassroots civil society groups. Previously, village-level groups may have avoided challenging Rajapaksa governments given their mutual commitment to Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy. Their now-vociferous demands show the strength of civil society, and resilience of democracy in Sri Lanka.
Mass Protest near Gotabaya’s house in Mirihana shouting slogans like ‘Lunatic go home’ demanding his resignation should also be referred to as a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s Post-war history. It gave further impetus to the will and determination of the people all over Sri Lanka to come out to the streets and protest against the totally corrupt and inept Gotabaya administration, which has taken Sri Lanka to the doorstep of bankruptcy.
Gota Administration with their naïve media outfit tried to delude itself into show off this widespread and unprecedentedly furious public protests against the President, the Prime Minister and the Government as instigated by agent provocateurs of the Opposition and/.or extremists’ also calling it to start off Arab style uprising. One slavish pro-Rajapakse monk try to call this demonstration as being initiated by an ‘Islamic’ extremist group. However this line received its utmost condemnation from the public. They told in no uncertain terms that they will not be fooled by the racist tactics of the Rajapaksas, as they were earlier. Indeed, these explosions of public rage are meant for both the Government and the Opposition, as the cries began to include all 225 MPs in their condemnation. The people also began to demand that corrupt politicians bring back ill-gotten wealth and foreign funds stashed overseas in offshore accounts.
The answer of an insensitive government without understanding the pain of a frightened people was to impose a curfew and a state of public emergency. It is naïve to even think of it as a feasible proposition; as massive segments of the Sri Lankan citizenry ignored restrictions and came out to protest. The BASL lawyers came out in their hundreds to appear to appear for those arrested. For several hours on Sunday, authorities blocked social media services including Twitter. But videos went viral as Sri Lankans used virtual private network (VPN) software to bypass the ban. Overnight resignations of Sri Lankan cabinet members and an invitation to form a unity government have failed to quell public anger over the country’s economic crisis. Anger against the Rajapaksas is running deep, forcing the family to curtail even their public appearances.
Is Sri Lanka now becoming a failed State? All of the past developments have been weakening the nation, and the economy even more, thus creating conditions for Sri Lanka to be called a ‘failed state’ According to a Wikipedia definition, ‘A failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly. A state can also fail if the government loses its legitimacy even if it is performing its functions properly. For a stable state, it is necessary for the government to enjoy both effectiveness and legitimacy. Likewise, when a nation weakens and its standard of living declines, it introduces the possibility of total governmental collapse.’ In the past, many countries short-listed for such designation had come out of it, one way or the other, with or without flying colours. The irony in the case of present-day Sri Lanka is that attempts at branding the nation as a ‘failed state’ in this mess, have now commenced from within.
However, there appears to a very stark divergence between what the government is doing and what the people want. The frustrations and consequent anger of the population was real. The message of the Sri Lankan electorate as clear as daylight. They sacrificed their time and energy to speak up not just for themselves, but for the unborn as well whose birth right is being pilfered to keep one family in power and in luxury, while plundering the nation’s riches and resources by the political establishment and outright sale of national assets to foreign powers. The Island newspaper wrote in a scathing editorial, “The pauperisation of the nation, and its leaders’ begging sprees have placed the country’s national security, independence, sovereignty, and strategic assets in jeopardy. There is no such thing as an economic bailout package without strings attached.” The people rose up to protest against the mortgage of the national honour and dignity to neo colonist powers in the West, China and neighbouring India. They came out to ask for the basic needs to be fulfilled and amicable environment created to earn their livelihoods.
In getting Sri Lanka out of this political abyss , most experts say it is imperative that the Rajapaksas quit including the President by using some provision in the Constitution. Perhaps, an interim government in place could be the best thing that could happen to the nation, in terms of political stability, and administrative continuity and also looking at ways of devising a constitution which gives more power to the people and makes the lawmakers and the public representatives accountable and their dealings transparent. Sadly, as the post-Independence past has proved, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans with a political slavish mindset had lacked the required commitment and efficiency to demand a clean political culture of their public representatives and create an inclusive nation. They have themselves to blame when they send unqualified, corrupt representatives to Parliament and other public bodies using their vote. They have fallen victim to the political tricksters who used racism and majoritarianism to come to power. Will this unprecedented people’s uprising rising above narrow racial and religious divides, make it possible even now? Parliament should be a law making and controller of finance finances as it should be and not a den of thieves and thugs, as it is now (as per the public views). Let not another Rajapakse style dynasty be allowed in Sri Lanka, if democracy is to have any meaning!
The unfolding tragedy of Sri Lanka is, for all Sri Lankans, thus both a cautionary tale and also an opportunity to start afresh. Will Sri Lankans learn and also make use of another historic opportunity (many often missed in the past), the Divine Providence has given to set things right? As Henry Ford said, ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’.