By Elil Rajendram, SJ

This article was written weeks before the latest developments in Sri Lankan politics – like the protestors storming the presidential palace and the (former) President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fleeing the country.

Social media in Sri Lanka are full of pictures of people standing in long queues for hours, if not days, for fuel, gas, etc. The news of people dying while waiting for fuel and gas in the long queues have become a new normal. News of babies dying without even basic medicines have shocked the entire country. 

In some of the remote villages we visited people have shifted to two meals per day.  That should not surprise anyone, as prices of essential items have skyrocketed. The number of youth waiting in long queues in front of the immigration office to get their passport proves the younger generation’s uncertainty regarding their future and their desire to leave the country. It is sure to lead to a brain drain in Sri Lanka.

I see three stages of the Sri Lankan people’s struggle. First, they took to the streets initially, demanding the government to address the unprecedented economic crisis. Later the struggle developed into an explicit political agenda demanding the change of regime (#gohomerajapaksas#). The third phase demanded a structural change, including abolition of executive presidency.

The causes for this unprecedented crisis are said to be many. Mismanagement of resources, appointment of incompetent people to important posts by the current government, nepotism, excessive borrowing and failure to restructure the debt and the excessive greed of one family that accumulated wealth at the expense of the public, have led to the current situation.

People have now begun to demand that all the MPs should go and the governance of the country should be handed over to a set of professionals until normalcy returns. Most of the MPs are past the age of retirement, including the current Prime Minister, who stated recently that the crisis situation is “going to get worse before it gets better.” The Sri Lankan government has asked for humanitarian assistance from the UN and other countries.

The politicians chose to ignore the plea of the people when they protested, declaring ‘enough is enough.’  The plea fell on deaf ears. The parliamentary debates have become jokes of the year. As one political cartoonist said recently, Sri Lanka remains the best in the world in recycling, as the MPs and ministers are appointed again and again. The drama of tendering their resignation from the ministerial portfolios has exposed the ‘system failure’.

The economic policies adopted remain foreign to the land. Sri Lanka, after its independence in 1948, had a general strike in 1953.  After about 70 years it faces another people’s struggle. The protesters have established ‘Gota Go Gama’, at Galle Face Green, a small village where a library, first aid centre, legal aid office, IT centre, recycling centre, community kitchen, and art gallery have been set up. They have begun to cultivate vegetables and fruit trees to indicate that they are here for a long haul. What is novel and significant is that the protesters are a mixed group. There are students, professionals, activists, and the middle class who earlier aligned with the elite. This model, established at Galle Face Green as ‘Gota Go Gama’ has been duplicated in other parts of the Island.

On 9 May an organized gang, consisting of supporters of the present regime, attacked the peaceful protesters. Still the protesters have not given up their struggle. They have no leader as such, but operate on core objectives which they have declared they would not compromise or negotiate. Their primary objective is to make the Rajapaksa family leave office. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President, has vowed to stay in office, until he finishes his term. He says he does not want to go down in history as a failed President.

What is significant is the people who are demanding a regime change are mainly the Sinhalese people, the majority. The involvement of the North-East, where the dominant population are Tamils, is very minimal.

What is significant is the people who are demanding a regime change are mainly the Sinhalese people, the majority. The involvement of the North-East, where the dominant population are Tamils, is very minimal.

A study done on world protests from 2006 to 2020  (World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21 st  Century. Global Social Justice, Initiative for Policy Dialogue, New York, 2022), suggests that the cause of the highest number (1503) of protests is the failure of politicians. It may be true that the Rajapaksa family have contributed more than anyone else to this crisis. But to claim only they are responsible for this mess is not correct. This crisis was waiting to happen for decades.

Consecutive governments borrowed loans to fight the Tamil rebels, and allocated massive budget funds and other resources to the war in the North-East. This was used as an excuse to justify or ignore the massive political corruption. After the army managed to crush the Tamil rebels in May 2009, the Rajapaksas exploited this victory to win the hearts of the majority Sinhalese as well as the elections with the massive support of 6.9 million voters. It is widely believed that after assuming power they looted the country. The government continued to allocate an enormous share of the budget for the armed forces and national security.

The present crisis and the consequent protests have not united the two linguistic communities. The South demands a structural change that refers to reforms within the unitary state structure, mainly the abolition of executive presidency. But for the Tamils of the North East structural change would mean the change of the unitary state structure itself. The political project of regime change may be enough for the Sinhalese but, in itself, it is not the solution for the many problems that the Tamils still face.  In 2015 the former president Maithiripala Sirisena became the game changer who defeated Rajapaksa but the system remained intact. A mere change of regime, therefore, would not solve all the major problems of the country.

The protesters emphasize accountability too. There is no question that corruption charges need to be investigated and those responsible should be legally tried in order to rid the system of corruption. Yet at the same time, while the protesters demand accountability, they are not yet ready to accept the history of racial, linguistic discrimination that reached its climax in Mullivaikal, where thousands of Tamils died. So for the protesters who want the present regime to go accountability means the corrupt being tried and being made to pay for their swindling public money. For the Tamils, however, accountability would mean that all those who were responsible for the violence unleashed on linguistic minorities should face the legal consequences of the racial discrimination and violence.

The political project of regime change may be enough for the Sinhalese but, in itself, it is not the solution for the many problems that the Tamils still face.

The protests organised in the North-East, demanding justice for land grabbing and other crimes  indulged in by the military, have been brutally dealt with by the armed forces, who almost always employ repressive measures and criminalise the resistance. On the other hand the armed forces have not employed any repressive measures against the protesters now who blame the present government for the unprecedented crisis. A joint statement by some civil society groups from the North-East and the South states that there is a link between addressing the root cause of the Tamil national question and the current economic crisis. Without addressing the root cause – the genuine aspirations of the Tamils and their political demands there cannot be peace in the Island. All the people of Sri Lanka – from all linguistic and religious  communities -should  come together to seize this historical moment in order to find a lasting solution for all the problems that Sri Lanka faces. Every cloud has a silver lining. So even from the present troubling crisis can come effective solutions to grave problems that Sri Lanka has faced  for quite a long time. It is a serious crisis, sure. But it also is a rare opportunity. 

Elil Rajendram, SJ is a Sri Lankan Jesuit. A political analyst, he contributes regularly to a national newspaper.