By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Without gas, without kerosene oil, we can’t do anything. Last option what? Without food we are going to die. That will happen hundred percent.” ~ Mohammad Shazly a part-time chauffer, Colombo (Reuters – 20.5.2022)
An old man walks down a road, snowy haired, thin to the point of gauntness, bespectacled. He clutches a white cane in one hand; the other steadies the gas cylinder he is bearing on his frail shoulders. That one picture, probably taken from a phone, portrays better than a thousand words or figures our current condition.
The Rajapaksa-made crisis affects all Lankans, but not in the same way and not to the same degree. The greatest burden is borne not by the upper or the middle classes but by the old and the new poor. For them, the crisis is a battle for survival in the most literal sense. They have little time or patience for the political arguments which engages those of us for whom the crisis is not yet (and may never be) a matter of life and death. As a man who had been waiting in a Colombo queue for hours for cooking gas told the NDTV, “We don’t mind Ranil or Basil or whoever… We want solutions to our people. We don’t mind Ranil come back or Mahinda come back. We want solutions to our people. That’s it.”
Parliamentarian Mujibar Rahuman this week gave voice to the pain and despair of Colombo’s old and new poor. He also sounded a dire and accurate warning of the consequences of their anger. He asked the new Prime Minister about the steps taken to alleviate the plight of these most vulnerable communities. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s answer didn’t inspire confidence. He talked of the global food crisis and said the issue would be studied by a committee next week (hopefully not the committee headed by Vajira Abeywardane).
The impending global food crisis is real. There’s another global development the IMF warned about this week which Mr. Wickremesinghe and his motley crew of ministers should pay close attention to – greater social unrest caused mainly by steep increases in food and fuel prices. In Sri Lanka, massive price increases are compounded by a near total unavailability of items essential to the maintenance of modern life, especially in urban settings. Add to that the non-availability of fertiliser for this season leading to a collapse of agriculture and a resultant food shortage, and all the ingredients are present for the cauldron to boil over.
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s record of wantonly destroying every chance history handed him is unprecedented, his ability to self-destruct, taking down his side with him, legendary. Still, I hope he succeeds in pulling Sri Lanka out of the economic morass the Rajapaksas led her into. And I fear the consequences of his failure, most of which will have to be borne by those like the old man in the picture.
The economic crisis has morphed into a political crisis, but addressing the immediate economic needs of the masses – the shortages of fuel and cooking gas – cannot await the resolution of any of the political issues, be it sending Gota home or abolishing the executive presidency or holding elections (all of which are necessary).
A new credit line is the lifeline we need desperately; if it comes, it will come with conditions which we are in no position to refuse. As the old adage warned, beggars can’t be choosers, not if they want to live. Without dollars to pay for essential imports, the country will grind to a halt. Innumerable lives will be endangered in the most literal sense and the public that has borne much will say enough. The first signs of the impending outbreak are visible in the impromptu road closures and the stopping of fuel tankers. When a dam breaks, the water sweeps over everything in its path. That could be Sri Lanka, soon.
When the tanks rolled in
A group of online activists called a day of protest on Sunday, April 3rd. The Gotabaya-Mahinda-Basil regime, unnerved by the Mirihana incident, imposed a curfew.
For the first time in Lankan history, ordinary people ignored the curfew, pouring out into the streets in their thousands. Across the country, men, women, and children, entire families marched out of their homes, holding handmade placards, chanting slogans and singing. Nothing could dampen their enthusiasm, not the heavy police presence or the equally heavy thundershowers. By that night, the Galle Face was full of mostly middle class youth from Colombo and suburbs, demanding the president’s resignation. Faced by hundreds of thousands of curfew breakers, the police could do little. The curfew was not extended, and the emergency removed a couple of days later.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa re-imposed the curfew, on May 9th, while SLPP thugs were attacking Gota-go-gama protestors. Across the nation, the curfew was ignored, this time not by peaceful protestors but by marauding mobs.
On May 10th, President Gotabaya called in the military. The next day, tanks rolled down streets, manned by fully armed and stony faced soldiers. The visuals would have chilled any democratic-minded citizen to the bone. As the military took over urban centres and rural towns, a silence fell. There was no public outcry; thousands of people did not pour into the streets in peaceful protests as they had done on April 3rd.
The difference in public reaction was made up of the counter-violence that broke out after the wanton attacks on Gota-go-gama and Maina-go-gama protest encampments. Had the reaction to the regime’s criminal onslaught been non-violent, had the streets been filled with peaceful protestors instead of rampaging mobs, the subsequent events might have taken a different turn. Gotabaya Rajapaksa prevailed because the mob violence gave him the opportunity to call in the troops.
By the time the tanks rolled in, the public was exhausted and fearful of both types of violence, and confused about the future. The feel-good factor that characterised the protests from the beginning was gone. That mood of felicity couldn’t have survived the Nittambuwa lynching. Though the full horror of that incident was not known (the parliamentarian and his protection officer had been beaten to death as the post-mortem revealed), the pictures of the bodies, stripped and lying on the road, were enough to cause a sense of shock and shame.
