Times of India
The New Statesman
Four articles on the Aragalaya and its aftermath.
Sri Lankan cricket found an unlikely hero.
Can its politics?
Who said the revolution won’t be televised? It was there on every Sri Lankan channel, except the state ones. It was updated tweet by tweet, argued on FB minutes later, and every refresh brought fresh terrors. We watched the protestors breach the guard at the President’s House, the arrowhead that pierced the state’s rusted armour. The crowd braved tear gas, water cannons, and a dangerous spray of bullets. When we saw them swarm the steps of the presidential secretariat, the scene was cinematic and epic, despite the grainy phone screen footage.
And then our screens brought us the absurd. Protestors somersaulting into the President’s pool, pumping weights in his gym, playing his ridiculous campaign song on his piano. But we also saw the armed forces, observing the action with lowered guns, knowing that in a country that’s run out of petrol, gas, milk, paper, leaders and ideas, in an island that has endured wars, tsunamis, dictators, viruses and economic meltdowns, there are insufficient bullets to stop this crowd.
Our group is mostly middle-class. We’d been battered by the pandemic and held back by stumbling governments, but the country’s loan default has changed how we lived. Though so far none of us are starving. This will not be true for over 6 million Sri Lankans who will plunge below the poverty line if nothing is done aside from the shuffling of leaders. A similar number voted for the ruling family who are now fleeing the island, and if the same number converged on the capital to shout them out of their castles, we shouldn’t be surprised.
The Aragalaya (Struggle) has remained faceless. For all its spokespeople, its divergent groups and its shifting agendas, it has no clear leader. This is an asset and a problem. As we walked the Galle Road to the centre of the storm, the Aragalaya showed us some of its many faces.
Every shade of Sri Lankan was present. Buddhist priests, Catholic nuns and Muslim clerics walked with flags. Students took pictures with soldiers, while grandparents shared ice cream with kids. The out-of-work workers, the out-of-business business folk, the can’t-survive-without-fuel, and the barely surviving. Diverse groups united behind one idea. “Go home Gota. Go home.”
At Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence, there was a man up a tree with plastic cans of petrol strapped to him. He threatened to set himself on fire, while the crowd pleaded with him, while lightly roasting him. Metaphorically of course. He shouted obscenities about Gota, Ranil, and Mahinda, and lamented that the petrol tied to him wasn’t enough to feed his children. Give me the petrol then, shouted someone, I’ll feed mine. There was nervous laughter. The man wore a white singlet and a sarong a similar colour to the petrol in the cans. If he lit the match, this would make the news. But the man in the tree was talked down after a brief speech. If only the President or Prime Minister were this reasonable.
Inside the house was ordered chaos, at least the crisis had taught Sri Lankans how to queue. There were signs everywhere in multiple languages, urging protestors to ‘Come, have a look, take a selfie, have a laugh. Please do not break anything or steal. We are not looters or vandals. We are good people and our money paid for this.’ The crowd were mostly sensible and well-meaning, though selective in their amnesia. Our money did pay for this, and so did our stupidity. We let the thugs con their way back in. We watched the tax cuts, the fertilizer bans, the release of murderers, the election of clowns, and hoped each debacle was the last.
How many rock bottoms are there?’ asked a teacher who schedules classes on laptops between power cuts.
‘Like a Sri Lankan batting collapse,’ said a financial analyst who never thought default was a likelihood, until it was. ‘We expect someone to score a fifty in the last over.
‘It’s like the 80s!’ said a photographer, who appears too young to remember that decade. ‘Country’s burning, cricket team’s shit and mullets are back!’
That’s when we heard the score. The news of the win over Australia in Galle featuring an unknown spinner named Prabath Jayasuriya came over a television in an upstairs room and people danced on the carpeted staircase, shaking the wooden bannisters.
In the pool, where now iconic photos broke the absurdity of this meltdown to the world, protestors were doing backflips like their leaders will in the coming days. The waters were now murky with silliness gone on too long. A man with a megaphone ruined the mood with a furious chant for the Rajapakses to return the stolen money, a multi-billion dollar figure that could ‘wipe out our national debt,’ according to some fantasists.
We were all anxious and angry. How can a bunch of thugs take control of our island and rob it bare? Young Prabath Jayasuriya played the Australian test because five far more experienced spinners had Covid or had failed. Where can we find a national leader who will take 16 wickets on debut? If the system can’t unearth them, do we search among those jumping in the pool?
