The debate in Sri Lanka is: What should come first – economy or politics? The message of the protesters in Aragalaya is: fix politics first
Sri Lanka has witnessed the moment of its Arab Spring. Accused of enjoying extra-constitutional authority and with 27 military-led task forces in charge, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has refrained from intervention in support of the Rajapaksas. The writing is on the wall … literally.
What we saw happening in Sri Lanka on July 9 was nothing short of revolutionary but only corrupt politicians were targeted by the protesters. Street power on this scale has not been witnessed in South Asia. After the economic collapse, the aim of the leaderless mob was to eliminate the Rajapaksa clan. The brothers, the heroes of Prabhakaran’s war against the Tamil Tigers, have been on the dock since March for political and economic mismanagement. The older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, was forced to resign in May, replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe whose United National Party was defeated in the election. The protesters continued their ‘Gota Go Home’ campaign at the iconic Galle Face Green. Ignoring their voices, Gotabaya, a former Colonel, began to consolidate his power with the help of Wickremesinghe.
Gotabaya promised to put in place an all-party interim Government, order new elections and block the power of the President in the 21st amendment. In an interview, he said he would not go as “a failed President, will run his entire term but will not stand for a second term”. He admitted that he made mistakes with tax cuts, bans on chemical fertilizers and delays in approaching the IMF. He clearly mentioned that as part of any austerity program, he would not reduce defense spending but would only reduce recruitment. The Rajapaksa put the military on a pedestal after victory in the war in 2009 with calls to reduce the army. 100,000 troops could be reduced by half. Not faced with threats, military spending at 1.93 per cent of GDP is one of the highest in south Asia.
On July 9, there was the largest protest nationwide in which people who stormed the presidential palace and Wickremesinghe’s private home became collateral damage. Like Mahinda, Gotabaya was taken to a military base where he announced he would step down as President today, a day of the full moon considered auspicious for Buddhists. The BBC reported that Gotabaya and Mahinda were on two Sri Lankan Navy ships, ready to flee but the army reported they were in Sri Lankan territorial waters and Gotabaya would return on July 13. Defense Secretary former Maj Gen Kamal had earlier said Gunaratne, according to the Constitution, it is the duty of the military to protect a former President. More than six weeks after Wickremesinghe took over, he will also resign for failing to evolve the economic recovery plan. Another Rajapaksa, former Finance Minister Basil, was prevented from flying out.
Last month, NGOs such as Proposal for Change by Bar Association Sri Lanka, March 12 Movement, National Movement for Social Justice, Direction Sri Lanka, Way Forward for Young Leaders – nearly 12 entities met with parliamentarians. The hope of a reduced 21st Amendment that would allow Gotabaya to continue in office with full power, forced the departure of Gotabaya and Ranil. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene is likely to be the interim President. His term will run for 30 days until a new President is elected. He will ask Parliament to elect a new Prime Minister. But changing the guard alone will not lower mercury as Wickremesinghe announced on July 5 that the country was bankrupt and the economy in a hole.
There is little clarity on how to rebuild the collapsed economy. Foreign exchange is needed immediately. The two biggest crises are the shortage of fuel and food. On July 6, Colombo announced that it had suspended interest payments on Sri Lanka Airlines ’$ 175mn sovereign guaranteed bond and could not pay interest on loans taken to build a Chinese -backed airport and expand a runway. Foreign residents and tourists are asked to fill out forms for fuel. Most petrol stations are dry as the country awaits a fuel tanker on July 10. Critical operations have stalled as hospitals are facing long power outages.
Tamils did not participate in these protests but Muslims did. This is a change in the history of Sri Lanka. The debate at the beginning was: What should come first – economics or politics? The message of the protesters in Aragalaya is: fix politics first. Shortly after the 2006 Maoist revolution, Mahinda visited Kathmandu. Nepalese fear that he came to rescue King Gyanendra and monarchy as Rajapaksa, translated into Nepali, means “Raja ko subject” – in favor of the King. Mahinda did not know that she and her clan would meet a similar fate. Fortunately, the SLA has remained out of politics. Its loyalty to the Rajapaksa was overestimated. Gota has always been a reluctant politician and ran as President because of the 20th Amendment that barred Mahinda from a third term. The political demise of the Rajapaksa will make a great study of the rise and fall of political dynasties.
India must play its cards carefully. It reiterated that its policy is dictated by the interests of the Sri Lankan people and humanitarian concerns. There is no quick fix to the national crisis but for India, while it is time to wait, it is certainly not just to watch.
(The writer, a retired Lt Gen, is Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defense Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defense Staff. The views expressed are personal.)
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