All the signs are that the countrywide anti-government protests are getting out of control. One person has already been killed in an incident, where the police opened fire on a group of protesters who blocked a level crossing at Rambukkana, for nearly 15 hours, on Tuesday (19). What sparked the latest wave of protests was a massive fuel price hike. The police have said a mob tried to set a fuel bowser on fire, and they had been left with no alternative but to use force, but eyewitnesses have denied this claim. About a dozen other protesters were also injured in the incident and rushed to hospital. But the youth protest in Colombo has remained orderly, peaceful, and more effective than those conducted by others elsewhere.
Never in one’s wildest dreams would one have expected the Galle Face protest to snowball into something like the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, with protesters braving inclement weather and overcoming daunting challenges. It was thought initially that some youth would gather near the Presidential Secretariat, spend a day or two there and disperse after shouting slogans until they were blue in the face, or would be driven away by the riot police.
The Galle Face Green is not a place where a large number of people could stay for days on end, or, at least, that was what, many apparently thought, would be the case. The place lacks sanitary facilities, drinking water and shelter for a large crowd. But thousands of youths have been campaigning for ten days consecutively in what looks like a ‘leaderless’ protest. Temporary toilets, and tents have come up, and food and beverages continue to flow in thanks to well-wishers. Thousands of people visit the protest site daily. The protesters have blocked the entrance to the Presidential Secretariat effectively, forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to operate from the President’s House. They are even projecting anti-government images onto the old parliament building, making it a huge attraction to the public.
Protest against all political parties
What the Galle Face protest signifies is the failure of not only the government but also the Opposition to live up to people’s expectations all these decades. The government took public opinion for granted, and did precious little to ameliorate people’s suffering. It did not read the signs of trouble, much less take remedial action in a timely manner to avert the present crises. It may have thought that its two-thirds majority would help it overcome all challenges on the political front, and the economic problems would go away with the passage of time when the pandemic was brought under control.
Strangely, not even the experienced leaders like Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa wised up to the politico-economic reality and urged the government to make a course correction, and therefore, a conspiracy theory has come about that the economy was allowed to deteriorate at the behest of some external forces eyeing Sri Lanka’s strategic assets so that there will be no public protests when lands, ports and state ventures are sold or leased. The proponents of this school of thought argue that the economic crisis, which has had a corrosive effect on the country’s sovereignty is the price Sri Lankans have had to pay for failure on the part of successive governments to remain neutral in a world defined by the return of the Great Power Rivalry.
Govt. in hara-kiri mode
Reasons adduced by the conspiracy theorists to explain the present situation notwithstanding, the economic crisis could have been averted if not for the short-sighted policies of the current administration.
Newly appointed Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardena have revealed, in a recent television interview, that in 2009 Sri Lanka faced an economic crisis similar to the current one, but timely action, coupled with IMF assistance, helped the then Rajapaksa government to nip it in the bud even before the people felt its ill-effects, during the country’s war against the LTTE. What follows from this contention is that the present economic crisis, too, was avoidable. New Finance Minister Aly Sabry has also said something similar, and blamed previous Central Bank Governors for having done precious little to avert the economic crisis.
Critics of the government’s economic policies maintain that massive tax cuts, excessive money printing, misplaced priorities of public expenditure, haphazard distribution of relief amounting to billions of rupees, during the pandemic and afterwards, pay hikes for teachers and others, the belated, sudden free float of the rupee, and the government’s failure to restrict imports at the early stages of foreign currency crisis and seek IMF assistance are the main reasons for the current economic downturn, which has given rise to a political crisis with the youth converging on the Galle Face Green, and others blocking roads. They argue that the pandemic only aggravated the crisis, and other countries in the region have managed their economies reasonably well despite the global health emergency because they got their macroeconomic fundamentals right.
Defining moment in SL politics
The Galle Face protest has marked a defining moment in Sri Lankan politics. It has adversely affected the interests of not only the government but also the Opposition parties represented in the parliament. The protesters have declared their agitation apolitical so as to make it attractive to all Sri Lankans regardless of their political affiliations, and prevent political parties from hijacking it. They have also made it multi-ethnic and multi-religious, and endeared themselves to all communities and the rest of the world. They went so far as to sing the national anthem in Tamil as well at their recent New Year festival.
The Galle Face protesters are demanding that all 225 MPs go home, meaning that they have lost faith in all political parties that have parliamentary representation. This is proof that they have no faith in the Opposition as well although efforts are being made to form an all-party interim administration to sort the economic and political crises.
The SBJ and the JVP have been trying to gain a foothold in the Galle Face protest. Opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has been expressing serious concern about the safety of the youth at the Galle Face Green; he has even undertaken to protect them in case of a brutal crackdown. But it is doubtful whether the ‘apolitical’ protesters will accept his offer, which they know, is only an attempt by the SJB to gain some political mileage by being seen at their protest.
The JVP conducted a protest march from Beruwala in support of the Galle Face agitation. It wound up at the Town Hall, Colombo, on Tuesday (19). It has also been trying to join the Galle Face protesters but without success. It seems disturbed by sharp vicissitudes of its political fortunes. Until recently, it had been scoring heavily on the political front and even overshadowed the main Opposition party, the SJB, by carrying out an effective anti-government campaign.
The JVP leaders dominated parliamentary and television debates, and came under goon attacks for being a political threat to the government. They would have been able to shore up their image further and garner more votes to increase the number of their seats in the next parliament, but then the Mirihana mayhem happened, and led to the Galle Face protest, which has eclipsed the entire Opposition.
Nobody is now talking about the JVP and its campaign against the government as enthusiastically as before; everybody has gone gaga over the Galle Face protesters, who have been able to enlist the support of prominent Sri Lankans such as religious leaders and artistes.
The SJB is also planning a protest march from Kandy to Colombo. It is apparently trying to overcome challenges posed by the Galle Face protesters and vying with the JVP rather than going all out to bring down the government. Whether it will be able to outshine the young agitators in Colombo remains to be seen.