Rearranging deckchairs

May 21, 2022

Last week, a new prime minister of Sri Lanka was sworn in. Ranil Wickremesinghe, from the minority opposition United National Party, has held the post several times in his four-decade-long political...

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Last week, a new prime minister of Sri Lanka was sworn in. Ranil Wickremesinghe, from the minority opposition United National Party, has held the post several times in his four-decade-long political career.

Amid widespread protests resulting from the island’s gravest economic crisis since independence, parliament clearly thinks this is a figure to steady the ship. But without acquiescing to the protesters’ key and repeated demand – for the discredited President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down – this is merely rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Colombo is a tinder box. The country appears to be bankrupt, facing acute shortages and a brewing humanitarian crisis. Spontaneous protests can form at any minute simply because much of life involves queueing up for basic items. Millions take to the streets in increasingly common general strikes that grind the nation to a halt. The people put the blame for Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in 70 years squarely on the bumbling and sinister rule of President Rajapaksa. For months, their demands for his resignation have fallen on deaf ears, and inevitably the impasse has become deadly.

The resignation of his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last Monday has done little to placate the demonstrators. If anything, the way he eventually departed exhibited the kind of behaviour that has led us to this crisis; intransigently dismissing months of protests calling for his exit, the Trumpian rallying of his supporters outside his official residence and eventually fleeing to a military base on the other end of the island. A court has now banned him from leaving the country. He says he left to seek to build a unity government but on his way out, he sowed terrible discord.

Though the former PM may not have directly called for violence, his associates quickly bussed in angry mobs, made inflammatory speeches and gave them a nod to violently dismantle the peaceful protesters’ tented encampment and indiscriminately attack them with iron bars. The opposition groups then furiously retaliated, overturning buses and torching the properties of pro-regime politicians. Nine were killed and more than 200 injured. The following days have been more peaceful, but only due to a rolling nationwide curfew and orders for troops to shoot looters and rioters on sight.

The astronomical price rises of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals have brought people to their wits’ end. Sri Lanka is now reduced to knocking on the world’s door with a begging bowl but even that process has been disrupted. Government officials are due to meet with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to discuss emergency financing. The country is down to its last $50m of foreign reserves. Urgent help is needed, but not at any cost. Our IMF interlocutors must know that Sri Lankans’ seething anger will not be quelled by the quick appointment of a prime minister from a party that holds one seat in parliament while the president that presided over the mess is untouchable. A respected, credible leader is required to shepherd the country through the inevitable stringent financial sacrifices otherwise the people will not tolerate it.

Rajapaksa must go. All other paths lead to more instability and violence, and yet another chance for change will have been squandered.

Excerpted: ‘Rajapaksa not only needs to go, he needs to face accountability’. Courtesy: Aljazeera.com



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