By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“No matter how powerful a man maybe, he cannot make the moon a piece of cheese, even if he can force everyone to say it is and perhaps even believe it is.”
– Roland Barthes (Men and Masks) –
Once upon a time there was a woman who adopted a newborn and half-blind doe rejected by her own mother. Melanie Butera, an Ohioan veterinarian, didn’t expect the little creature to last through the night. She did, was named Dillie, lived for 18 years, developed a liking for beds with expensive cotton sheets, and became an internet star. Her facebook fans wrote to say how much joy she gave them in troubled times.
Troubled times need hopeful narratives, ones with a connection to reality, however tenuous. When the Rajapaksas sold Candidate Gotabaya as Our Hero who Works, it could sound credible and generate hope because he was the defence secretary when Eelam War was won and he built some showy walking paths. But when the Rajapaksas tried to shrug off an economic meltdown as a passing cloud in an otherwise sunny landscape, it gave rise not to hope but to despairing fury.
In a recent newspaper interview, Basil Rajapaksa was asked, “What is the reason for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s success and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s failure?” His answer was, “That is the misfortune of the country.” The Rajapaksas are yet to grasp the horror of the March to July days, the crippling shortages, the unending queues, and the debilitating uncertainty. According to a May CPA survey, 88% of respondents said they or an immediate family member had to stay in queues for essentials in April.
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first step in the right direction as prime minister was to acknowledge the truth of the crisis in all its magnitude and complexity. Then came the QR system, ending fuel queues. A management change at Litro helped mitigate gas shortage. Ordinary life could resume at the most basic level.
Of course, the Rajapaksas could have done some or all of this, but didn’t. Inefficiency is in their blood. Ranil Wickremesinghe restored a kind of normalcy, thereby generating a degree of hope. He also bought time for himself, and for the country. When there’s great disorder under heavens, the situation might be excellent for political parties and movements, but not for ordinary people.
“For the last…89 years I have not gone through so much misery,” a grandmotherly protestor holding a hand-drawn placard said in April. “Every time in the night when the light goes off, I cry… I’m going to the polima (queue) in my old age trying to get gas. I stand in the polima to get a packet of milk in my old age… What is the meaning of this? Haven’t they got a heart?” (Newswire – 6.4.2022). That was normal life in the March-July days. The country is stable not because of gun-toting soldiers or baton-wielding cops, but because that elderly woman and millions like her do not have to stay in endless queues or suffer long blackouts.
Stable is not coterminous with healed.
The country is hurting. According to the latest CPA survey, 35% of respondents are reducing the portion/size of meals or the number of meals per day. That is poverty at the most abject, most hopeless. 37% are reducing spending on children’s education. 31% have experienced loss of employment (personally or via a member of the family.) This is the poorest of the poor who need urgent and substantial help to survive.
The middle class too is facing difficulties, including potentially life-threatening ones. 66% of respondents have problems in affording medicines or medical treatment. 82% are experiencing a change in the quality of the food or change in the food items purchased. Other than a sliver at the very top, everyone else is struggling to survive or cope.
This is the shape of the country as 2022 ends.
According to the same survey, of the personnel driving economic reforms, Ranil Wickremesinghe as Finance Minister has a favourable rating of 44.5%. It is a good enough place to be, for now. But to maintain it, measures as impactful as ending queues will be necessary on many fronts in 2024.
From Iran to China, the message is clear. When people are pushed beyond the point of endurance, and hope dies, popular risings cannot be contained. Not even by regimes which make Orwell’s Oceania in 1984 seem a tad liberal.
The best defence
Regaining Sinhala-Buddhist paradise, that was the burden of the Rajapaksa song in 2019. Three years later, 79% of young Sinhalese (18-39 years) want to get the hell out of the paradise isle (compared to 75% of Tamils, 73% of Upcountry Tamils and 67% of Muslims). According to the CPA survey, more than three quarters of Lankan youth want to migrate. If they all get their wish, Sri Lanka would become semi-dead land in a few decades.
Not all Lankans who want to migrate will get their wish. A majority would be forced to stay. The resulting disappointment could feed into despair, reigniting anger, especially if living costs and conditions continue to deteriorate.
In China, an obedient people turned defiant over zero-COVID policy. In Iran, the breaking point was the mandatory headscarf for women. In both places, it was excess, a familiar policy measure taken to an unbearable extreme.
In Sri Lanka, the trigger would be the distress caused by economic breakdown and the measures taken to fix it. Austerity effect, Prof. Clara Mattel phrases it in The Capital Order, “The inevitable public suffering that ensues when nations and states cut public benefits in the name of economic solvency and private industry.” Austerity effect is politically sustainable only if it’s fair. If some bear the burden while others get a free pass (especially politicians), political and societal instability would follow, as night follows day.
Take electricity rate hikes. They may be unavoidable, but unless handled carefully they could turn combustible. The Government should remember that long power cuts paid a key role in igniting public protests in March/April. Another hike in electricity prices will render electricity beyond the reach of not just the poor but also the lower middle class (not to mention its debilitating effect on industries). If these vulnerable communities are not provided with some relief, many households will descend into darkness. From that to protests could be a short step. (As for the clamour of monks and priests, a visiting Martian would think there was electricity in the times of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ).
