By Mohamed Harees –
The world on December 14, 2008 watched on TV with baited breath, how the Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw both of his shoes at Bush at a press conference held at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s palace to protest against US dictatorship and its puppet regime. In Ukraine, in 2015, activists and radicals, supporters of a draft law entitled ‘Cleaning Up the Government”, devised a challenge of their own, throwing politicians in dumpsters to protest Ukraine’s rampant corruption. These shoeing and binning incidents thus become few symbols of public resistance and frustration against corrupt and dictatorial governments who sell their country’s soul for thirty pieces of silver. Sri Lanka too is not much further from these forms of protest. In the Sri Lankan context, public resentment and anger against the corrupt, racist and inefficient Gotabaya regime have already started with one MP was reportedly attacked in the South.
Growing impatience with chronic political corruption and absence of rule of law is visible in the various campaigns and protests both in the streets as well as in the social media. Citizens everywhere no longer believe that corruption is inevitable or that it is futile to try to fight it. The good news is that much of the nation is fed up with corruption. The bad news is that the way many are fighting corruption is ineffective. Too often, the remedy centres on finding and empowering an ‘honest’ leader who promises to stamp out the problem. This happens at every election. What countries really need, though, are smart laws and frameworks that checks and reduces the incentives and opportunities for corruption. They also need strong institutions that enforce those laws and deprive corrupt politicians/officials, and their private-sector accomplices, of impunity in their efforts to get rich at the public’s expense.
Sri Lanka’s Government already officially declared 2021, the worst economic crisis in the country in 73 years, amid becoming a political circus and a tragi-comedy. Gotabaya government declared an economic emergency recently amid rising food prices, a depreciating currency, and rapidly depleting forex reserves. Local newspapers have depicted cartoons of Sri Lanka pleading for cash even from neighbouring poor SAARC countries such as Bangladesh. Sri Lanka’s existing funding sources did not appear sufficient to cover its debt servicing needs estimated at just over $4.0 billion in 2021. In 2021 Sri Lanka started the first “100% organic farming” program and imposed a countrywide ban on inorganic fertilizers and pesticides in June 2021, and the trade in chemical fertilizers and pesticides has been banned. This fact produced a severe economic crisis. Disgruntled farmers are burning effigies of the President and the Agriculture Minister to protest against this explosive fertiliser issue.
Gotabaya recently admitted his government has failed and not been “delivering” as shortages persist of food, medicines and other essential items because of a dire foreign exchange squeeze. Sri Lankan officials and policymakers continue to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for the country’s faltering economy. Credit agencies like Moody’s Investors Service and S&P 500 have consistently downgraded the country, demonstrating low confidence in its ability to pay back its debts. That’s mainly because Sri Lanka’s economic shortcomings are structural: a low tax-to-GDP ratio, prohibitive barriers to trade, a bloated public sector, and high costs of doing business. These deficiencies have existed for more than a decade, long before the pandemic. Instead of addressing structural shortcomings, the government is making them worse. Import restrictions are at their highest since the 1970s, when the country was nearly a closed economy. Analysts are now drawing comparisons to that decade, which was the last time Sri Lanka saw shortages of essentials like rice, bread, and sugar. Instead of forcing the people to starve, the government needs to enact structural reforms economists have been recommending for years.
However, instead of focussing on these much needed economic reforms ,Sri Lanka so desperately needs, the politically bankrupt Gotabaya regime appears to engage in human rights abuses that have even made foes of the country’s longtime allies; thus continues to sow discord and traumatize minority communities. One of their oft used cunning strategies has been adopting racist, majoritarian policies to engage the attention of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community ,citing national security issues arising from minorities. Rajapaksas in general and Gotabaya in particular have been Picassos in this art of deception. Gotabhaya cleverly came to power on this divisive platform citing so-called Islamic extremism, building upon the fears which developed consequent to the terrible Easter disaster of April 2019. The Post Easter Commission Report period has already generated more heat than light, with questions being asked about the masterminds behind and why those implicated like the former President and hate peddlers like Gnanassara Thero are not punished.
Interestingly, when Gotabhaya became the clear winner, it made the Sinhalese Buddhists happy and triumphant that a leader has eventually emerged to deliver their dream of a Sinhala Buddhist nation. The symbolism of the venue clanged as clear as a temple bell. Gotabaya tactfully chose Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka with Buddhist links going back to the 3rd century, for his oath-taking in November 2019. More pointedly, in a country often troubled by sectarian rifts, it commemorates the defeat of Elara,and the reunification of Sri Lanka under his Sinhalese Buddhist rival, King Dutugemunu. However, to the others, it was a confirmation of fears that with the return of Gotabaya, whose name evokes the brutal memories of his stint as the much feared Defence Secretary during his brothers Mahinda’s time in office , Sri Lanka will return to the days of Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism. They wondered “Will he snatch the human rights of citizens?”. During his campaign, Gotabaya did try to assuage the fears; his most celebrated slogan then was ‘Inclusive nationalism’. Sri Lanka then hoped that Gotabaya will live up to that promise. Sadly, it was however not to be.
