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'India has to ensure Sri Lanka doesn't become bankrupt'

By ARCHANA MASIH
May 16, 2022 16:24 IST
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'India has given assistance that we required, otherwise we would not have been able to survive this far.'

IMAGE: United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, left, was sworn in as Sri Lanka's prime minister by President Gotabaya Rakapaksa, right, May 12, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

"Unfortunately, we are going to see much more hardships (in Sri Lanka). Already, people are suffering in terms of not being able to get food and some have been reduced to having one meal a day."

"So, we are likely to see tension for the next couple of months at the least. Some predict that this is going to affect Sri Lanka for several years and decades," Bhavani Fonseka, the well-known Sri Lankan constitutional and human rights lawyer, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih in a conversation from Colombo.

The concluding segment of a two-part interview discussing the uncertainty in Sri Lanka:

 

Why did President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister? Do you think Wickremesinghe is capable of fixing Sri Lanka's problems?

It is unclear why Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen considering his party -- the UNP (United National Party) -- has only one seat in parliament and at a time when other Opposition parties, both the SJB (Samagi Jana Balawegaya) and NPP (National People's Power or Jathika Jana Balawegaya), were in discussions and had proposed conditions to form an interim government.

The lack of transparency with his appointment raises several questions as to whether he was appointed due to his proximity to the Rajapaksa family, and many call it a 'deal' between the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe. This even prompted a new slogan 'NoDealGama' for the protest site outside the official residence of the PM.

Despite questions of credibility, the new PM has a wealth of experience as he has been in this office previously (this is his sixth stint as PM) and has over four decades in politics. Some say he may be one of the few who can take the country forward in this present crisis and we will have to watch closely whether he is up to this massive task.

As prime minister during the Easter Attacks, Wickremesinghe and then president Maithripala Sirisena were not on the same page and there were reports of bickering between the two.
Given that background, what kind of a working relationship can we expect Wickremesinghe to have with Gotabaya?
What can the duo bring to the table as far as dealing with the present economic and political crisis is concerned?

Many of us witnessed how the Yahapalanaya government failed and there is criticism leveled against Ranil Wickremesinghe for being partly responsible for much of the failures during that period.

He is also not a popular politician (he failed to win his seat at the last general election in 2020) and is not able to connect with the masses with many seeing his base being amongst the urban elite.

This is also in a context when the president is hugely unpopular with protesters calling for his resignation with the clear demand of #GoHomeGota. The PM will be reliant on the SLPP (the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the Rajapaksas's party) for support and the four member cabinet that was appointed yesterday (May 14, 2022) is composed of SLPP MPs.

Whether the president and PM are able to work together at this unprecedented crisis is to be seen and will be tested in what is likely to be tumultuous times ahead.

Do you think Gotabaya will continue to hold on? What hardships are the Sri Lankan people facing in everyday life?

Despite several weeks of protests and the demand for the resignation of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been tenacious in holding on to office. The appointment of Wickremesinghe as PM has given him some respite and we will need to see how things move in the next few weeks, but it is unlikely the president will resign.

Nevertheless, the protesters continue to protest across Sri Lanka and their demand is very clear -- #GoHomeGota

This is also when Sri Lankans are facing massive challenges with essential items not available, long power cuts and uncertainty as to what the future holds.

Many are seen standing in line to get food, medicines, gas and fuel, among others, and with daily protests by people who are angry and frustrated as to the mismanagement of the government. '

Regardless of the curfew, many are on the streets due to the hardships faced. With no immediate respite likely to come, we are likely to see the anger increasing with worries that it may lead to violence.

IMAGE: Barricades outside the presidential secretariat in Colombo, May 15, 2022. Photograph: Pulitzer Prize Winner Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Who among the current crop of Sri Lankan leaders has the ability to lead Sri Lanka out of this abyss?

We are in such a crisis that no one individual can be able to take that mantle.

While there will be a president or prime minister and cabinet, we really need to shift from one individual being able to solve problems to really strengthening the systems and abolishing the executive presidency because that is seen as one of the biggest impediments and is contributing to this crisis.

There is no one individual who can take this forward. It requires team effort and experts coming in along with international assistance. We are in such a dire straits.

The IMF alone cannot assist us. We need bridge financing; we need to restructure our debt and we need to restructure the state.

A lot of measures will need to be introduced that is going to hurt the people. We are seeing tough times, but it's going to get much, much, harder and will affect the most vulnerable.

Reforms will need to be brought in which will be unpopular. There will be people who will complain and there may be more protest. That's why one individual alone can't do it. It has to be a system change.

How do you see the coming weeks ahead for the people of Sri Lanka?

Unfortunately, we are going to see much more hardships.

Already, people are suffering in terms of not being able to get food and some have been reduced to having one meal a day.

Patients aren't able to get surgeries done and basic medicines are in short supply.

Essential items are either not available or are limited which can lead to violence.

So, we are likely to see tension for the next couple of months at the least. Some predict that this is going to affect Sri Lanka for several years and decades.

It's going to affect the most vulnerable communities and one of the things that needs to happen is to ensure that the most vulnerable have some form of protection. That's a critical area that will require attention.

IMAGE: Soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint after the government imposed a three-day curfew in Colombo. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

What role can India play in the current crisis?

India has had a special role in Sri Lanka for several decades. India is a friend of Sri Lanka, they have offered us a lot of assistance in the past, but also very specifically, they have opened credit lines and given assistance that we required, otherwise we would not have been able to survive this far.

On the humanitarian front, they have come on board and assisted us. India has a very special role in terms of both the economic crisis, but also in the politics.

India has been very active in the past in terms of the 13th amendment (Wikipedia states: 'The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka is an amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, passed in 1987, which created Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka. This amendment also made Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the country and declared English the "link language") and addressing the ethnic question.

India will have to play a role in looking at the bridge financing and in ensuring that Sri Lanka doesn't become bankrupt.

So yes, India has a special role. But we cannot ignore the fact that China also has a growing footprint in Sri Lanka. We'll have to see how the geopolitics also plays out.

Has the era of the Rajapaksas ended, or are we writing their political obituaries prematurely?

I don't think it's completely over for the Rajapaksas. They are extremely unpopular right now and everyone wants them gone, but that could turn in a few years or a few decades.

There are countries where families that had been thrown out of office have come back even decades later; we just saw that in the Philippines.

The longer Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds onto power will also indicate how people see them. They are extremely unpopular, but I won't completely write them off. The next generation may be able to come back, but not right now.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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