Sri Lanka at a stand still

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When Ranil Wickremesinghe took the Prime Minister’s post a month ago, he warned that things would get worse rather than better. Wickremesinghe addressed the Nation at least thrice since then, and on all three occasions he has reiterated this warning. To be fair by him, he is right: things will get worse before they improve.

In appointing Ranil Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took a gamble. The gamble worked for a month. Now, however, we are at a standstill. Petrol sheds no longer pump fuel to private vehicles. Until 10 July, we will operate with less than 1,000 MT of petrol and 7,500 MT of diesel. President Rajapaksa may or may not have foreseen this, but for PM Wickremesinghe, the tightrope act just got a little tighter.

At the initial stages, Wickremesinghe’s entry did pacify the protests. Despite parading themselves as politically nonaligned, Gotagogama protesters had their own beliefs regarding the future and leadership of this country. When Rajapaksa let his brother go and appointed a new Prime Minister, he ruptured the protests. Yet with a worsening fuel crisis, it is likely that what was ruptured will come back again, stronger this time.

In the final analysis, the momentum of anti-Government protests depends on the availability or unavailability of essential items. At present, Sri Lanka spends more than USD 600 million on fuel, every month. To get an idea of the magnitude of this expense, one only needs to recall that it represents half the entire annual coal requirement of Sri Lanka. The country spends less than a fifth on consumer goods, including food, but with Rajapaksa’s failed fertiliser policy, this too has become an urgent imperative.

Promises must be kept

Sri Lankans will tolerate all these deprivations only if two conditions are met. First, they need promises of better days. Second, these promises must be kept. The issue is that while the Government has been quick with promises, it has been slow with action. The fuel crisis is just one example: why it took months to travel to Russia, and Qatar, to make urgent appeals for fuel shipments for the rest of the year, is anybody’s guess.

Sri Lankans typically reward Governments that deprive them of necessities – and certain luxuries – by voting them out. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government made the historic mistake of expelling the Left, then extending the parliament by two years. This gave an opening to the Opposition, led by J. R. Jayewardene, to woo over discontented voters and reduce the SLFP, sans the LSSP and Communist Party, to a paltry eight seats.

The situation is somewhat different now. The dynamics have changed. People did queue for food in the Bandaranaike years, but they always got their share. Whatever criticism one can make of that Government’s socialist policies, they at least ensured a ration for everyone. For his part, the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene made use of middle-class opposition to queues and rations, but it was also deft enough not to promise to dismantle the latter: that is why Jayewardene pledged a weekly quota of eight rice rations.

Despite these superficial similarities, commentators who tend to compare Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies to Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime have failed to note that under Rajapaksa, nothing has been consistent, and nothing has worked out for anyone. This is a Government that has, since 2020, operated on a fight-to-the-end and laissez-faire basis. The President has done little, apart from dispensing instructions like the Central Bank allocating dollars for fuel, which have gone nowhere. This is unlike the Bandaranaike years, when everyone got a share, however meagre that share may have been.

Discontinued plans

It is this uncertainty which feeds people’s rage. Had there been a plan in place, had the plans supposedly in place not tended to slip away – the token system, vaunted for weeks but abruptly discontinued less than a day after being inaugurated, being the best and most recent example – people would have tolerated. Had the powers that be identified future shortages and adjusted accordingly, people would have given them more time. Had they done more to source funds from other countries, especially our traditional partners, to bring the queues down to manageable levels, people would have cut them some slack.

Yet none of this has happened so far, at least not to expected levels. It’s not like the Government didn’t see what was coming. We did.

Blaming Wickremesinghe for these failures is hardly fair. But Wickremesinghe is the Prime Minister of a collapsing economy. For his part, he has warned the country of a bleak future. This is in stark contrast to the Government’s deny-everything approach, which got us into the present mess. Yet issuing warnings every three weeks, though necessary, is hardly adequate. To be sure, Wickremesinghe’s biggest impediment has been the ineptitude of those he’s had to work with. This does not, however, exonerate him.

In any case, a key factor for the next three or four weeks will be whether the Government gets everything in place before 10 July. For daily wage earners, these two weeks will be the toughest they’ve faced in their lives. The economic cost may be unbearable, but the loss of livelihoods, particularly for trishaw drivers, will be immense.

I am confident enough to say that we won’t turn into another Lebanon, at least not anytime soon. Indeed, certain respected economic commentators suggest that things will get better by September or October, when remittances and export incomes grow. But this will not, and should not, make us forget the Government’s ineptitude.

Sri Lankans have, since independence, generally been tolerant of political inaction. Yet as things stand now, the powder keg is burning to its end, and they are feeling the brunt of the crisis. The day when they will force accountability on this regime, whether through peaceful protests or a re-enactment of May 9, won’t be that far off.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist based in Sri Lanka who can be reached at [email protected]l.com

By Uditha Devapriya

1 COMMENT

  1. Statisticians say RW failed 10 consecutive times. Please verify. Fact is that he has been and is still waiting to wear the crown of thorns. That is his ways. Time is immaterial. Please wait and see another addition to the list.

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