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Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

Post-Gotabaya: Is Lanka confused? | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 22 July 2022, by Apratim Mukarji


Their protest against misgovernance has succeeded beyond belief, but Sri Lankans appear to be a bit confused. They are of course rejoicing at the complete fall of the Rajapaksas from absolute power. Yet, one sentence in ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksas’s resignation letter has sent them thinking and thinking deeply.

“I have contributed my utmost for the country and in the future too, I will contribute for the country,” Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in his resignation letter which was read out to the members of Parliament. Since the text of the resignation letter became known, the people on the street are wondering if Gotabaya Rajapaksa was hinting at returning to Sri Lankan politics once again.

The popular mass protest movement, which soon took over the mantle of a people’s movement against the depredations of the Rajapaksa clan (about 40 members of the family were involved at some level or other, in the government, provincial governments, and even municipalities. The power of the movement could be guessed from the sheer collapse of the governing clan in a matter of a mere month. When the citizens celebrated the 100th. day of the movement, there was no trace of the Rajapaksas within the country except in detention or court custody and their Abandoned assets including a palace, many large buildings, several large companies, etc.

Curiously, the last known whereabouts of Gotabaya Rajapaksa were in Singapore, but has he remained there or has he moved away secretly somewhere else? Nothing further is known. But the Sri Lankan embassies in adjacent countries or in East Asia and or in the West must be keeping a watch on his movement and activities. If he is already busy planning a comeback with help from his many cronies in Sri Lanka, that would seem to be highly risky because the people have vowed to finish all his “cronies” along with him and his brothers.

In fact, the sense of fear is so strong among the elite and intelligentsia that a senior woman journalist spoke to this correspondent only on the condition of anonymity. “If you identify me, my house would be attacked, and then where shall I go with my family and grandchildren?” she asked in her return message.

The protesters believe their task is still incomplete as Ranil Wickremasinghe, who was the Prime Minister under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency and is now the interim President to run the government, is not only very powerful at the center of power but is also likely to win the presidential election with the support of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the largest party in Parliament and is thus the ruling party.

Thus, while the Rajapaksa family is gone out of power, its party is very much enthroned in Parliament and will be instrumental in choosing the new Sri Lankan president. If one adds Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he will continue to take interest in national politics.

The uneasiness of the man in the street stems from the fact that the system which was exploited by the Rajapaksas remains intact, with a man like Ranil Wickremasinghe who is as guilty as the Rajapaksas and is likely to emerge victorious in the race for the new president by virtue of the support he will receive from the governing party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Where then is the way to salvation for the country riddled by an economic emergency, severe unemployment, near-scarcity of food items, and the continuing fuel crisis. In other words, the economy remains exactly where it has been for the last two years, in deep trouble. A media report informs the other day that senior government officials, who are now out of office under the current circumstances, keep themselves busy by queueing up for petrol or diesel, a chore which they say takes up at times the entire day or at least a better part of the day.

How fragile the law and order situation is can be guessed from the resumption of a state of emergency on the eve of the presidential election on 20 July. Under the emergency law, the military and the police have already stepped up security measures in Colombo and in other major cities. On 18 July, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation reduced the prices of petrol and diesel by SLRs. 20, the first cut in retail price after five consecutive hikes since February 2022. The idea behind the move could well be a conscious attempt to reduce people’s anger over exorbitant fuel price rises. The first reduction in fuel prices after six consecutive hikes is clearly a feeble effort to calm down the country-wide anger that has unsettled Sri Lanka for the last two years.

Three major powers are directly involved in the current Sri Lankan affairs, and they are China, India, and the United States of America. The extent of their involvement, however, is not uniform; and right now India and the United States have spoken out on the need to solve the immediate crisis while safeguarding the people’s interests. Helping Si Lanka come out of the economic and political turmoil is apparently the immediate programme for India, which has till now invested $ 4 billion in the country. But strangely, China has remained virtually silent though it is the largest direct foreign investor in the Indian Ocean maritime state. When the protest movement was in its nascent stage, New Delhi declared that it was with the people of the country. It was known at the time that New Delhi had turned down President Rajapaksas’ plea for help in tiding over the political crisis he was facing.

The coming days will obviously be crucial for Sri Lanka and its embittered people. Ranil Wickremasinghe’s plan to be elected the Executive Head of State has cut no ice with either the citizens or the opposition parties, and Sajith Premadasa with his clean image appears to be a formidable rival for Wickremasinghe. However, Wickremasinghe is slated to win the election with a comfortably large majority in the current Parliament. Will this scenario satisfy Siri Lankans? Hardly, for this eventuality would be the very negation of what the protest movement has stood for.

And lastly, the unending desire for power and pelf of the ousted and cowardly President Rajapaksa may turn out to be an unwelcome thorn in the flesh of Sri Lanka. After all, he even tried to block his resignation. When Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena sensed Rajapaksa’s design to delay resigning, he literally had to threaten the latter. His words reportedly were “Resign at the earliest or I will consider other options.”

* (Author: Apratim Mukarji’s latest book on Sri Lanka, “Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka The Unfinished Story” was published in 2019)

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