When a head of state becomes a nation’s nightmare
It is not unknown in history that a single ruler was the cause of a nation's downfall, the obvious case in modern times being Adolf Hitler—an elected leader—one of the best known among a collection of reviled names scattered throughout history as examples of the evil that power can degenerate into. In each case they mercifully failed to prevail in the end.
In Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has become that nightmare for its people, just two years after he was elected as head of state, a feat not easily achieved.
Before he resigned, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, miffed at his brother's attempts to scapegoat him for the country's increasing instability, brought in thousands of his supporters from the provinces to the city on May 9, proclaiming their demand for his continuance in office. They rioted violently in the streets, clashing with the original, peaceful protestors, smashing the temporary structures that those young people had erected in protest sites in front of the PM's residence and at the Galle Face Green. They succeeded in putting some of them in hospital. The police intervened with tear gas and water cannon to stop the marauding hordes of MR supporters from their scorched-earth intentions at Galle Face Green and beat them back for now.
The peaceful protest at GotaGoGama was finally invaded, not by law enforcement but by provincial politicians of the MR camp with their supporters. Escalation of the situation is now inevitable.
The president owes it to the people to prevent this emerging situation from deteriorating into further blood-letting in a land that has already seen far too much of it. He, and only he, can end this nightmare, instead of continuing to embody it.
Meanwhile, the parties of the parliamentary opposition need a deep-going reckoning to understand why some of them were rejected violently at the protest sites, and some welcomed, as they attempted to solidarize with those young people under attack from MR supporters. As the aspirant government, they need to self-examine and re-position fast, just as the protesters must not descend into anarchy by rejecting even those on their side in parliament.
The abyss stares back
The predictable trajectory into an economic abyss at Gotabaya Rajapaksa's hands, starting with a whimsical overnight ban on chemical fertiliser, following a massive centralisation of power in the presidency, to other eccentric policies, leading to multiple dysfunctions in every sector, saw the hapless citizenry plunged into sudden poverty, dying in gas and fuel queues, as everything, from milk powder to printing paper, became scarce commodities very quickly due to a dearth of dollars in the treasury.
Despite all his attempts to divert attention to other factors, including through pressure for his brother the prime minister and the cabinet to resign, the people he rules over saw, clear as day, that the president himself was the primary cause that plunged a once middle-income country into such privation and despair that children in neighbouring India began breaking their tills to send a few thousand rupees to alleviate this country's needless misery.
The continuing nightmare for the people, however, is that despite the desperate protests in every province, with one clear message contained in a single ubiquitous slogan of "Gota Go Home", the president appears to have no intention of doing the one thing that could instantly commence the country's rapid recovery.
It is not as if every mode of protest, every possible platform, traditional and digital, has not been used to ensure that the message reached him.
A recent social media post of some women, from Chilaw, ranting against the president in absolute rage, showed them employ swear words that probably had not been strung together in quite that manner against any ruler anywhere. Most of it was disturbingly bloodcurdling, being the more pitiful due to her claim that as a cancer patient, she no longer had the medicines to treat her condition. In her invective, the rage extended to the president's many relatives in parliament but left little doubt as to who would be strung up in public by a nether body part if one of those women got her hands on him.
Exacerbating the already crumbling situation are those members of parliament and officials loyal to the president who excuse his every blunder with inane explanations. Delivered with sycophantic fervour, they only serve to incense the people even more.
The president's rapidly decreasing supporters' solution is to demand that the prime minister leaves and the cabinet with him. They claim that there would be no point in the president resigning because his replacement will have to be appointed from the now despised 225 MPs in parliament who failed to prevent the country's decent into bankruptcy. They refuse to see that such a replacement, any replacement, would be welcomed with cheers and firecrackers by the people. Those protesters at the many GotaGoGama sites made that amply clear by promising that as long as the president stays, so will they.
Every day now, people gather on the city streets with their empty gas canisters, blocking the roads in protests. Feelings are running high and the tension among the crowd is palpable, as minor skirmishes break out intermittently. A 100 gas cylinders were forcibly acquired recently by people who waited for days for a sighting of the trucks carrying them and pounced on it to grab one any which way. People have also turned on each other as they stand in line for essentials. It is clear that serious rioting is only a hair's-breadth away.
Revolution is not the only solution
What does the president see when he surveys the land? His pet initiative, the organic fertiliser decision, has collapsed, and taken a land once self-sufficient in rice with plentiful vegetables, a thriving, world renowned tea industry and a prosperous rural community into irreparable failure in the short to medium term. Similarly, the economic mismanagement has resulted in the desperate shortage of dollars in the treasury, impacting every aspect of life. The protests have now passed a month and continue to grow.
The trust in this regime's integrity is dwindling as the Easter bombing of April 2019, which instantly lifted the chance of this president's election to office as the candidate of law and order, is now increasingly been seen as having been used to propel the candidacy on the fears of the people. The cardinal himself has expressed his misgivings of a possible grave conspiracy, endangering the Catholic community and other worshippers engaged in prayers on that fateful Easter Sunday. The cardinal's entreaties to the pope himself have evoked concern in Rome about the massacre. The many bereaved and injured who suffer to this day have yet not had justice delivered, despite the powerful presidency and a security apparatus with a huge portion of the nation's budget.
The president's party has practically thrown up its hands in defeat, starting with the newly appointed minister of finance. The president has been forced to call for the establishment of an all-party government to replace it. No party is jumping at the chance, and talks are ongoing with professional associations intervening with proposals for recovery.
The president has been unable to appear in public since the protests started.
A no-confidence motion against the president and prime minister has been submitted to parliament by the opposition. Wrangling within the governing political circles is being publicly played out, while living conditions of the people are deteriorating dangerously.
The existentially besieged people ask only that the president makes the all-important decision to resign, together with his regime, if he has any regard for them or the country. They are convinced that the solutions to all else will flow from that.
Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka is the author of the book "Mission Impossible, Geneva: Sri Lanka's Counter-hegemonic Asymmetric Diplomacy at the UN Human Rights Council".
The article was first published in The Island, an ANN partner of The Daily Star.