Two weeks after the revolution of July 9th came the anniversary of Black July 1983. We can fill a calendar with Sri Lankan tragedies, many of which are unremembered, except for those who cannot forget. Successive Sri Lankan governments have employed force to suppress Tamils, Muslims, the poor and the Left. It appears that the Aragalaya is next.
In two weeks, we have watched a President flee, resign by email, and be replaced by a six-time Prime Minister, unelected by the people, and unwelcome for many. The Aragalaya handed back the buildings, before being cleared out with violence by the new President’s military.
How many steps are there before Sri Lanka is back where we started? Back to the good old days of being an underachieving yet functioning idiocracy, run by kleptocrats and their families. Of the thousands of steps ahead, the first two seemed clear. 1) Get rid of those who brought us here. 2) Find some grown-ups to chart Sri Lanka’s difficult future.
A glance at a President Ranil Wickremasighe’s new cabinet filled with Rajapaksa loyalists does not inspire hope. The great reset will have to wait till next election. Right now, the economic crisis requires economic solutions, and we are all waiting to hear them, stuck in our petrol queues, arguing on our phones. While our old leaders prepare fresh begging bowls to be presented to the IMF, our people are becoming beggars.
So did the Aragalaya succeed, or did it just delay the doom? Do peaceful revolutions deliver peace or more turmoil? It appears getting rid of a President was the easy part. Getting rid of cronyism, inaction and catastrophe may prove far more challenging.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s latest novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize.
The Aragalaya Diary
Shehan Karunatilaka from Colombo
July already had its place in the Sri Lankan calendar. 1983’s Black July was the pogrom that started the whole mess, though the mess can be traced back decades or millennia, if you choose. There is no memorial for 1983 or apology from any government. No one has been prosecuted for the murder of 3000 Tamils, the burning of 8000 homes or the destruction of 5000 shops. Black July was hundreds of tragedies ago, so many Sri Lankans may not remember it, except for those who cannot forget.
What colour will they paint 9 July 2022? What colour represents desperation, unity and victory? The rainbow colours of our nation, or the colour of blood that dominates our flag? My lifetime has seen a parade of Sri Lankan tragedies. Civil wars, insurrections, state violence, tsunamis and Easter attacks.
And Sri Lankans have had two stock responses. One is a collective shrug and a sigh. What to do? Things will never change. The other is the popular phrase, Nava gilunath ban choon meaning the band will play louder, while the ship sinks. First we will laugh at the mess we’re in, then we will weep.
The generation that will save us
On July 9th things did change. Millions of Sri Lankans: farmers, workers, fisherfolk, mothers of the missing, minorities, teachers, students, corporates and activists unified their voices under the banner of Aragalaya and the call of #GotaGoHome. They were joined by ordinary Sri Lankan from all races and classes. A population with less and less to lose, battered by petrol queues, fuel shortages and powercuts, who took over the buildings of government and sent the tyrants into hiding.
Today, we have a generation that will not shrug or smirk or succumb to amnesia. Who understand that our leaders won wars and defeated us. That decades after independence, we have selected our own colonizers. Generation Aragalaya is more inclusive and empathetic than any that preceded it. From this ragged and righteous bunch will rise heroes who will lead Sri Lanka out of this mess. But for now, we must settle for the sad old men who brought us here.
What are they thinking?
It’s hard to be a mind-reader, but many still try. What is Gotabhaya Rajapakse thinking right now? Does the man who silenced dissenters and exiled critics feel fear or remorse or shame? Does he know that banning fertilizer, printing money, borrowing trillions, nurturing religious extremism, and employing family members were bad ideas. Or is he still making the excuses of his televised speeches? Is he relieved that Sri Lanka is now someone else’s problem?
And who will that someone else be? Acting President Ranil Wickremasinghe leads a gallery of electoral losers from which parliament selects the man who will preside over the tough months ahead. Of course it will be a man. Australia and New Zealand appear to have more Sri Lankan women MPs than Sri Lanka herself.
The Acting President is unelected, unloved and, in many estimations, unwelcome. The electorate rejected him, the Aragalaya don’t want him, opposition ministers broke away from him, and the Rajapakses picked him as their safe choice. It is testimony to the dearth of political options, that this man is our front runner. Sri Lanka’s current leadership race is the equivalent of asking David Cameron, Theresa May and Gordon Brown to come back and sort out Brexit.
