Commentary: A land of plenty reduced to penury: Can Sri Lankans carve a new future?

People attend a protest against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a residential area after the government imposed a curfew following a clash between police and protestors near the President’s residence during a protest amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Back in early 1984, when I was posted in Colombo as the UNI news agency correspondent, understanding the country’s ethnic dynamics and making contacts on both sides of the widening divide was a primary professional task. Personally, there was an equally important domestic chore to attend to: getting an LPG (cooking gas) connection.

Knowing the hassle and the long wait to get an LPG connection then in India, I had little hope of acquiring what I thought would be an equally elusive cylinder any time soon. I approached my landlord, S. Sharvananda, a judge of the Supreme Court who went on to become the Chief Justice, to find out the procedure.

“Just go to the nearest petrol pump, man, and pick up as many cylinders as you want,” was the learned judge’s advice.

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That is exactly what I did, to the delight of my wife Uma.

Unbelievable scenes

Seeing pictures of the unending queues of Sri Lankans carrying empty cylinders outside dealers’ outlets across the island in recent days brought back memories of that experience. And I could not help wondering how a country that for all purposes was then a land of prosperity and plenty, despite the gathering clouds of civil war, could be reduced to the present state of scarcity and high prices, where tired, exhausted and angry men and women have to queue up for hours to get an LPG cylinder and fuel for their vehicles.

Members of opposition alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya shout slogans against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa near Independence Square after the government imposed a curfew following a clash between police and protestors near Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence during a protest last Thursday, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Going by social media posts, there have been incidents where angry consumers have given vent to their fury by hurling empty gas cylinders at the vehicles carrying ministers and other VIPs in differents parts of the island nation.

There have also been instances of throwing garbage at and blocking vehicles carrying VIPs forcing them to turn back without attending scheduled functions.

Those isolated acts of frustration and anger have since snowballed into mass protests as acute shortages of essential commodities and unaffordable prices begin to pinch even the relatively rich.

Unpopular Rajapaksas

The autocratic president and members of his Rajapaksa clan being heckled in public are becoming common, an ignominy none of his predecessors had suffered. Insiders in Colombo say that the Rajapaksas and their senior ministers have curtailed their public engagements because the people are increasingly turning hostile.

These protests are not confined to the Sinhala-dominated south. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa faced hostile protests during a recent visit to Jaffna where he had gone to lay the foundation stone of a Buddhist temple, which the Tamils allege is part of the ongoing state-sponsored Sinhalisation of the northeast.

The prime minister’s wife Shiranthi was forced to cancel the opening of a flower show in Nuwara Eliya after people started booing and hooting. Anticipating public protests, spectators were banned from a rugby match in Kandy, where the prime minister’s youngest son Rohitha was expected to play.

The police used force to disperse a crowd of protestors who tried to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home on Saturday and arrested several people. The government also declared a state of emergency and imposed a 36-hour weekend curfew in the face of the rising tide of public anger.

But, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. In Sri Lanka’s case, the present situation could well provide an opportunity for the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils to bury the proverbial hatchet, the ethnic gulf, to dump the rulers and carve out a new future for the island.

Sri Lankans unite

People shout slogans and hold posters against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a residential area after the government imposed a curfew following a clash between police and protestors near the President’s residence during a protest amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Like a Colombo observer said: “Now we also have something we did not have for seven decades: Unity in the country. All ethnic and religious groups are united for a single cause (to overthrow the Rajapaksas). The next step is to work on reconciliation and accountability.”

It is also such defining moments in a country’s history that throw up new leaders.

One such leader, who is being increasingly talked about, is Hirunika Premachandra Yatowita, daughter of slain SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and herself a former MP from Colombo.

Already, the 35-year-old feisty woman is being compared to former President Chandrika Kumaranatunga.

At a public rally recently, she blasted the Rajapaksa regime, saying that even her grandparents did not have to go through such tough times in the 1970s, a reference to the then ultra-socialist government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and infamous bread queues and shortages that marked the era.

One fan tweeted: “Hirunika is fast becoming the most impactful female politician since Chandrika. Was the first to protest in Mirihana (home of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa)… She has balls of steel, and hopefully attracts more women into politics.”

Concurred a leading Colombo businessman: “We need leaders like her. That is the only way we can come out of this crisis created by these jokers.”

(The writer is a veteran journalist and a long-time Sri Lanka watcher. Views are personal. He can be reached jayaramp_@hotmail.com)

 

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