I’m sure most readers would be aware of and have seen the remarkable video footage of ordinary Sri Lankan people demonstrating on July 10 in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. I was as shocked as others at the passion, the anger, and the scale of the demonstration.
I had lived in Vietnam for more than a decade but, for visa reasons, have just spent six months living in Sri Lanka so here are some of my impressions about what is going on and where it all might go in the near future.
For me, the story started with my settling in at a homestay. Karum, the head of the family, fortunately spoke English fluently and as a former headmaster had a keen interest in politics, history, and the world. Our late discussions were fascinating and revealing. Much of what he explained is part of this story.
As Karum explained to me, the locals don’t like arguing, fighting or loud scenes although their weddings are just as loud as Vietnamese’s! This is a lush paradise, with animals everywhere, folks quietly walking their kids to school, farmers working slowly in the intense heat and humidity, and chatting being a national pastime. All of those make the current demonstration so surprising in its intensity and power. But demonstrating has become a skill the population has learned to use over the last two decades.
Life used to be good, as Sri Lanka made good money from tea and self-sufficient in rice while the middle-class population was growing with tourism and business with other countries.
But things have changed over the last twenty years. There was the civil war between the Tamils and Sri Lankans, the December 26, 2004 tsunami, the disastrous decision to ban fertilizers, the two years of crop failures resulting in falling rice and tea income, and now the fuel crisis including cooking gas. That is not to mention the huge loss in income as COVID-19 strangled international tourism and there was not much else in the country to generate money.
The leaders the population wants ‘out’ were once heroes but a string of strange and poor decisions added to the problems. Karum spoke of bitterness at all the broken promises: farming projects, training programs, and energy plans that never became a reality. And he went on to address the daily grind that occurs now with all the problems.
When I lived with the family in Weligama, a well-known surfing tourist spot on the southern coast, I experienced this. We had power cuts almost every day, often up to 10 hours. No electricity, no fans, no air-conditioning, no hot showers, and no staying up late at night. As for fuel cuts, my tuk-tuk driver, Sujee, called me to say he would send another driver because he had been waiting in line for four hours or more. My local supermarket was running out of milk, bread (but there are still many bakeries), sugar, and anything that needed to be transported in when there was not enough fuel and you could wait days for supplies.
|Stivi Cooke (C) poses for a photo with Karum (R) and tuk-tuk driver Sujee in Sri Lanka.|
My personal fury and frustration grew every day, particularly when I saw that the local fruit sellers could not even open their little roadside stalls and when the tuk-tuk guys waited for days (not hours). The queue of mums waiting to get gas coupons broke my heart and I felt embarrassed to live well in the middle of all of this.
With most of this coming from the leadership mismanagement, you can well understand the people wanted the president and his family, who also ran other departments, out of government. The president’s refusal to quit simply lit the fire that grew in local anger. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family are also very rich, deepening the resentment as locals can’t afford fuel (now at about 4-5 dollars on the black market), cooking gas has nearly tripled in price, and inflation is about 40 percent for commodities.
Sri Lanka will surely have a new government but it will take some time for people to see how well it works. I am not that confident that the people will be satisfied with any of this until the money starts buying fuel again, and fast. It’s not just fuel either, fertilizer and food need to be imported too. The country does not have enough locally produced rice anymore. There is a lot of catching up to do. And there is no guarantee that anger will not spill over again.
Karum wonders too. It has taken a long time but the people have woken up to the corruption and mismanagement and realize it will take a lot more than new people in government to transform his country. But there is hope. There’s no quick fix. It will take months to stabilize fuel supplies, bring back regular power supply and restore food sufficiency. In the long term, Sri Lanka needs to diversity its economy to be less reliant on the tourism trade which the coronavirus has now shown us can be wrecked fast and healed agonizingly slowly.
I am 64 and Karum is nearly 70 – we know the future is for others to solve. He spoke wistfully one calm warm night about what will happen to his daughter and grand-son. His own hope is that Sri Lanka does not repeat its mistakes in electing poor leaders and learns from other nations how to do things better in the future. As he said, “We have food in our gardens, beautiful weather, why can’t we have peace and happiness as well?”
As I prepare to leave Sri Lanka soon, I still do not have a good answer to that, except, “Good luck!”