Political protests often turn against what people are for. This process is now going on in Sri Lanka. The island nation off the tip of India is mired in its deepest economic crisis since independence in 1948. This has sparked a sustained nationwide agitation demanding the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his cabinet and the entire legislature.
Yet as demonstrators defy curfews and protest police cannonade, their despair over acute shortages of food and fuel has turned to their deeper aspiration: a society that is divided by rival identities rather than democratic values. united with.
A protest placard summed it up for elected leaders: “You divided us to come to power. Now we are uniting to send you home.”
Divisions run deep in Sri Lanka. The country has a long history of ethnic and religious conflict. But now as the protests continue, Christians and Muslims, Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil nationalists, students and professionals, farmers and teachers are finding common causes. In early April, a large group of them organized a “people’s parliament”. This was followed by a “People’s University” on social media to “uphold social justice through knowledge sharing to encourage diversity, inclusion and equality”. A group of demonstrators set up a tent camp near the presidential residence to remind Rajapaksa daily that they were looking for a new government. Local bakeries and restaurants responded by bringing them food and water.
Alan Keenan, an analyst at International Crisis, said, “Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, and the anger it has generated, has given rise to a protest movement that is so large, so persistent, and so widespread that it could be called a revolt of nonviolent people.” group, told Al Jazeera. “Never has the country seen such a nationwide movement involving all communities.”
There is no single reason for the current crisis in Sri Lanka. The country endured 26 years of civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists. Since 2005 its politics has been dominated by a single family whose rule has been marked by corruption, economic mismanagement and violence.
It has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 110% and an inflation rate of over 20%. The government is currently in talks with a number of creditors – including China, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – to restructure part of its total $51 billion in external debt. When the pandemic struck, the public was already on the verge of breaking down.
In what may be the clearest sign so far that the demonstrations are taking effect, Mr Rajapaksa offered a rare apology last week. “Today people are under immense pressure because of this economic crisis. I deeply regret this situation,” he said during the first meeting of his new cabinet on April 19. He called upon his ministers to refrain from exploiting their offices for personal gain. “We should always tell the truth to the people. There is no point in hiding the truth from people.”
In Sri Lanka, the president’s contrivance is as unprecedented as the country’s current crisis. People may doubt their integrity, but it is a confirmation of what they are looking for – that democracy and its institutions derive their strength and authority from the shared purpose of united citizenship.