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Life after this Death?

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Image Courtesy East Asia Forum

“All that is solid melts into the air…”

Marx and Engels (The Communist Manifesto)

The socio-economic edifice that is Sri Lanka’s informal sector is collapsing.  According to the 2020 Labour Force Survey, informal sector accounts for 58.1% of the total employed. That is 4.65million people (62.1% of them male). Most have little formal education (nearly one million studied only up to grade 5 or less; 2.6million between grades 6 to 10). Almost 2 million are in elementary occupations, gruelling work with no job security, severance compensation or even a formal contract.

The socio-economic existence of most informal sector workers is precarious even in normal economic times, their lives built not on rock but sand. They work hard for long hours trying to shake off the stigma of poverty, to cleave to the lower end of the middle class, to improve their living standards and to educate their children. They don’t earn enough to save. A decent house and potentially upwardly mobile children are their sole assets. 

The pandemic hit this sector the hardest. Still they could have made a comeback had it not been for that other, worse, plague – Rajapaksa rule. Already millions have lost their occupations, hurling entire families hurled into poverty. Everything they have built “is melting into the air,” including their dreams of educating their children into economic security and social acceptance.

According to the most recent Household Income and Expenditure Survey Sri Lanka’s poorest 40% had an average monthly household income of around Rs. 27,000 in 2019. Today that sum would be inadequate to live frugally for a week, let alone a month. The middle 60% had an average monthly household income of around 56,000rupees. A sizeable segment of this component must be struggling hard not to be swept below the line of poverty. 

According to the World Food Programme’s current estimation, 86% of families miss a meal or eat less in terms of quality and/or quantity. 22% lack basic nutrition. It was these people the IMF chief talked about in her May 2022 BBC interview. She held up Sri Lanka as a warning to other crisis-ridden countries, identifying food and energy shortages and high prices as key causative factors of mass violence and urging the subsidisation of these essentials for the poorest sections. 

Unfortunately, PM Wickremesinghe doesn’t seem to have heard either the warning or the counsel. The prices of essentials rose even higher under his watch. Though he talks of the need for a new social welfare net, it is often in anodyne terms. There is nothing concrete that can function as a psychological straw for the drowning masses. The government is not even tagging onto outsider initiatives such as the WFP’s plan to provide monthly vouchers of Rs. 15,000 to 3 million extremely vulnerable Lankans. (Incidentally, imposing another indirect tax to fund greater social welfare would be an exercise in futility as the tax will feed inflation, thus poverty and mass distress). 

People battered by prices and crippled by shortages need hope, now. Ranil Wickremesinghe is failing to provide that hope. The consequence is likely to be another wave of violence, bloodier, more widespread, and more mindless than in May. 

Anyone who walks the roads, stands in a queue, talks to a Lankan whose life lies in ruins can sense the coming storm. But the political class (of all party persuasions) seems oblivious to this danger. Perhaps the government thinks the police and the military can save them. And the opposition hopes to use the rising tide of anger to gain the heights of power.

The government should remember that behind every uniform is a man or a woman whose family belongs to the devastated half of the population. The uniformed men and women may not turn their guns on their political masters, but many stand aside, allowing whatever will be to will be. The opposition should recall what almost happened to Sajith Premadasa at Galle Face on May 9th. If the crowd had been large enough to block the exit, if he didn’t have an army guard, he and other SJB parliamentarians could have met the same barbaric fate that befell parliamentarian Amarakeerithi a couple of hours later.

Adages are adages because they express eternal verities. The political class should recall what they, like every child, would have been told once: don’t play with fire. 

Acolyte Monks, Acolyte Businessmen, and Power Games

While the country simmers, the Rajapaksas are plotting a full return. Basil Rajapaksa’s resignation is a tactical ploy. He seems to be busy behind the scenes pulling strings to undermine the 21st Amendment, the economy, PM Wickremesinghe, anything and everything that would return the masses to the delusion of Saviour Rajapaksa. Dhammika Perera may be his latest pawn in this power game.

Acolyte monks and acolyte businessmen are key props of Rajapaksa power. They also fuelled the Rajapaksa comeback. The role played by Rajapaksa monks in the two elections need no belabouring. The acolyte oligarchs played a no less important role. To mention just one example, would the Rajapaksas have won their landslides without the opinion climate created by Derana and Hiru

The Rajapaksas have not given up on acolyte Buddhism. In May, while the country was spiralling out of control, a gigantic massive lion statue (the largest in Sri Lanka) atop the Kuragala hill was unveiled. What an aggressively roaring lion has to do with a teaching premised on total non-violence, why billions were spent on a statue while the economy crashing might seem unanswerable until the key role acolyte Buddhism plays in the Rajapaksa power project is factored in.

Today acolyte Buddhism has lost some of its sheen. So the Rajapaksas seem to be focusing on their other key prop, acolyte businessmen. The entry of Dhammika Perera is obviously a prelude to the re-entry of the Rajapaksas en masse. Bring the Business Man into parliament, give him a ministry, puff him up as the economic saviour, make him the PM, scapegoat him for inevitable failure and get rid of him. 

In an incisive commentary, WA Abeysinghe compared political monks to a parasitic plant growing on the tree of the Sangha which will eventually kill the host (The Gautama Buddha State and other argumentative articles). Similarly acolyte businessmen represent a warped form of capitalism. They cannot flourish in a land where the rule of law prevails and best business practices are observed. If allowed a decisive role, they will promote their own narrow interests at the cost of the entire economy. Sri Lanka is a living example, our road to this hell opened by the 2019 tax cut.