In finding innovative ways round the problem, there is an illuminating example from our own past. In a recent birth anniversary tribute, career civil servant W.D. Ailapperuma explained how during Sirisena Cooray’s tenure as housing minister, a solar village was established as a pilot project in Pansiyagama in Kurunegala with Australian assistance. This provided “a simple photovoltaic solar home lighting system to 500 families… – 4-6 lamps, a radio and a small television.” Using that experience, a solar power project was set up in the poverty-stricken lower Uva region in 1991. “Solar power was provided to rural hospitals and maternity clinics, doctors’ quarters in rural hospitals, rural schools and school laboratories, teachers’ quarters, vocational training centres and most importantly for community water pumping. In addition, midwives were provided with portable solar lanterns to help in their night rounds and deliveries…”
QR system for fuel distribution was innovative and impactful. Providing vulnerable communities with solar energy could be another such measure, a more effective investment in maintaining political stability and societal peace than military jest or water cannon.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s crazy leap into organic fertiliser has ended with the pendulum swinging to the other extreme, with the Wickremesinghe government revoking the ban on glyphosate (identified as a probable carcinogenic by International Agency on Research on Cancer). Rajapaksa extremism gave birth to Aragalaya which in turn abandoned its early moderation. President Wickremesinghe’s antipathy even to peaceful demonstrations is, in turn, a reaction to Aragalaya’s own outbursts of violent extremism.
According to the CPA survey, the public has a far more nuanced perception of the April-July events. 82% believe that Aragalaya had a positive impact on the country (true; without Aragalaya the Rajapaksas would still be here running and ruining Sri Lanka). 81% believe that Aragalaya was a necessity of the moment (true; a conjunctural need which cannot and should not become a structural feature of the political landscape). 58% believe that if the protestors violated the law it’s all right to take legal action against them (true; impunity is corrosive irrespective of who enjoys it).
This nuanced attitude is at variance with the black-and-white perception of both the President and the Opposition. The President seems to reduce the long Aragalaya to its worst moments, such as the barbaric lynching of two human beings and the horrendous burning of his priceless book collection. The Opposition thinks of Aragalaya as an open sesame for its own path to power and relevance.
Aragalaya’s birth was a result not just of Rajapaksa crimes and errors but also of Oppositional failure. People came out to protest only when Government made life unbearable, and Opposition presented no alternative. If austerity effect is not managed, that can happen again, irrespective of how many fighter jets the military is given. Especially since among those 31%-37% of people struggling to survive, there could be many military families, parents, spouses, children, and siblings of ordinary soldiers.
The Rock of China
In 2010, Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt was around $ 22.7 billion. By the end of 2014, it had almost doubled to $ 42.1 billion. The reason was not the war, but Rajapaksa rule.
The Rajapaksas made four critical contributions of Lanka’s debt trap. They initiated the practice of accepting Unsolicited Proposals for infrastructure projects. Many were by Chinese state owned enterprises backed by letters of intent from China’s EXIM bank. Between 2010 and 16, China lent almost $ 6 million for infrastructure projects, nearly double the amount of its total lending between 1971 and 2005.
The Rajapaksas also resorted to costly currency swaps to beef foreign reserves. By the end of 2014, 27% of gross official reserves consisted of such short-term swaps. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration managed to reduce it to only 5% by end of 2019. Then the swapping spree restarted. The Rajapaksas allowed state owned enterprises to obtain foreign loans based on government guarantees, to hide the magnitude of foreign debt. They also turned to international bond markets, starting in 2007.
Sri Lanka’s chances of staying afloat in 2023 would reduce substantially sans an IMF deal. And the IMF deal will not happen if Beijing, which holds nearly 20% of Lankan debt stock, continues with its Chinese monkey act about debt restructuring. According to The Economist, many Chinese loans include a clause about negotiating debt relief bilaterally. One wonders whether Chinese pressure was also a factor in preventing the Rajapaksas from going to the IMF in time.
If China continues to block debt-restructuring talks, other means would be needed to keep the country afloat. President Wickremesinghe’s efforts to make a 690 million euro Green Bonds deal, enabling Sri Lanka to ease her debt burden in exchange for nature conservation, is an example. But for it to work, the ongoing environmental desecration will have to end, the denuding of forest cover often by politicians with the complicity of officials either for private gain or in the name of development. A project to provide solar power to the poor could be another way of garnering international interest and support.
The dearth of foreign exchange also means making intelligent choices about how available resources are spent. If, for example, priority is accorded to medical supplies, it would help the 66% of people facing difficulties in affording medicines or medical treatment. That would go a much longer way in keeping societal peace than all the teargas.
Imagine that after the war ended, instead of penning all civilians into open air prisons, fancily named Welfare Villages, and bamboozling the south with wasteful infrastructure projects, the Rajapaksas opted for a path of ethnic reconciliation and sustainable development. Or the Lankan people, like the British people of 1946, didn’t give the Rajapaksas such a massive mandate.
Sri Lanka is once again in a similar moment of antithetical possibilities.
Another Aragalaya would be contrary to the interests not just of the President but also the Opposition. On 9 May, Sajith Premadasa might have suffered serious injuries, or worse, had it not been for his military guard. The Aragalaya supporters took their anger against the Government on the leader of the Opposition, showing that they could be the equal of the Rajapaksas in irrational inanity.
After living through a 25-year war, two insurgencies, and several pogroms, violence has seeped deep into the national bloodstream. We might start with peace, but the end will always come with bloodshed. Hope for the future anchored in some relief in the here and now would be essential if 2023 is to be less calamitous than 2022.