In 2014, residents terrified of a large crocodile in Sri Lanka’s Bolgoda Lake, successfully campaigned for it to be removed. A new crocodile assumed control of the territory and was responsible for seven reported attacks in the next few months.
Today, as Sri Lanka’s emotive, inspirational public uprisings grow organically, there is uncertainty about what happens if they are successful in their goal of removing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his regime. While brave, energetic people unite on wet streets, occupying Galle Face Green, a huge seaside park in the commercial capital, it should be for Parliament to find answers.
Yet, they spent the last week throwing the equivalent of “yo mama” jokes at each other, playing pass the parcel with a melting ice cube no one wants to be holding when the music stops. They have now adjourned for a week for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Under the powers of the Executive Presidency, some argue Parliament is as impotent as people wish these politicians’ fathers were many moons ago.
As a foreigner I cannot vote and I apply for a new visa every year, so perhaps I do not have the right to suggest who leads the country and who is removed. Since I first moved here as a small boy just before the Tamil minority were targeted in the 1983 riots, I have noticed problems arrive in Sri Lanka more frequently than fuel ships.
But I have never thought about leaving because this is, despite its many faults, the best place on the planet. Why? Because of its people: kind, empathetic, incredibly generous and funny…terrible voters, but you cannot have it all.
As far as I can tell, politics here has long been like an unrehearsed children’s magic show: sleight of hand you can see a mile away, pulling rabbits out of hats and making people disappear.
Those older than us who yearn for the eloquence and statesmanship of JR Jayewardene ignore the role he played in instigating the 1983 riots. He once said, “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people... now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion.... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”
He was responsible for the Executive Presidency that curses this land, giving one person too much power. It is widely agreed that these powers have to be curbed and the office abolished ideally. If not, then who is to say how hungry for a pound of flesh the next crocodile will be?
Initially, some saw this movement as being about economics because this government has not changed morally or intellectually since the days when people kept quiet, overlooking the struggles of those we did not see.
Living on the outskirts of Colombo, my family and I have had power cuts for months, all the way up to 13 hours a day, while isolating with Covid-19, which we realised was an iota of a scintilla of the struggles many people have faced for so much longer. We wondered why Colombo was spared from power cuts, but then when the situation got so bad that they had to suffer them as well, in the darkness everyone saw the light.
There are incredible people protesting day and night in the rain forgoing a wage, an education and a spot in the gas queue. Others from Colombo’s elite can protest because they have eighty-dollar-a-month-maids at home to look after the house and the kids.
Yet, how many rich people are protesting something they have been complicit in, like serial killers returning to the crime scene? How many have previously invited these politicians they are chanting about to be chief guests at the opening of their wallets? How many used influence within the regime to get Covid-19 vaccines before poorer 70-year-olds? How many can be fearless with their slogans, in a way minorities have not been in the past, because they can get out of jail with one phone call?
You do not have to have voted for a regime to have subsequently benefitted from the system. Every bribe and request for favours gives the crocodile a taste of human flesh. People do not bribe themselves, and with exceptional investigative journalists like Namini Wijedasa calling for whistleblowers, maybe something will come out in the wash. And therein lies the harder truth.
We do not just need to change a regime, we need to change ourselves. If we do not take on this responsibility, as a wise man said, Sri Lanka is a ship heading towards an iceberg, asking the captain and crew to get off first while we play the violins.
This is a movement led by the great Sri Lankan minds I see on Twitter, the iconic motorcycle man who made an impassioned speech in front of security lines, knowing he did not have the protection we do, the young, the students fed-up with the complicity of generations before them and the poor who cannot feed their kids.
It is about those who clean up their own mess at protests, when we should be the ones cleaning up the mess we made for generations. This could be a moment. One that inspires the youth of India too. The youth of the world.
The beauty is that democracy is working. In the face of these intense protests, the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa removed emergency regulations and has not imposed curfew again. The cabinet stood down and the president’s brother, Basil, is no longer Finance Minister.
Most significantly to an economist, the thick-skinned former Central Bank fovernor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal has resigned. He had a six-month roadmap for the country’s economy, which was excellent except that it seemed to lack either a road or a map. Instead, his brand of freakonomics predictably looked more like bleakonomics.
The energy and unity of the protestors may just have saved the country from financial destruction, we hope, but the latest copy-and-paste noises from the regime suggest there is a long way to go.
Now we have an accomplished Central Bank governor, Nandalal Weerasinghe, with an impressive team behind him. If the protestors fail in their goal of removing the president, their continued pressure may ensure he allows these experts their independence, rather than being swayed by a soothsayer, as is often alleged.
At least in Ali Sabry, we have an intelligent, educated finance minister who does not need to take an Indian credit line to borrow a brain cell. Already under the new Central Bank Governor our interest rates have doubled, with the hoped effect of curbing consumption, and thus imports and demand-pull inflation while making it more attractive for Sri Lankan expatriates to remit some of their foreign currency earnings.
People wonder if there will be protest fatigue. The tents and pop-up pharmacy on Galle Face Green suggest otherwise. The unity is macho-guy-tear-inducing. Muslims, ever present despite fasting, others protecting and sheltering them while they pray, state and private university students, not usual bedfellows, protesting together, the LGBTQ+ community standing proud next to religious leaders.
As a backdrop, we have Johnston Fernando, the minister of highways, calling these unbelievably large protests “minor”, motivation if ever it was needed. This from the man who hurled chairs in Parliament during the constitutional crisis of 2018.
Without India’s credit lines, who knows where we would be, so thank you. We still lack vital medicines, and again when I say we, I have to be very careful. Even though I have a Master’s Degree in Selfishness, I can appreciate I have no real struggles.
I looked at 13-hour power cuts as a challenge to overcome to make me better at life. That is a privilege and nothing compared to those who cannot put food in their kids’ mouths. Those who cannot get medicine. Those who protest, but also need to earn their measly day wage which is so little that their luxuries are another person’s hell?
These Sri Lankans are incredible: if faced by their circumstances there is no way I could be as honest and generous as they are and yet at Colombo cocktail parties we moan about them pinching an onion when we are stealing a nation.
For their sake and others who have suffered because of us, we hope the search for change continues even when the lights come back on because a crocodile can still lurk under water, especially if it knows we are willing to sacrifice others to feed it.
I was recently told by a hotel general manager that many Indians have cancelled their trips to Sri Lanka. These protests are peaceful and should not inconvenience you. I encourage you to visit, taking advantage of our weak currency. You can travel in the knowledge that, not only will you have an amazing time, but you will be helping some of the nicest people in the world when they need it most. Workers in the tourism sector have been battered by the Easter bombings, Covid-19 and now this.
Chhimi Tenduf-La works in Colombo and occasionally writes books.