Life after #GotaGoHome

 Published in: The Daily Star on October 11, 2023
Life after #GotaGoHome

Artist Sujith Rathnayake in the exhibition ‘Crisis and Struggle,’ 2022. PHOTO: COURTESY

I saw that a large cut-out of me had been put up. I am against putting up cut-outs. Let’s get out of this politics centred around cut-outs. We brought in politics based on cut-outs and slogans, and in the end, the economy collapsed. Let’s avoid that and think fresh.”

– Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka, October 8, 2023

We were travelling to Sri Lanka, a land that Napoleon thought was key to his conquests and had famously said, “He who controls Trincomalee controls the Indian Ocean.” But in spite of having captured Trincomalee through a savage naval battle in September 1782, the French had withdrawn, and stayed away.

There has always been some oomph about Sri Lanka. The menu cards on the plane were all made of plain paper. No touch of any laminated fancy. The flight, flying through the dark clouds, was smooth. The low-hanging clouds posed a threat during the ascent and descent. The whole scene mimicked the typical political climate of the land, that has to reckon with rain and the roaring waves most of the time. The sight of the lush green landscape kissed by the white frothy dashes of the ocean marked the descent. The pilot steered it well and after three hours had a three-point landing.

Our ride to the hotel in Colombo evoked a series of conflicting thoughts. On one side, Galle Face was bounded by the Presidential Secretariat, a luxury shopping mall and high-rise Shangri-La Hotel, while on the other side, the Chinese-financed Port City, sporting an artificial beach amid the island nation’s 1,340-km coastline, reeked of an infrastructure gone rogue. However, during our journey away from the capital city, a strange sense of an unusual calm began to set in. We took two hours and 45 minutes to reach our destination. It was a small, sleepy town called Habaraduwa in the district of Galle, set in the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

In my room at the bungalow, I found an old invitation almost waiting for me on the table, pushing me to reminisce. It was an invite to the artist Sujith Rathnayake’s provocative exhibition on “Crisis and Struggle.” The card read, “Come, join us in jail!” Sujith’s art event in 2022 was almost a reaction, a riposte to a government’s extra lavish Independence Day celebration in February last year. It was also an event that served a harsh warning to the government that roads and ports may complement the rhetoric of development, but they do not necessarily contribute to the happiness of the real people with real problems.

And then, while having my tea, I met a simple man with simple questions, Kalum, the property manager. “It has been raining for the last 12 days,” he shared. “What is the government going to do for the construction people who haven’t been able to work?” he asked. I stared at him in disbelief. Then again, who was I to question his entitlement? After all, Sri Lanka is a country where universal healthcare is available and educational institutions are free for all. Let’s also remember that it’s the same nation that had food subsidies till the 70s. Yet, in spite of what I knew, Kalum with a strange, sad look shared, “My friends and I all have to go private when we need immediate medical attention and drugs. And in spite of school being free, I recently bribed three people to get my child into a school that’s the best in this town.” In the course of my conversation with Kalum, I learnt that child malnutrition in Sri Lanka was on the rise and many families were switching to less nutritious diets, including his.

Did that mean that, in spite of the change of government, in spite of the infrastructure, in spite of the international assistance and attention, for the regular Sri Lankans, there was no peace dividend for them to enjoy?

Historically, Sri Lanka has been a stormy land. With deep-rooted ethnic incompatibilities, this nation has witnessed assassinations and blood baths. It was subjected to the 1956 Sinhala Only Act; it was trapped by the rusty and outdated Prevention of Terrorism Act 1979, a law that legalised state repression; it went through a full 26 years of civil war beginning in the Black July of 1983. Finally with the war ending in May 2009, the post-war Sri Lanka, positioned as an emerging market, offered hope to investors. Between 2009 and 2010, the Sri Lankan stock market performed the best in the world, and the Colombo Stock Exchange more or less quadrupled in only 18 months. Investments grew. Borrowing continued. Infrastructures developed. GDP ended up growing at eight percent. While the Sri Lankan growth bubble was heavily lauded by the world, certain groups made a killing. And ultimately, the excessive borrowing from Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects ignited a crisis. By the end of 2022, Sri Lanka owed the Chinese $7.4 billion, nearly a fifth of public external debt. Overall, a critical balance-of-payment crisis pushed Sri Lanka to pre-emptively default over $50 billion, leading to economic contraction with GDP falling by 7.8 percent and with inflation rising to 69.8 percent.

I wonder, where did Kalum’s fate sit in all these equations of development and disaster? Yet, it was people like Kalum and his friends who set to work, and through the 124-day Aragalaya in 2022, a protest movement against the Rajapaksa family’s corruption and profligacy, raging under the hashtags of #OccupyGalleFace and #GotaGoHome, accomplished the removal of a sitting prime minister and a president.

This is what followed…

A timely Indian aid of $4 billion during the first part of 2022 along with the extension of a $1 billion credit line to Sri Lanka till 2024 helped. When, in March 2023, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) entered Sri Lanka with a $2.9 billion loan, to be given over four years, and when tighter monetary policy was put in place to control inflation, the country took a different turn. The government started to plan on privatisation of projects, focused on improving public expenditure management, put anti-corruption measures in place to address poverty, and targeted creating stronger financial institutions.

As a result, Sri Lanka’s point-to-point inflation rate of 53.2 percent in January 2023 was brought down to 4.6 percent in July, and the nation was able to showcase an improvement by beginning to repay its loans. Sri Lanka repaid $50 million to Bangladesh, as an instalment of $200 million borrowed back in 2021. A further analysis of inflation data for the January-July period of 2023 shows that among four South Asian nations, Sri Lanka performed the best in containing high inflation. In July 2023, Sri Lanka passed an anti-corruption bill that was required as part of the IMF bailout.

All good till the taxes were raised, fuel and electricity subsidies removed. It was then our Kalum finally began to wonder: what’s next? After all, he said, “Even the current head of the government was a friend of the former.” He wondered if his community in his small town would continue to sustain fresher injuries to their economic, social and political structures, enmeshed in a much larger systemic problem, and continue being haunted by memories of war, and the mainstream narrative of a post-colonial analysis of the Sinhalese and Tamils attempting to recover their past glories? That was a question that Kalum and his friends themselves will have to answer… with time.

Gradually, while driving away from the guest house, I recalled a brief conversation I once had with Sanath Jayasuriya, who led the Sri Lankan cricket team in 38 Test matches and 117 One Day Internationals from 1999 to 2003. While being seated next to him on a flight bound for Colombo many years ago, I had asked: what was it that they said to each other when they put their heads together on the field, right before their matches? In response, he shared that during the huddle, each of them evoked the map of their motherland in their minds. That largely led to their victories.

You see, my dear readers, in Sri Lanka, there is a reason why the Jayasuriyas will lead and the Kalums will continue to bet on hope.