The world watched as Sri Lanka’s mass protests forced a powerful executive president out of office, effectively (albeit temporarily) ending a period of nepotistic power politics that offered no transparency or accountability to their own unsuspecting voters. That the populist Rajapaksas ruled at will, borrowing extensively and splurging on prestige projects is now an established fact.
What the protestors and non-protestors did not bargain for was the ascendancy of a crisis president in the unpopular form of Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned politician whose strange mix of liberal politics and authoritarianism does not endear him to the electorate. It is no surprise that Wickremesinghe has cleverly warmed his way to the top slot through political maneuvering to live his dream. Some would have even chosen to ignore his lust for power for daring to accept the crown of thorns at such a decisive moment, and retain a bit of faith in his ability to drag the island out of the current economic morass.
The shift in power has brought in several changes to the island’s political landscape. For a start, it has introduced a superficial sense of normalcy to the Indian Ocean island reeling under economic devastation, leaving Wickremesinghe to grapple with snowballing problems, both financial and political. The incumbency’s attention remains largely focused on reaching a staff level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by December and then debt restructuring with other creditors, specially with China, a Shylock among bilateral creditors.
For all his liberalism, Wickremesinghe rides several hobby horses that fail to reflect an open mind. He has chosen to ruthlessly crackdown on political dissenters and continues to drive fear and punishment without any qualms for daring to commit the crime of mounting an unprecedented political campaign to overthrow a regime. He knows that the simmering discontent can spill onto the streets once again, and there’d be no love lost between the island’s angry youth and him.
He continues to go after them without mercy, dismissing condemnation by the international community for his failure to recognise people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to protest. On the other hand, he has ‘normalised’ the political conditions to keep dissent under control and a backdrop for the disgraced Rajapaksa clan to make a political comeback. For him, normalcy is also the absence of dissent for which the long arm of law is used effectively.
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the island is now among the top 10 nations with the highest rate of inflation and high global food inflation. It is also known for its flagging human rights record with several thousands under detention and many without charges. As the cost of living skyrockets and the future turns bleak, many Sri Lankans are now leaving the shores. Some seek overseas employment while others risk rickety boat rides as economic refugees, reminiscent of the July 1983 exodus and thereafter. Waves of people fled the island due to ethnic persecution in that era while today, the reasons are economic.
Instead of channeling his energies towards preventing brain drain, attracting investments, restructuring debt and raising critical financial assistance to support the most vulnerable sections of society, Wickremesinghe is focused on controlling public anger from spilling onto the streets.
Wickremesinghe may have presented himself as a crisis president on a short-term assignment. But those familiar with his political cunning and the long history of political survival know that he is utilising the crisis to lay a firm political foundation for himself and his political party, the United National Party (UNP).
Instead of holding genuine discussions with the youth protestors to address their concerns, Wickremesinghe has chosen to punish the messengers for daring to challenge political authority. While the public remain desirous of action being taken against those responsible for this gross national failure and committing of economic crimes against the people, Wickremesinghe stays unflinching, not willing to crack the whip. The president who wants the rebellious youth to “confess their sins” and to be rehabilitated/mainstreamed, remains tight-lipped on framing charges against individuals and a government responsible for the domestic economic collapse.
Wickremesinghe is in a hurry to show normalcy to the world, and believes that outlawing protests and declaring high security zones to deny public access to strategic places could quell the simmering dissent and maintain peace. A man who consistently spoke of the need to engage the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to pursue a long-term political solution to the island’s ethnic strife clearly does not have the same passion to engage with the protestors on taking action against those who robbed the collective future of an entire island. With the typical arrogance of a feudal ruler, he resorts to control and reins in social media with his hound dogs on the loose, chasing individuals even for their critical social media posts.
Sri Lanka, despite the steps taken to raise its head from the abyss, is far from resolving its debt crisis. What’s worse, the island’s leadership does not appear to appreciate that normalcy is also about enjoying personal freedoms and such conditions need to be created to convince the world that Sri Lanka is ready to evolve. Part of that evolution is also about our human rights credentials, not just a band-aid on the economy.
In his quest for consolidation of power, there are fundamentals President Wickremesinghe cannot miss out on. Not just the people of Sri Lanka but the world at large would like to see action being taken against the economic assassins of Sri Lanka, irrespective of their status. A couple of months ago, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Sri Lanka to resume participation in the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR), a World Bank and United Nations partnership that supports international efforts to do effective money trails to end safe havens for corrupt funds—and even to make this a commitment when reaching an agreement with the IMF.
If sincere to the twin cause of economic recovery and ending grand corruption, Wickremesinghe should ensure people’s right to peaceful protest, release those arbitrarily detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and resume participation in StAR and be bold enough to hold impartial investigations into allegations of serious human rights abuses and high-level corruption, for which the island continues to pay a huge price.
Executive Director of the Colombo-based Center for Investigative Reporting and a lawyer by training