The Perfect Enemy | New president, same politics: Why Sri Lankans are demanding change
August 11, 2022

New president, same politics: Why Sri Lankans are demanding change

New president, same politics: Why Sri Lankans are demanding change  The Christian Science Monitor

Read Time:7 Minute

Now, in what is likely the tenth consecutive month of record-high inflation, Sri Lankans are spending hours if not days in lines for fuel, forgoing meals, and dealing with daily power cuts. Mass protests have wracked the island nation, and recently sent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa packing.

Parliament elected his successor last week: the equally unpopular Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Why We Wrote This

Sri Lanka needs immediate economic assistance and long-term transformational change. Can the new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, deliver either?

The selection underscores a critical disconnect between the government and protesters. The former wants to restore stability and resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. The latter has come to desire systemic, transformational change. In the current circumstances, Mr. Wickremesinghe may not be able to deliver either. 

Alan Keenan, senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, says Mr. Wickremesinghe is an “experienced and talented politician” with coherent views on economics. But his close association with the Rajapaksa family and his crackdown on recent protests undermines his credibility as a democratic reformist. He’s also ill-equipped to confront the country’s ethno-religious tensions. 

Mr. Wickremesinghe is committed “to playing the political game according to the entrenched, opaque, corrupt, and nondemocratic rules,” Mr. Keenan adds. “His government seems unlikely to change the way politics is done in Sri Lanka or escape its dead ends.”

Colombo, Sri Lanka

It’s been more than two months since Fathima Rinoza bought a packet of milk powder for her three young children. Surging food prices have turned what was a household staple into a luxury. Nowadays, the family survives mostly on rice, lentils, vegetables, and plain tea, with poultry and other meats becoming entirely inaccessible.

“Till last year, I was able to provide my children nutritious food because it was affordable, but even though the cost of living has increased, my salary is still the same,” says Ms. Rinoza, who makes a little under $100 a month as a domestic helper. “Even buying eggs has become difficult.”

Ms. Rinoza’s story is not unusual. The United Nations estimates that around 5.7 million Sri Lankans, including 2.3 million children, require humanitarian assistance due to the spiraling cost of living. The ongoing crisis has left many hungry for change. Some would be content to repair the economy and restore the status quo, but an increasing number of Sri Lankans are calling for a deeper political transformation. 

Why We Wrote This

Sri Lanka needs immediate economic assistance and long-term transformational change. Can the new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, deliver either?

Sri Lanka’s economic collapse comes after years of financial mismanagement by a handful of powerful families that have spent the past decade consolidating their political influence. A mass people’s movement succeeded in forcing the primary offender, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resign mid-July after months of demonstrations culminated in protesters storming the presidential residence. Within a week, Parliament elected his successor: the equally unpopular Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The selection underscores a critical disconnect between the government and protesters. The former wants to restore stability and resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a possible bailout package. The latter – with broad support across the country – has come to desire systemic, transformational change. In the current circumstances, Mr. Wickremesinghe may not be able to deliver either. 

Alan Keenan, senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, says Mr. Wickremesinghe is an “experienced and talented politician” who, unlike his predecessor, has coherent views on economics. “So in some ways, he is well-placed to conclude negotiations with the IMF, and has the ability to work with foreign governments to get Sri Lanka the much needed financial assistance,” he says.

Sri Lankan President’s Media Office/Reuters

Ranil Wickremesinghe (center) is sworn in as new president of Sri Lanka by Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya at Parliament, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 21, 2022.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe’s close association with the Rajapaksa family and his crackdown on recent protests undermines his credibility as a democratic reformist, and “weakens his ability to win the popular support needed to implement the difficult economic reforms that the IMF is certain to insist on.”

Political stability

Sri Lanka’s road to bankruptcy began in November 2019, when the newly-elected – and at that point, extremely popular – Mr. Rajapaksa implemented massive tax cuts, eating into the country’s coffers. The COVID-19 pandemic also dealt a blow to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and foreign exchange earnings. These challenges, along with other missteps by the Central Bank and widespread crop failure, triggered intense inflation starting in late 2021, and have since brought the economy to a near-standstill. 

Now in what is likely the tenth consecutive month of record-high inflation, Sri Lankans are spending hours if not days in lines for fuel, forgoing meals, and dealing with daily power cuts.

Sergi Lanau, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, believes that an agreement with the IMF could help the country correct course. Priorities include “reducing fiscal deficits to levels that can be financed safely, … drafting a monetary policy plan to reduce inflation, and of course resolving the debt default situation Sri Lanka is in,” he says. “These should suffice to return Sri Lanka to growth and acceptable living standards for the population.”

But the IMF has paused negotiations until the government can settle the sociopolitical turmoil racking the island, and the appointment of the six-time prime minister as the country’s new president on July 20 has done little to ease public outrage. 

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s win was seen by many as a “political deal” delivered by Mr. Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party, which holds 116 seats in the 225-member legislature. (Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party holds just one seat.) Not only has Mr. Wickremesinghe ignored protesters’ calls to resign, but he’s also doubled down on aggressive anti-protest tactics. According to Amnesty International, more than 50 protesters were injured during an unannounced military raid at the peaceful Galle Face protest camp on Friday. 

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Anti-government demonstrators rally against the July 22 military eviction of a protest camp from the Presidential Secretariat premises in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 25, 2022. The camp was cleared following three months of demonstrations over the country’s economic meltdown.

Marisa de Silva, an activist based in Colombo who was part of the protest movement that sent Mr. Rajapaksa packing, insists there won’t be any peace or stability with Mr. Wickremesinghe in office.

“His appointment may be constitutionally accepted, but the truth is there are a lot of wheeler dealings in Parliament, so we have no confidence in it,” she says.

Aritha Wickramasinghe, an international lawyer, says that many view Mr. Wickremesinghe as an illegitimate president because he wasn’t elected by the people. “He has been temporarily entrusted with this position to guide the country out of economic collapse,” he says, adding that Mr. Wickremesinghe needs to show “restraint and sensitivity” in engaging with protesters.

Overcoming decades of mistrust

Some believe Sri Lanka cannot move forward until its leadership confronts lingering ethno-religious tensions. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority and Tamil populations have long mistrusted each other; that came to a head in the decadeslong civil war between the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group. The conflict killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Sri Lankans between 1983 and 2009, with thousands more believed to have disappeared. 

Dr. Thusiyan Nandakumar, editor of Tamil Guardian, a news portal with a specific focus on Tamil affairs, says that Tamils have very little confidence in Mr. Wickremesinghe’s ability to address these old wounds. He points to a 2019 incident when the then-prime minister told families of the disappeared to “forget the past“ and that their relatives are “probably dead.”

Those comments “deeply hurt not just the family members who are still searching for their loved ones, but the Tamil people as a whole,” he says.

Mr. Wickremesinghe is “committed to administering a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist state – with little to offer Tamils and Muslims – and to playing the political game according to the entrenched, opaque, corrupt, and nondemocratic rules,” says Mr. Keenan, from the International Crisis Group. “His government seems unlikely to change the way politics is done in Sri Lanka or escape its dead ends.”