When Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister, he spoke of the need for the Aragalaya to continue; that he was open to discussions with protesting youth and he even appointed someone to facilitate services to GotaGoGama. However, under his watch too, protesters are regularly apprehended by the Police, taken in for questioning and attacked with tear gas and batons. So what in reality has changed since the ‘new’ Government was appointed?
The Prime Minister provides regular updates about the seriousness of the economic situation, increasingly sounding like a cranky, Doomsday Prophet. Following in the footsteps of a Government whose strategy for dealing with any crisis was attributing all hardships people were experiencing to political conspiracies and denying any evidence to the contrary, it may seem like a breath of fresh air, to have a Prime Minister who tells us the ‘truth’ without holding back. But is that all this is about?
Canadian author and activist, Naomi Klein, in 2007 published a book titled The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, she talks about how there is a deliberate strategy to exploit situations of crisis to impose controversial and problematic policies. When people are emotionally and physically drained, distracted and under pressure, they tend not to resist or react or respond as they would normally. The crisis is made to appear so insurmountable and dire, that the bar is set very low on expectations. Resistance and critique appear unfair and unjustifiable. Klein provides many examples of such situations including in post-tsunami Sri Lanka.
Visiting Sri Lanka, six months after the 2004 tsunami, she describes how many of the initiatives of Regaining Sri Lanka (Ranil Wickremesinghe’s policy during his second premiership from 2001-2004) such as water privatisation, clearing up property traditionally used by farmers and fisher communities for tourism etc., which had been defeated electorally, were now being implemented under the guise of ‘building back better’ after the tsunami. Creating ‘buffer zones’ that protected people from future tsunamis became the means of moving people away from prized beachfront properties. Curiously, large hotels and resorts did not have to adhere to buffer zones – only fisher communities and small hoteliers. Communities that had resisted these efforts previously, were too preoccupied picking up the pieces of their lives, shattered after the tsunami to respond effectively. Years later, pristine beachfront properties are now exclusive tourist destinations – and communities that depended on access to that land and sea for their livelihoods remain in poverty.
Today, when Ranil Wickremesinghe warns of having to cut back on food, difficulties in obtaining fuel – people are grateful when they are still able to have three meals. Obtaining fuel for the vehicle or a full gas cylinder after standing in queues for hours become cause for celebrations and ecstatic social media posts. Cycling to work or school becomes a healthy lifestyle option rather than a consequence of fuel shortage and neglect of public transport. Rather than holding those who brought us to this sorry state accountable, we are learning to be grateful for simply surviving. Resistance, protest is viewed as disruptive, as ‘not giving the government a chance to fix the problem’.
Remember the reactions to protests that took place on the day that IMF had begun discussions with Sri Lankan officials? Protesters were accused of ‘delaying’ the meeting – conveniently forgetting that the IMF was in Sri Lanka in the first place because our leaders had ‘delayed’ taking steps to address a crisis that was a long time in the making! Trade union bashing took off at unprecedented levels because they had dared to oppose amendments to the Electricity Tariff Bill which sought to bypass tender procedures for renewable energy projects. How bypassing tender procedures would address the energy crisis, especially years of neglecting the renewable energy sector, was immaterial.
After Opposition parties declared that they were boycotting Parliament for a week because government had failed to set an agenda for discussing issues related to the current crisis, the Prime Minister accused them of deliberately delaying discussions on much needed reforms such as the 21st amendment. It is worth remembering that members of the Opposition, for the past two years, have been vainly pointing out the gaping holes in government policy and warning of disastrous consequences only to be met with abuse and insult. Having re-entered Parliament himself only one year ago, Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to have forgotten how his own attempts to warn the government to take prompt action to avert an economic catastrophe, when he was in the Opposition benches, went unheeded.
What has Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership delivered so far? His singular success has been in diluting efforts to hold those responsible for this crisis accountable. Today protesters are being arrested while those who provoked violence on 9 May are being released on bail. By constantly warning of the severity of the economic crisis, he has also drawn attention away from the much needed political reforms the country needs, at minimum a robust and meaningful 21st amendment to the Constitution. Before seeking Opposition support for the 21st amendment, the Prime Minister should focus on obtaining consensus from his own Cabinet which has reportedly only offered half-hearted support for even the diluted version of the amendment presented to the Cabinet!
Let us not forget that Ranil Wickremesinghe is as much a part of the problem this country is facing as the Rajapaksa family or the Podujana Peramuna. In fact, his failures during the Yahapalana regime directly led to the return of the Rajapaksas after the electorate had sent them home in 2015. The Prime Minister has never shown himself to be anything but part of the establishment. He has proven over and over again his willingness to overlook corruption, violence, racism and any other liberal position he ostensibly upholds in the interests of holding on to power and protecting his inner circle. He is contemptuous of public opinion and intolerant of critique. His attacks on Opposition parties, members of the Opposition, who openly critique him and his crackdown on protesters, demonstrate just how uncommitted he is to a different political culture that the people of this country are demanding.
The crisis we are facing currently, painful as it is, has forced us to confront the true nature of our society, of our politics, our economy. We cannot recover from the depths to which we have fallen while holding on to the people, the politics and the practices that led us to this disaster. Those who tell us differently, those who tell us to lower our expectations, to be satisfied with the minimum, most of all those who tell us to resign ourselves to the inevitable and adapt to this crisis, are fighting to hold on to a system that served them and no one else. If we have learned anything from the lessons we are being taught daily in these difficult times, it is that, we should not put up with that system any longer.
By Harini Amarasuriya