Twelve years down from victory against the ruthless Tigers, Sri Lanka is not the same country. Barely two years after Gotabaya took over the reigns of a country that has buried the wounds of that war, if not the pain of it, fresh scars have been emerging again. Sri Lanka today, consequent to the April 21 Easter Sunday blasts, is a sad reminder of the fragility of peace in its complex racial, ethnic mix. Not only his military Hitler style has re-emerged, but his baser instincts of racism and anti-Muslim have also been laid bare, to cover up his inept handling of the economy, inefficiency, and incompetence, particularly to the utter shock of those who voted for him with much expectation and hope.
Today, what we thus witness in Sri Lanka, during this regime in particular and in the post war Sri Lanka in general, has been the disintegration of the social landscape along religious and racial lines forgetting the bitter lessons of the three decades of an expensive ethnic conflict , the decline of our moral compass in all spheres , political expediency in the decision making process of the government , the relegation of social justice to the side-lines and the degeneration of the rule of law in the society. Gotabaya saw to it that the anti-Muslim hatred, the tempo of which increased in the aftermath of the Easter disaster, stayed in the minds of the Sinhala majority for his political survival. Although most have realised their follies in voting in a racist corrupt regime to power, still Gotabaya appears to have not given up hope in the effectiveness of using the racist strategy to divert public attention.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka provides a clear demonstration of the extent to which ethnic majoritarianism and economic grievance are mutually reinforcing. Starting from forced cremation policy, Gotabaya regime proceeded to hunt notable Muslim activists without any legal justification, used ‘deradicalization’ as a sword of Damocles, proposed imposing a cattle ban as a strategy to hit at Muslim economy as well as proposed abolition of material areas of Muslim personal laws, using the ‘good offices’ of a Muslim Minister. ‘Final straw’ as the Daily FT Editorial put it, ‘was the formation of the all-pervading ‘One Country One Law Presidential Commission’ led by a racist monk who was responsible for the Aluthgama anti-Muslim violence and who blatantly called ‘Allah’ as the main conspirator responsible for the Easter disaster.
His establishment of this Task Force was no accident. Addressing a public meeting recently , Gotabhaya attempted to justify Gnanasara Thero’s appointment, declaring: “This revered monk is the only one to have consistently spoken about the ‘One Country, One Law’ concept during the past five years.”. FT Editorial said , Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary GalagodaAaththe Gnansara Thero’s appointment as Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the ‘One Country, One Law’ policy has exposed the anti-minority underpinning of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration. The rabidly racist monk has enjoyed political patronage since when the current President served as Defence Secretary from 2005-2015’ … ‘The appointment is a slap in the face of the only Muslim Minister in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet, not only because it guarantees that law reform will now take a distinctly Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic tenor, but because the Task Force is also a direct assault on Minister Ali Sabry’s authority on legal reform itself.. the Editorial ended thus ‘ The writing on the wall is glowing. There is no reforming this presidency from within. The President has made his choice, and he has chosen Gnanasara Thero.’. The presence of a few Muslim names in this Task Force does not thus hide away the fact that this commission is a direct assault on the Muslim community.
On November 1, Gnanasara Thero addressed a group of selected journalists in the presidential media centre explaining what he intended to do. “Today we have got a result for all of our hard work”… Gnanasara Thero’s so-called hard work is the communalist anti Muslim provocations orchestrated by his BBS organisation and its political allies over the past decade..He also did not hide away the fact that this Task force will deal with Islamic laws and symbols. He said, ‘the concentration of the panel would be on the controversial laws of the Muslim community, such as those on marriage and divorce, on the wearing of the burqa, the existence of separate Qazi courts and Madrassahs (religious schools)’
When the former President Mahinda Rajapakse regime faced a deep crisis in 2014, BBS’ Gnanasara Thero instigated a major anti-Muslim attack in the southern Aluthgama and Beruwala area. Seven years later the Rajapakse regime, is again responding to a far deeper economic and political crisis and the resurgence of working-class/people struggles by using racist, majoritarian, extreme-right and fascistic elements to prepare for the conditions for dictatorial forms of rule.
If the nation is to learn from history, and forge ahead, not only the government must combat impunity but it also must respect the legitimate concerns of the people, irrespective of racial or religious differences. Failure to do so fails humanity as a whole. However, there is no political will on the part of the Sri Lankan government to deal domestically with the human rights abuses and violation of minority rights.
Thus, locally, the only means of defeating the corrupt and racist policies of this government is through the independent mobilisation of people, workers and youth on the basis of their common class interests and a unified political struggle against the Rajapakse government’s disastrous economic and racist agenda. It is also important that local public activism efforts be complimented with international pressure too. It was international pressure which saw the end to the discriminatory forced cremation policy. Further, March 2021 also saw the UN Human Rights Council pass an important resolution that placed Sri Lanka under further scrutiny and established an international mechanism to collect evidence of rights abuses. Thus, international role also has a major place in this struggle. However, the international community cannot rely on this UN forum alone. In parallel to UN/ joint international efforts, individual countries which provide aid to Sri Lanka should also use their own bilateral relationships in ways that will give Sri Lanka limited options, other than to address longstanding grievances.
On the contrary, if Sri Lanka is allowed to continue to go down the path it’s going at present, its future will look remarkably like its bleak past and will very soon become a pariah state.