Perhaps a different outcome was possible. When an attempt was made – obviously by Rajapaksa agents – to ignite a religious conflagration in Negambo, the response from the larger protest movement was swift and unequivocal. This timely and decisive intervention was seminal in preventing Negambo from exploding. Had there been a similar response at least after the Nittambuwa lynching, the subsequent mob violence could have been avoided. The protestors could have retained the moral highground, and the regime deprived of an excuse to call the military in.
What if, instead of toppling vehicles and pushing the captured thugs into Beira Lake, (and stripping them), the protestors treated these Rajapaksa stooges with civility and handed them over either to the media or the police? Such an example could have set the tone for subsequent public reactions. Then again, these same protestors chased away Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake when they went to Galle Face immediately after the attack on Gota-go-gama. Surely, if their presence was unwelcome, they could have been told so politely, and asked to leave? What are we, in the absence of such basic civility and tolerance?
A measured response didn’t happen, and the resultant fires burnt out the political component of mass anger. A nation of peaceful protestors was changed back into a nation of onlookers who watched mutely as the military took over public spaces. It was a time of a deadly political vacuum. The PM has resigned. There was no government, only a politically weakened President Gotabaya and the military, an institution still trusted by a majority of the people, according to the penultimate CPA survey. By accepting the premiership while Sajith Premadasa was dithering, Ranil Wickremesinghe might well have saved civilian rule. He may also have saved the Gotabaya presidency in the process. But then even a President Gotabaya is preferable to a military junta.
Mass political protests are finished for now. Gota-go-gama survives, but mostly as a relic of an age of innocence lost forever. The political initiative belongs to PM Wickremesinghe and his seriously underwhelming cabinet, though not for long. If they can semi-normalise the distribution of fuel and gas in the coming week, they and the country will gain a much needed breathing space. If they fail, mass violence might break out, not organised by any party, but stemming from the unbearable anguish and uncontainable rage of the people.
And once again, Sri Lanka will teeter on the edge of two interconnected abysses – mob rule and military rule, violent anarchy and violent dictatorship.
Grusha or Natella?
In his first public address as prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe compared the task he had taken upon himself to Grusha’s perilous journey on the rotten bridge across the glacier. There is another scene in Brecht’s iconic play that corresponds more exactly to the current Lankan condition. That comes in Act 5, when Azdek the judge orders the child Michael to be placed in the centre of a chalk circle and decrees that he will belong to the woman who pulls him out of the circle first.
Natella, the governor’s wife and the birth mother who abandoned the child pulls him out, twice. Grusha, the servant girl who saved him at the risk of her life, refuses to pull him, for she can’t bear to hurt him. Natella wants something from the child (access to her dead husband’s properties); Grusha wants something for the child, a life lived as a compassionate human being and not a brutal oppressor.
Sri Lanka is that child now, caught between many Natellas with no Grusha in sight. Unlike Michael, we bear considerable responsibility for our own plight. Gota must go home, for he is the chief author of our tragedy. But he sits right because he can cling to the massive mandate we gave him. We elected a silly little showman with a Hitler complex and now we are saddled with him. Rejecting all 225 parliamentarians is a fad now, but other than national list members, everyone else of that despised tribe were also elected by us.
Chamal Rajapaksa rightly faulted brother Mahinda for not bowing out of politics after his defeat at the 2015 Presidential election. Had he done so, there would have been no Mahinda Sulanga, no SLPP, no President Gotabaya. Sri Lanka would have muddled along as she did for 72 years, with some successes and many failures. Rajapaksa greed brought us all to this pass, but it was we the people who gave them the chance to wreck Sri Lanka. Understanding our own culpability is necessary to prevent a repeat. If we don’t realise and accept the role we played in our own downfall, we will elect another set of venal incompetents at the next election.
Gota won’t go and there’s no constitutional path to oust him fast, so the only option is to defang him via a 21st Amendment and to hold a referendum on the presidential system in tandem with the next parliamentary election. But there’s a kind of a use value in Gota refusing to go home. So long as he clings to the presidency, people will remember the true authors of their unbearable suffering. If he’s gone, the role of the Rajapaksas will be forgotten gradually, and the blame heaped on whoever is governing, be it Ranil, Sajith, Anura or anyone else.
After a few months of non-Rajapaksa rule, Mahinda Rajapaksa will claim that he had a plan, but couldn’t implement it due to national and international conspiracies. And quite a few of those who are now clamouring for Gota’s departure now will scratch their collective heads then muttering, That is also true (Ekath aththa). There might not be another Mahinda Sulanga but a Mahinda Madanala (Mahinda Breeze) is a distinct possibility under such circumstances. Allowing a defanged Gotabaya Rajapaksa to cling to the presidency until the worst of the crisis is over might make political sense, given Lankan public’s well known capacity to swing from one extreme to another in short oder.
In the final act of the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a song reflecting Grusha’s hopes for the child ends with the line that she wants him to fear darkness but not the night.
Last night, the house of an IOC fuel station owner in Kekirawa was torched, allegedly by people who could not purchase fuel. That is our darkness.
Yesterday, an internet post reported that in Walgama, residents provided those in a fuel queue overnight with biscuits, tea, and even breakfast.
That is our light.
We need dollars urgently. We also need to find and cling to ordinary everyday decency, kindness, and empathy that are in us. We can either become Grushas and be kind to each other or turn into Natellas and tear each other apart.