The goal is to overhaul the corrupted system

The spiraling crisis in Sri Lanka is not just a matter of sadness and misfortune. Yes, the economy has collapsed, the political system is unable to deliver on its promises and social unrest is at its height. But the dire situation has led to a massive popular awakening demanding a complete overhaul of the island’s political system and governance model.

People want the ruling class to account and are no longer willing to trust political leaders. It’s too early to predict whether the power of the streets can be sustained or whether an easing of the economic situation will change the country’s mood, but conversations at protest sites are about democracy, accountability and transparency.

Future governments can ignore them at their peril. Ironically, it was these same masses who elected the Rajapaksa brothers to power in presidential and legislative elections.

The power of a grassroots movement forced one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political leaders, Mahinda Rajapaksa, not only to resign, but also to flee for safety from angry mobs and take refuge in the naval base in Trincomalee. These are the same people who once worshiped him and compared him to the ancient Sinhalese warrior king Dutugamunu.

The protesters will not leave until Mahinda’s younger brother, Gotabaya, resigns. The president’s time is up and the sooner he sees the writing on the wall, the better for the island nation.

The Rajapaksas are the main target at the moment, but the streets are not welcoming the traditional politicians either. Economic tribulations have led to rethinking and questioning of all aspects of government not by the elite but by ordinary people – young people, students, lawyers, professors, economists, farmers and landowners. small enterprises.

It is a wave of anger against the corrupt system and what Radhika Coomaraswamy calls “active citizens” as government watchdogs. It is now a movement for not just political and economic reform, but social change to rebuild Sri Lanka. It’s kind of a wake-up call for the country with ordinary people realizing their rights and where the government is leading them.

Whether it is the caretaker government with Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister or any government sworn in after new elections, perhaps in six months to a year, an alert public will hold them accountable. It is unlikely that the parties in power will be able to do what they want in the future.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, a lawyer and former UN diplomat, said: “I would say the situation is tense and unstable. The economic difficulties are unbearable, but the protest movement has created a working population interested in good governance and this is unlikely to disappear.

The movement began long before March 31, when it made headlines and protested against food, gas, gasoline shortages and massive power cuts. Mobilization in the rural hinterland began much earlier. Smaller demonstrations by farmers, small businesses and teachers have taken place in rural areas over the past two years. Rural distress had led to protests even before the fertilizer ban was announced. It gained momentum after Gotabaya committed political hara-kiri by attempting to make Sri Lankan agriculture completely organic.

Throughout the farmer protests and run-ins with the authorities in rural areas, young lawyers have been on the front line helping people. The arrests would lead groups of lawyers to rush to help with bail applications. Courts have also felt pressure from young lawyers who crowded into courtrooms and fought for the right to peaceful protest. Bail was invariably granted.

The rural poor as well as the urban middle class and working class have all come together to fight for change. Businessmen and chambers of commerce, which invariably work with the government and take advantage of their proximity to power, have finally dared to call for a peaceful transition of power.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has made proposals to defuse the crisis. They proposed a return to the parliamentary system and the abolition of the executive presidency, which would naturally lead to the dilution of the powers of the president. The demand for Gotabaya to resign remains. An interim government of national unity must be formed with a new Prime Minister to negotiate a rescue plan with the International Monetary Fund. General elections must be held between six months and a year.

These suggestions may or may not be followed. It all depends on what Parliament will have to say once convened.
Sri Lanka has been on heavy borrowing since the end of the separatist war in 2009, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was the national hero. China’s huge infrastructure projects failed to deliver the expected results and drove the country deeper into debt.
The government continued to live beyond its means and borrowed from international markets to keep the country’s gross domestic product growth at 8%. In 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential elections, the state of the island’s finances was far from healthy.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy and the annual $5 billion flowing in from tourism has come to a halt. As the world went into lockdown, remittances from abroad also fell. All of this made matters worse as foreign exchange reserves dwindled and Sri Lankan exports also fell. However, there is no mention of granting greater autonomy to Tamil minorities, which was promised in the 13th Amendment but not fully implemented.

Now that the United National Party’s Ranil Wickremasinghe has been named the new prime minister, he will be there to handle the belt-tightening measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund. He will have to do some waiting work until new polls are announced.