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Hope Amidst Catastrophe: Sri Lanka’s Calls to End Corruption

14th April, 2022: An update on the current situation in Sri Lanka by the author:

• Appointment of a new Central Bank Governor: A new Governor was appointed to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe who subsequently tightened the monetary policy. He announced on 12th April that Sri Lanka will be suspending debt servicing (i. e. repayments of loans and interest) and will instead prioritise importing of essential goods. He added that the country is looking to restructure debt and requested Sri Lankans living abroad to donate foreign exchange to the country’s reserves to be used exclusively to import essentials such as food, fuel and medicine.

• The rupee depreciated further to LKR 330 per USD. Fitch ratings downgrade Sri Lanka from a ‘CC’ to a ‘C’ rating

• Following numerous reports by medical personnel in the country regarding  shortage of essential medical equipment and medicines, the Director General of Health Services appointed a coordinator to ensure uninterrupted medical services and to coordinate donations of medical supplies. The Department of Government Information however released a warning indicating there was no shortage. This statement was independently fact checked by Watchdog Sri Lanka and was considered false. The Department of Government Information issued another statement subsequently, correcting it’s previous statement that there was indeed a shortage in some hospitals but measures have been taken to address this.

• The Prime Minister addressed the nation via television on 12th April. Both the PM and President have refused to step down. 

• The opposition has signed a no-confidence motion against the government and an impeachment motion against the President on 12th April.

• A fifth person has passed away while waiting in queues to buy essential goods and services. 

• People have continued to hold protests across the country. Most notable is the gathering at the Galle Face area in Colombo, named “Gota-go-gama” (village of Gota-Go), where protestors have set up camp urging for the resignation of the President, political reforms and economic stability.

In this opinion piece titled “Hope Amidst Catastrophe: Sri Lanka’s Calls to End Corruption”, Thisuri, a public policy researcher, writes from Sri Lanka, explaining in detail triggers for the current economic and political crisis in the country, and the way ahead.

Hope Amidst Catastrophe: Sri Lanka’s Calls to End Corruption
Photograph taken by the author near the University of Colombo today, 4th April, 2022. 

We have witnessed unprecedented events unfold in Sri Lanka recently. This includes demonstrations outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s house, imposition of the emergency rule, a 36-hour nationwide curfew, internet shutdowns, and mass resignations of Cabinet members.

A tiny baby dressed in pink looks over the shoulder of a mother walking among a crowd, her arm raised in a gesture of defiance. This was one of the many heart-wrenching images that took social media platforms in Sri Lanka by storm as protestors stepped on to the streets to voice their grievances in Colombo on 31st March, 2022. Weeks of smaller protests and vigils culminated in a crowd of people gathering on the the street outside the residence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President of the Sri Lanka.

In the ensuing chaos, there emerged reports of excessive use of violence and intimidation by security forces to disperse protestors, which ultimately only fanned the flames of unrest. By 3rd April, a country-wide curfew had been imposed in addition to a ban on social media in anticipation of large-scale public displays planned for the day. Yet, these efforts to quell outcries for the resignation of political elites headed by the President, only appear to have resulted in greater publicity for the movement prompting more support from Sri Lankans both at home and abroad.

Economic woes

The tipping point that led to widespread protests is evidently the prolonged economic hardships faced by the people including over 13 hours of daily power cuts and shortages of essentials such as fuel, food, medicine, paper and cement coupled with their soaring prices at a time when many had not recovered from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the outrage seems to be driven not only by the failure of political leaders to address these pressing issues, but also their actions that seemed to trivialise the suffering of the ordinary and in some cases actively worsened the existing crisis. The ongoing hardships and related protests are however merely symptoms of the much deeper political and economic malaise, that can be summarised as decades of failed attempts by various regimes to establish a steady path towards development in post-independence Sri Lanka.  

Economically, the immediate crisis can be attributed largely to the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. This in turn is associated with issues such as the country’s limited and volatile sources of foreign currency earnings which have been insufficient to meet Sri Lanka’s international expenses mainly in terms of imports and debt obligations. In an ironic twist, many measures imposed with the professed intention of easing the forex crisis such as poorly planned import restrictions and excessive regulations on foreign exchange rates backfired, effectively choking the local economy and discouraging incoming remittances.

