The government’s efforts to suppress the protest movement by the targeting of its leading members individually is polarizing the country more than ever before. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of the protests, the government is targeting prominent and key members of the protest movement with flimsy charges and under conditions of Emergency Law in which the regular law and its protections can be suspended in their operation. The Fitch Rating of Sri Lanka dated July 28, 2022, states that the government’s parliamentary position appears strong, but public support for the government is weaker. It is therefore important for the government to hear the legitimate voices of the protesters and find ways and means of engaging with them in a meaningful manner rather than suppressing them.
Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been nominated by the SLPP general secretary as the ruling party’s candidate for election to the presidency to take place in parliament on July 20. There is controversy over this nomination as the SLPP chairman and other party members have denied this. The controversy extends also to the larger society where the acting president has become a polarizing figure. To his supporters he is the best hope of a return to the status quo that existed before the economic collapse of the country. There is confidence in his experience and ability to negotiate with the international community. To his detractors, he is the person who is keeping the old order and its corruption – which gave rise to the economic collapse alive — so that they may return to power in the future. An objective assessment is required in terms of short term and long term outcomes.
There is an anxious calm after the unprecedented events of July 9. The Presidential Secretariat, President’s House and Temple Trees, which contain both the prime minister’s official office and residence, are in the hands of the people rather than the rulers. The Aragalaya protestors who occupy these buildings of state coexist in the same space with the security forces personnel who were stationed there to protect those state properties. There was an obvious trust among those who took part in the protests on July 9 that the state’s response would be a benign one. They felt that they were taking part in the protests as part of a national cause that the security forces would respect.
The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe joining of the government was expected to turnaround the degrading tragic economic situation wherein child malnutrition figures are making Sri Lanka the 7th worst in the world. The country is living almost on a “ship to mouth” basis where the delay of a ship, or the cancellation of a ship bringing fuel, can lead to enormous hardships. More than six weeks after the new prime minister took over, the deadweight he has to pull is turning out to be too much. It is not possible to say that the economic situation has changed for the better. If at all, it has turned worse. The queues outside the fuel stations that are still open, and only a few remain open, are longer than ever. Most fuel stations are closed.
The situation in the country has become so dire that the government has decided that government workers should stay at home for two weeks. Government schools too have been directed to shut down along with government-supported private schools. Only a few of them would have the capacity to conduct online classes as was seen during the Covid lockdowns. In addition to being physically stunted, the way is being paved for a younger generation that is deficient in the growth of their mental and intellectual faculties.
The country appears to have reached a position of stability. But this is deceptive. Every day the price of food increases. Less can be bought with the wages earned that day. The anticipated food shortages have manifested themselves though the sufferings and deprivations are private and personal for the most part. They come out into the open when an office worker may say that they have no money to go back home on the bus at the end of the working day. Or it manifests itself in the statement of the UN representative Hanaa Singer-Hamdy who has said that 22 per cent of the Sri Lankan population or 4.9 million people live in need of food assistance at the moment. She said there is a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in paddy crop harvest in this period.
The situation in the country appears to be getting less hopeful by the day. The Galle Face protest site reflects this despondency. The material conditions of life are getting worse, not better. It is becoming harder for people to make the sacrifice for positive change that may not take place. The lines in front of petrol stations get longer. The number of them that have closed temporarily has increased. The prime minister is warning that there will be food scarcity in the next few months and people should be prepared to settle for two meals a day instead of the regular three. The Colombo mayor has announced that the municipality will set up “soup kitchens” to meet the needs of those who will soon have little or nothing to eat.
The 50th day anniversary of the Aragalaya took place in a generally calm manner. There were special events organized on Saturday including a march from Independence Square to the Galle Face protest site. I met a veteran Colombo-based Tamil journalist who was one of those who made the trek, along with his teenage son. They had come to express their solidarity with the protestors and not to engage in confrontation with the government. So they did not join the smaller group that decided not to stop at the Galle Face protest site, but went on to try and forcibly enter the President’s House. This group was pushed back by the police who tear gassed them to prevent their entrance to the road that led to the President’s House.
The government’s intention to appoint a full complement of ministers and state ministers, and the jostling for positions amongst them, seems to suggest an attitude of business as usual. This is quite astonishing as it was just two weeks ago that no government member felt safe from the wrath of mobs that formed themselves very swiftly and apparently spontaneously to attack their homes and properties. Last week they overrode the opposition’s demand for time to debate the motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having led the country to disaster. They also scuttled efforts to nominate a female legislator to the post of Deputy Speaker, disregarding the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which could have sown the seeds for consensual governance. They gave priority to their own personal concerns of getting compensation from the state for their losses.