Readers may recall some of my previous articles on this year’s dramatic developments in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy has taken a deep dive, with essential supplies such as fuel for vehicles, cooking and medicine becoming unavailable, food prices soaring and inflation soaring. This caused massive hardship for almost everyone in the country, except of course the very wealthy, with people queuing, sometimes for days, to get even the smallest amount of essential supplies.
The immediate causes of all this were two major decisions taken by the government: one to suddenly ban the import of chemical fertilizers, which devastated agricultural yields, and the other was the decision to adopt a reduction in massive tax accompanied by the printing of money to cover the resulting expenses. deficit, leading to high inflation. The ultimate causes, however, were long-standing corruption, nepotism and incompetence that had lasted for decades but intensified under the last government in which the president and prime minister and two cabinet members were all brothers. from the same family Rajapaksa and another member of the cabinet was the son of the prime minister. Other family members were also given government positions, making the government essentially a family fiefdom.
The widespread hardship has led to massive protests from all sectors of the population, transcending traditional divisions and animosities, with people joining the protests from all different ethnic groups, religions, classes and geographical locations. Over a three-month period, tens of thousands marched and occupied public spaces, eventually taking over the president’s office and official residence as well as the prime minister’s office. This led to the president fleeing the country in the middle of the night and resigning abroad. The prime minister also resigned and hid in a naval base while the other two brothers and the nephew also resigned from their ministerial posts. For a very short time it looked like the old corrupt system was going to be swept away and, exhausted from months of protests but exhilarated by what they had achieved, the protests died down.
But what we are seeing now is the return of the old guard. It all started with the appointment by incumbent President Gotabaya R. as interim president of a discredited politician Ranil Wickremesinghe whose party (including him) had lost all the seats it was contesting in the 2019 elections. considered a minion of the Rajapaksa family. The 225 members of parliament had to vote to determine who should fill the ousted president’s remaining term. 150 of these members belonged to the Rajapaksa family party and although a majority of the 225 had publicly stated that they would vote for the candidate of one of the opposition parties, when the secret ballot was completed and the votes were counted, 134 voted for Wickremesinghe. It was clear that the fix was in place and speculation is that a large number of members had been bribed to vote for it.
Wickremsinghe, despite having no mandate, now acts as if he was elected by the people, even having the nerve to tell an Australian journalist in a testy interview that he has the country’s majority support . It cracked down on protesters, arresting many of its leaders under the provisions of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act which was passed during the time of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. He also appointed around 50 MPs as government ministers, a ridiculously high number for a country of this size. These ministerial positions are highly sought after as they come with many lucrative perks and also put the occupiers in a position to profit from corruption. It seems likely that these were rewards for these politicians for voting for Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe is clearly the leader of the Rajapaksa family, so much so that he is regularly and derisively referred to as Ranil Rajapaksa. He took no action on the corruption allegations against them. Former President Gotabaya R. quietly returned to the country and now resides somewhere. Prime Minister Mahinda R. is back in parliament. The brother who had been Minister of Finance Basil R. and was the supposed mastermind of the family and the person believed to be at the center of all the corruption, left the country and returned to the United States. Nephew Namal R. would be in the running for another ministerial post.
Protest leaders have been harassed by police who have clear orders to take harsh action against them to discourage further demonstrations. Protesters have been arrested under various provisions of the PTA and some have only been released after posting large sums of bail. The harassment and rights abuses of protesters and journalists have been denounced by human rights groups and have also been taken up by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, in which delegates called on the Sri Lankan government to respect the rights of protesters and end the use of the PTA.
It seems clear that Wickremesinghe, with the typical arrogance of a desperately out of touch politician, thinks he is ascendant and can put down protests with force. Members of the Rajapaksa family party are still in the majority in parliament and with Ranil Rajappaksa as president, we are witnessing a restoration of the status quo.
But after a quiet period, the protests resume and people challenge them. What worries me is that if the protests begin to approach the scale and militancy levels of those that began in April, then Ranil Rajapaksa may order the security forces to attack them with maximum force. leading to bloodshed, as he saw what a large public protests did to bring down the Rajapaksa family. Now that he has gained the presidency through the back door after a long and vain effort to do so through elections in which he has been repeatedly repudiated, the temptation must be strong to cling to power at all costs to not to also be ousted like the Rajapaksas were.
The outlook is very bleak for Sri Lanka.