Watching the soldiers
While everyone else was chanting and singing and dancing through the occupied palaces, I was observing the men in uniform. Our greatest fear was that a cornered dictator would point the state’s guns at its people. Should soldiers protect leaders from their people or vice versa? I watch men in uniform giggle at the party in the President’s pool , take photographs of protestors bouncing on furniture, and grin at citizens posing on thrones.
Clashes between protestors and forces have been mercifully short-lived. We have seen the use of teargas and water cannons, the beating of journalists, and a brief spray of bullets that claimed lives. The military stood firm when the Rajapaksas were ousted by ballot in 2015, and rank and file still appear to be with the people. For this we are all grateful, as I suspect, are the soldiers themselves. We all hope this will remain the case, as the alternative would be terrifying.
Writing about ghosts
I wrote a novel about the worst time in Sri Lanka’s history. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is set in 1989, the time of a northern civil war, a southern insurrection, government death squads, and an Indian army with boots in Sri Lanka. The story is of a dead journalist figuring out which faction had him killed. I originally wanted to write about 2009 and how the 30-year war ended, but such a book would be dangerous to write while the Rajapaksas rule. Perhaps it still is.
I presumed writing about forgotten tragedies would be less problematic, as most of the antagonists of 1989 are dead. Where better to set a ghost story than period of mass graves and unsolved murders? But I was mistaken. The son of the President who presided over state-sponsored murders is the current opposition leader. One of those implicated in the Batalanda torture chambers of the period is the Acting President. And in 1989, when my anti-hero Maali Almeida is given seven moons to solve his own murder, Mahinda Rajapaksa was an opposition peace activist, protesting in Geneva against state human rights crimes. Yes, one of the good guys.
Can things get worse?
Many describe 2022 as the worst time in Sri Lanka’s history. It is an unprecedented catastrophe, and we are now un-Presidented. We have normalized fuel, gas and electricity shortages, though should we run short on food and medicines, then law and order will be next to disappear. But this is an economic crisis, and there are economic solutions. Privatisation, taxation, competition. Promoting pluralism over majoritarianism. Education, welfare and industry over infrastructure, kick-backs and defence. But we cannot get to any of it, until we agree on who’s in charge.
The Rajapaksas stoked anti-minority fires and channelled Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism to win over electorates. But last time around, they also duped Colombo’s neo-liberal business players. Those who believed in the benevolent dictator lottery. Unaware that nations who take this gamble expecting a Lee Kwan Yu, usually end up with a Mugabe, a Gaddafi, a Pinochet or a Pol Pot. But gamble they did.
No, it is not bleaker than 1989, because this time around it is the people who are crushing the state. We expected the Rajapaksas to rule for decades, but they couldn’t last a term.
For now, we pick another leader from a pack of jokers, until the faceless Aragalaya can deliver us new faces with fresh ideas in time for the next election. For now, we will settle for someone who no one likes, but who will ‘get the job done.’ What could possibly go wrong?
Letter from Sri Lanka
Is the Aragalaya over?
The late great Sunil Perera, popular Sri Lankan singer and satirist, lamented that people should be clamouring to come to our beautiful island. But with each passing decade more of us find more reasons to escape. Today, the queues at the passport offices snake around the block as many Sri Lankans seek to escape the recent turmoil.
Most Sri Lankans are stuck in slow-moving queues of one form or another, scanning the horizon for the next tsunami, hoping their heads will stay above water. Fortunately, the queues for petrol recently eased slightly, thanks to QR codes and some common sense by our newly appointed leaders. But if credit lines from friendly neighbours dry up, as expected, then they will likely return.
So who is to blame for the mess here? The Aragalaya (the Sinhalese word for ‘struggle’), as the island wide protests came to be branded, blamed the ruling Rajapaksa family; three of whom were forced to step down, including the President, Gotabhaya Rajapakse. While few would deny the catastrophic effects of tax cuts, money-printing, and fertiliser bans, some would argue that decades of neo-liberal budget deficits, a bloated public sector and shameless kleptocracy had the nation at the brink for decades. When Covid killed the tourist industry for two years and the war in Ukraine disrupted supply chains, Sri Lanka tipped into the abyss, with rock bottom yet to be reached.