Business and politics, profits and power converged in Rathupaswala in 2013. The protesting people didn’t want the Rajapaksas to go home. They just wanted clean drinking water. Their water sources were affected by effluents from Venigros, a glove-making factory. Venigros was a subsidiary of Haileys. Dhammika Perera owned almost 50% of Haileys. A trusted Rajapaksa business acolyte he was appointed by President Mahinda as the secretary to the ministry of transport – probably the only senior official to own a casino ever (The Colombo City Guide, Yamu, had this to say about Bellagio: “The Belliago is smoky, bright and generally dodgy… However much they try to glam it up it is still a gambling den…. The ubiquitous prostitutes are the most depressing sight of all, tired and long-faced, working what seem to be interminable hours…”)

So people asked for water and the regime sent the army. The 58th division no less, infamous for its alleged involvement in the white flag incident (the murder of surrendered Tiger leaders and their families). At Ratupaswala, the soldiers herded the media personnel into a vehicle (some were assaulted) and shot at the street lights plunging the area into darkness. Then they shot into the crowd killing three. The fleeing protestors were pursued into houses, even a church and brutally attacked. As a resident of Weliweriya said, “If they treated us like this for engaging in a demonstration one can imagine the situation in the North. We thought they did something big by finishing the war in our country. Now it looks as if they just killed innocent people” (BBC – 2.8.2013). 

(An aside – that realisation was forgotten soon. Caught in the tide of anti-Muslim hysteria, most residents of Rathupaswala voted for the Rajapaksas in 2019 and 2020.)

Businessmen make worse politicians than even professional politicians, as the examples of Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi demonstrate. The reason is the convergence of incompatible interests, power for profit. As Umberto Eco said, Italy’s Berlusconi set up a government “…based on the identification of the party, the country, and the state, with a series of business interests” (Turning back the clock). During Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the government planned to turn Sri Lanka into a casino hub. Had he won the presidency, the king of that gambling kingdom would have been Dhammika Perera who already held three casino licenses and was planning to build a 40 storey casino-resort in DR Wijewardane Mawatha, a waterfront casino-resort with JKH Holdings and a third mega-structure with a US or Asian gaming brand. 

Whether Dhammika Perera is Mark Antony or Brutus in the coming drama remains to be seen. Be that as it may, by bringing businessmen into politics as Business Men, the Rajapaksas are introducing another cancer into the body politic, comparable to what the JHU did by bringing the institution of sangha into electoral politics. Opening Pandora’s Box is the easy part. Closing it is quite another story. 

A Second Wave?

Some crises are opportunities. From the devastation of World War II a new and a better Europe rose. We too can use the moment to build back differently and better. 

A functioning economy has to be understood as an economy that functions for the majority of people, at least in basic terms. For years, we equated development with high end physical infrastructure. Billions were borrowed for highways in a country where only 9.3% own a van or a car. An airport was built in an elephant habitat, with a monthly loss of Rs.100 million. There was no money to develop small roads and bridges used daily by most people. More was spent on defence than health, education, and human resources combined. A plethora of unnecessary state institutions bled the economy further. Sri Lankan is obvious enough. Why do we have a state authority for gem and jewellery or a Tourist Board, or a Textile Corporation? 

Privatisation is necessary. Not the way it was done in the former Soviet Union, but the way it was done right here by Mangala Samaraweera in telecommunication. 91% of Sri Lankans own some king of phone today, a witness to that success. Redress the imbalance between direct and indirect taxes, increase corporate and personal income taxes, and introduce a wealth tax. Defang our oligarchs via laws promoting competition and barring monopoly-formation. Abolish the executive presidency. Draw a clear line of demarcation between politics and religion. 

All necessary and possible, none likely. Perhaps because we are yet to face the reality, including the role we played in it, which is also a warning tale about the power of ethno-religious racism. “The people are responsible for giving us power,” Basil Rajapaksa said, and he was right. In 2019 and in 2020 a majority of Sinhalese voted for the Rajapaksas primarily to teach the Tamils and Muslims a lesson. The Rajapaksas authored the current crisis; their religious, business and other acolytes enabled it. But we, the people, too are complicit.

This complicity is probably a reason there’s not much international sympathy for Sri Lanka. The global or even the regional reaction has been a collective shrug. China, on whose behalf the Rajapaksas antagonised Japan, has refused a request for another currency swap. Global and national-economic realities seem to be forcing Beijing to focus on the Pacific region, as shown by its recent diplomatic blitzkrieg in the Pacific Island nations.

India is the only country with a vested interest because it would not want anarchy on its doorstep and boat people on its shores. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the former CEB chairman seem to have ended the hope of any more Indian loans, at least for the foreseeable future. Even Gota-go-gama protestors seemed to have jumped on the anti-Indian bandwagon, forgetting that in our extremity, the choice is not between good and bad investment, but some investment and none. 

A power scuffle at the centre or an attempt to overthrow the government through violent upheavals will only worsen matters. The opposition’s disunity has grown to dysfunctional levels. Even if Ranil Wickremesinghe is removed tomorrow, there won’t be an all-party-government but a few-party government. If Sajith is the new PM, Ranil, Anura Kumara, and Champaka will rage against him. The same will happen if Anura Kumara or Champaka is made the PM. 

Overthrowing an elected government by non-electoral/parliamentary means would set a dangerous precedent. In our error-ridden history, that is one mistake we didn’t make. If that guardrail too is broken, do we know who or what will creep in through the gap, if not this time, then the next time? 

So we enter the deadliest phase of the crisis (so far) with the country limping to a standstill, and many more Lankans slipping into poverty. The government is clueless. The opposition should unite around a basic minimum programme of economic recovery and social protection. But that too is unlikely. The Galle Face protestors are smitten with their own sense of power and rightness. The people are hurting, hopeless, and leaderless.

As author China Mieville said in another (but not dissimilar) context, “This is going to be an ugly time.”

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