The impact of the ongoing forex issue reached a critical point as it took its toll on the power and energy sector of the country. Sri Lanka’s national electricity supply over half of which depends on coal and oil was hard hit by the lack of funds to secure necessary fuel, resulting in an estimated LKR 1 billion loss to the economy daily in mid-March. Loss of power during a time when many public and private institutions had shifted to full or partial remote working was an additional burden on the public.

Beyond this, shortages of diesel and LPG cooking fuel hampered production and sales and also the daily life of citizens as many spent hours searching for elusive supplies, and standing in long queues where tempers frayed and at times violent confrontations broke out. Countless other essential goods and services faced a similar condition with the rate of inflation under 5% in early 2021 rising up to 17.5% within the span of a year. With added implications of global events such as fluctuations in fuel prices and the war in Ukraine, Sri Lanka’s economic woes worsened steadily, impacting an increasing number of citizens with each passing day.  

Hope Amidst Catastrophe: Sri Lanka’s Calls to End Corruption
Some staff members join the protests by current and former students near the University of Colombo. Photograph taken by the author today, 4th April, 2022.

The ‘Go Home’ Movement

Beyond these inciting events, dissatisfaction and outrage over policies by political elites and government authorities had been gaining greater traction in Sri Lanka in recent years. The failure to prevent and later prosecute those responsible for the 2019 Easter Sunday Attacks that resulted in the death of 269 people, and more recently the abrupt ban on chemical fertilisers which threatened the country’s food security as well as the apparent lack of accountability during the explosion of over 700 LPG cylinders in late 2021 were but a few other events that added to sentiments of public disillusionment. Moreover, the numerous “Let them eat cake” moments widely discussed through social media platforms showcased the utter disconnect between the ruling and the ruled as well as the lack of accountability of those in power. 

And so, despite securing a majority victory during the previous presidential and parliamentary elections on a wave of nationalist rhetoric, the present ruling party and the Rajapaksa family in particular have garnered serious new criticisms associated with the current crisis. Bolstered by long standing allegations of corruption, mismanagement of public funds and human rights violations, this latest movement calling for an end to corrupt practices and effective solutions to the economic crisis at hand, quickly became a rallying point for all those who had felt wronged by a system of political privilege, not limited to the ruling party alone. 

As suggested by many, the extraordinary success of this movement, unlike its predecessors lies in the collective action by various communities across the country unhindered to a large extent by differences in class, caste, ethnicity and religion. Equally noteworthy is the call to carry out public displays peacefully by the protestors so that those in power cannot manipulate the narrative of events and justify a violent response. Finally, the move to avoid or limit affiliations to existing political parties has also enabled the Go Home, Gota Movement to gather greater public support. With the sheer volume of people mobilising both physically and virtually, efforts at curbing the protests seem to have been unsuccessful. 

Light at the end of the tunnel? 

While the success of the Go Home movement is worthy of acknowledgment and continued support, there are concerns too. The most pressing concern is the lack of a well-defined plan to address the vacuum of power that would be created with the potential stepping down of the current political establishment. Even in an optimistic outlook where a new political order is established, the mammoth task of stabilising Sri Lanka’s economy remains to be addressed. And so, another cause for apprehension is that while economic troubles and the restriction of rights might fuel the momentum towards a common goal momentarily, the possible solutions to address the underlying economic and political woes of the country may not be as unanimously approved of. Evidently, the road ahead is neither clear nor easy. But for the first time in a long time, many Sri Lankans have a glimmer of hope about a change that may be for the better. 

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Thisuri Rojie Ekanayake

Thisuri is a recent graduate of the Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo. She holds a BA (Honours) in Economics and is currently employed as a Research Assistant working on migration and urbanisation policy research at the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka. Thisuri’s research interests include economics of labour, gender, health and development. Prior to this, she has completed a Civil Society Fellowship at the Asia Foundation as well as several internships at leading research institutions in Colombo. 

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