A narrative in Western media is that of the Chinese debt trap, citing the massive white elephant infrastructure projects like Colombo’s phallic lotus tower and its impotent Hambantota airport, which China now owns. But Sri Lanka was promiscuous in its borrowing, and China, along with Japan and India accounts for less than 25 per cent of total debt, with the rest in international sovereign bonds from brokerage firms across Europe and America. Others point with glee to the island switching to organic fertiliser, as a cautionary tale for other nations flirting with Green New Deal policies. The Rajapaksas have been accused of many things, but not of being woke environmentalists. That policy was more likely a last-ditch attempt to salvage forex.
Regardless, portioning blame for our woes was so last month. The Aragalaya has proved a victim of its own success. The 9 July protests deserved its place on the world’s front pages, and not just for the absurd comedy of the protesters bouncing on the President’s bed. It united all factions of a divided nation across race, class and generations and focused then on the single-minded goal of sending Gota home. Though not much thought was given to what would happen next.
What did happen was that six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, no one’s idea of the ideal candidate, least of all the electorate that rejected him, ascended to the throne on the backs of parliamentarians who once backed the Rajapaksas. Wickremasinghe wasted little time in flexing muscle. The past weeks have seen the Aragalaya dismantled by state violence, its factions demonized as terrorists and its visible faces hounded and arrested for grave crimes like stealing the President’s mug and breaking his chair. MPs who once hurled furniture across parliament, however, have been reprimanded with ministerial posts.
The reaction from Sri Lankans on social media has been divided and the response from the Bar Association, muted. Many argue that political instability will undermine efforts to secure bridge financing for now and IMF financing for tomorrow. Replacing a corrupt administration took three months; Sri Lanka no longer has the luxury of time. Others say the Aragalaya has been taken over by radicals, and for those who lived through the terror of 1989, we know where that kind of talk can lead. There is little evidence, however, that Sri Lanka ever learns from its errors. With law and order distracted, robberies and gangland killings are on the rise, and if food and medicine are the next goods to run out, things will escalate exponentially.
But yet amidst all these uncertainties, anxieties and absurdities, there is still hope. Those stuck in petrol queues that stretch across blocks, share meals, theories, songs and fellowship, and for the most part, keep tempers from fraying and tensions from rising. Those who can afford to, switch to solar panels, charcoal stoves and invest in overpriced bikes. Some rich folk raise their walls, but many others extend their hands to those who are struggling.
And then there is the Centenary Movement. An organisation of educated young activists and reformers whose goal is for Sri Lanka to be a fully developed nation by 2048, the 100th anniversary of its independence from the last of its three colonisers. The group’s vision is both impressive and inspiring. Its membership stretches across provinces, races and genders, and its tri-lingual website outlines a 10-step manifesto for building a nation based on meritocracy, inclusivity, diversity, compassion, and innovation. Platitudes that would sound utopian from any current politician, sound strangely hopeful amidst all this noise. The Centenary Movement’s initiatives include a political academy for a new generation of leaders, an advocacy unit to educate the populace on policy issues, and a political platform, which could provide a viable option in 2023 for an electorate tired of venal incompetence.
The Aragalaya of 9 July may have been dismantled for now, but the struggle will continue, led by those who have no other choice but to stay. If peace and prosperity by 2048 is the goal, we better get started now. ENDS
Shehan Karunatilaka’s latest novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almedia, is longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize
What to do when your country’s a joke.
Sri Lanka’s been a joke for a while. At least for those compelled to live here. A deeply unfunny joke without a punchline. An island of uncanny beauty, blessed with an abundance of resources and a vibrant and literate population, Sri Lankan manages to produce ugliness on a consistent basis across a range of catastrophes.
The country has unending supply of absurdity, tragedy and unorthodox cricketers though it has run short of most other things. Like petrol, gas, electricity, imports, and competent leaders. As the economic crisis deepens, queues lengthen and prices soar, the output of jokes, memes, cartoons, skits, tik-toks and fake news sites has been prolific.
It helps that each week brings new absurdities. A month ago, the citizenry stormed the state’s buildings and ended up jumping in the President’s pool, bouncing on his bed, and taking selfies on his many thrones. Three weeks ago, the President resigned by email to be replaced by a six-time Prime Minister, repeatedly rejected by both parliament and the electorate for the job he now occupies.
For the last two weeks, the populace has spent days and nights in petrol queues playing cards, singing songs, cursing leaders and sharing jokes about the bumbling leaders who got us here. Last week, at the Commonwealth games, four Sri Lankan athletes won medals, and ten jumped immigration. We already have a hilarious 2008 film called Machan, on the lengths Sri Lankans will go to flee their paradise. Though these days, the memes write themselves.
