The situation in Sri Lanka is complicated. With the civil unrest, severe economic crisis, political instability, and now the deadlock between the people and the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, the island country is seeing an unusual stalemate. The road ahead for Lanka is tough; not only does it need to alleviate itself from the economic crisis, but it would also need to rebuild itself brick by brick.
SRI LANKA’S CIVILIZATIONAL CRISIS
“What Sri Lanka is going through is a civilization crisis, one that has given people an opportunity to re-imagine a new governing system and a new Sri Lanka,” Dr Sunil Wijesiriwardane, a popular civil rights activist and academician based in Colombo, told News18.com.
Wijesiriwardane explained that Rajapaksa must step down and make way for a new legitimate government that would not only help rebuild Sri Lanka, but also build a rapport with other countries to secure monetary assistance.
“The economy is in a very critical situation right now. This is just not a political crisis. The future of Sri Lanka is in the hands of the new government and that needs to be formed as soon as possible to save the country from further collapse,” he said.
Wijesiriwardane added that people from civil society have been asking the present dispensation to agree to form an interim government in the next six months. The demand is for two important things: one is to work out a solution to ease the present economic situation and the second is to form an interim government and ensure general elections within six months.
“However, people like me have come to understand that the Parliament will not come to an agreement, at least not easily. There should be a formation of a civil people’s forum and a people’s charter,” added the academician.
“This is nothing less than a revolution, this is the civil society revolting and seeking a new, fair, and strong government unlike one that has been run by political ‘thugs’. You saw the number of people on the streets. That’s just a small percentage. If push comes to shove, the situation can change dramatically,” explained another resident who formerly worked with the government and sought anonymity.
Millions of people gathered as protesters stormed into the official homes of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and set fire to one of the buildings to mark their despair. But political observers from Sri Lanka who have been monitoring the situation said this was bound to happen as the Rajapaksa brothers, despite losing public confidence, were determined to continue in power.
OPPOSITION PRESSURE TO FORM NEW GOVT
News18 has learned that on Sunday, political parties belonging to the Opposition met and agreed on a new government.
A leader from opposition party United People’s Force, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, confirmed that meetings by parties who form the opposition are in motion — including the group of 40 lawmakers who broke away from Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition and sat as independents in the Parliament.
Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, MP from Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance, made it clear that the Opposition has been gathering support and they can easily muster a majority in the Parliament. They would need to show 113 members to oust Rajapaksa and install a new government. However, they hope to establish a new government before the resignations of the Rajapaksas are accepted. The pressure has been mounting on both brothers as the economic crisis has led to a shortage in essential items including food, fuel and power.
According to Prof Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri of Colombo University, the political crisis has multiple layers. He feels that bringing about a lasting government is not going to be an easy task.
“The elephant in the room is the economic crisis. Even if you manage to get control of the political situation, unless the economic crisis is addressed, it will be difficult to control people’s discontent and yesterday was the culmination of that very emotion,” he said.
Prof Dewasiri further observes that the dominance of Rajapaksa’s party has completely gone and it is going to be difficult for one group to get an absolute majority in Sri Lanka.
“There is a major rupture between the established political elite which dominates the Parliament and the struggle by the masses. The mood among the leading actors in the masses is that they are talking about a systemic change, they are looking for a fundamental change in the system and not a cosmetic one. The bottom line is that expectation on the ground is very high. To satisfy their ambitions is an extremely difficult task. The political elite who dominate the Parliament think that by ensuring minimum reforms and superficial changes in the Constitution, they can continue to remain in power. That’s not possible. The political party system has completely gone,” explains Prof Dewasiri.
IS LANKA’S ECONOMIC SLUMP EXAGGERATED?
One of the major factors that led to the quick decline of Sri Lanka post the Covid-19 pandemic was the attitude that the Rajapaksa government took towards the economy. Colombo-based political economist Sumanasiri Liyanage spoke to News18 about his perspective on the economic situation in the island country.
He feels that Sri Lanka is facing an “exaggerated economic crisis” and the issue has arisen out of “pure mismanagement”. According to the expert, the government was not prepared to take charge of the economic situation and resolve it. “It could have been done easily a year or six months ago. Now, some radical measure needs to be taken,” Liyanage told News18.
According to the report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, 2021, Liyanage says that Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings were around $19.5 billion last year and foreign expenditure, including imports of goods and services, was around $20.5 billion.
The country has been in continuous deficit since 1977 but has managed with the help of generous grants and low concessional loans. After 2000 this stopped. In 2007, Sri Lanka sold its first international sovereign bond worth $500 billion and that has helped the economy and been the major source of foreign exchange reserve that the country has.
“We have enough money to import all necessary items. According to the Central Bank report, we have spent only $882 million on medicines, $3,700 million on fuel, industrial and agricultural imports worth $8,000 million and another $500 million on essential food items like rice, wheat, lentils, etc. If we restrict our imports to the bare essentials, we can even get a positive trade balance,” Liyanage believes.
Prof Dewasiri observed that when the pandemic hit the economy severely, Rajapaksas acted as if there was no such crisis. “They claimed to be in control of the situation and even the government spokespersons would make public statements stating things were under control when it wasn’t true,” he said.
While the situation is still volatile, those on the ground are confused as to what happens next. According to the Sri Lankan Constitution, in the absence of the President, the PM can be sworn in as the temporary President of the country. But in this case, with both president and prime minister being forced to resign, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will take over as temporary president.
Wickremesinghe was made the PM two months ago after his predecessor Mahindra Rajapaksa was forced to resign amid calls of resignation and the deepening economic crisis in the country. Wickremesinghe’s appointment was an effort to solve the shortages and start economic recovery but clearly, it failed.
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