They range from parody songs and crude photoshop jobs to sharply sketched cartoons and corny whatsapp jokes. At the forefront, at least among English-speaking twitter followers, is News Curry, an anonymous fake news factory reminiscent of The Onion. When the newly anointed President appointed a cabinet of zero women, the headline read, I Empower Women – I Even Appointed One As My Wife.
While the nation has seen wars, tsunamis and dictatorships, it has also seen beauty pageants where former queens storm the stage to confiscate the winner’s crown, parliamentary debates that descend into a furniture throwing brawls, a honey-based cure for Covid touted as an alternative to vaccines, and a floundering government placing more trust in astrologers than in economists during a debt crisis.
Sri Lankans smile for most things, which is frequently mistaken for friendliness by tourists and tourist brochures. While Sri Lankans are welcoming and hospitable at the best of times, the smile is more an attempt to save face and avoid confrontation. A mask to hide confusion, contempt and anger. A tool to disarm an adversary and keep tensions from escalating. Though in recent times, Sri Lankan laughter is both a coping mechanism in crisis, and an effective way of deposing tyrants.
During the Rajapaksa family’s first stint in government, from 2005-2015, journalists who questioned the regime’s autocracy could be disappeared like cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, assassinated in broad daylight like iconic newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, or driven into exile, like Frederica Jansz who reported on then Defence Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa using the national airline to transport a puppy from Zurich. The white van abductions that followed dissenters became a meme in itself, though not a very funny one.
After the 2019 Easter Attacks, the Rajapaksas were voted back in by 6.9 million, (a figure featuring in many obvious punchlines), as populist strongmen who would keep Lanka safe from terror, and as technocrats who would deliver ‘vistas of prosperity.’ Many feared the Rajapakse’s would double down on stifling dissent, baiting minorities, robbing state coffers and piling up debt. Though something was different this time.
The unstable coalition government from 2015-2019, based on good governance or Yahapalanaya may not have delivered on a bulk of its promises, but it had restored free media and enabled free speech. Perhaps this emboldened Sri Lankans to poke fun at the regime they previously feared. The blatant nepotism, the tone deaf populism and the staggering incompetence were mocked by hit theatre shows like Feroze Kamardeen’s Puswedilla, the debt crisis was satirized by youtube sketch comedians Bloc & Dino and the day-to-day absurdity was made fun of by political cartoonists in broadsheets, opinionated morning radio hosts and hundreds of anonymous meme-makers on social media and messaging apps.
But just like behind the Sri Lankan smile, there lurks darkness and uncomfortable truths behind Sri Lankan laughter. Take Basil Rajapaksa, the youngest brother, reportedly the strategist and organizer behind the family’s electoral triumphs, He was also the finance minister who presided over the economic meltdown before being forced to resign with the first wave of the Aragalaya (Struggle) as the nationwide protests came to be known.
One of his last interviews was less concerned with the impending economic doom and more with the dangers of crows at Katunayake airport flying into airplanes. It didn’t help that Basil’s limited English vocabulary did not include the word ‘crow’ for he referred to them by their Sinhala name of ‘kaputas’ thus sealing his nickname and inspiring some of catchier chants of the Aragalaya, that rid the island of him and his brother the President.
But a depressing truth lay beyond the caricature. How could a man unable to say the word crow, be able to pronounce bigger words like debt restructuring, bridging finance and austerity measures, when negotiating with the IMF? Despite winning elections on waves of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, both Basil and Gota were US citizens, another joke without punchline. The slogan Go Home that galvanized the protests was both polite and ironic. Whichever country these dual citizens called home, neither would welcome them now.
The joke of ‘vistas of prosperity’ promised by the Rajapaksa’s as they racked up debt, has an earlier antecedent. In an oft-repeated, possibly apochryphal story, a young Lee Kwan Yu came to Ceylon in the 1950s, when the magnificent Changi airport was little more than a shack, and modelled his vision of a prosperous Singapore on the freshly independent island.
In the seven decades that followed, Singapore became a first world nation, while Sri Lanka went from planned economy to free market capitalism, importing more than it produced and squandering public funds on defence and political perks. The nation goes bankrupt, slowly and then suddenly, while building airports without planes, harbours without ships and constructing a Port City of the future on an economy built on borrowed time.
But despite all the self-inflicted tragedies, as all those who have visited and those who live here know, Sri Lanka is not a miserable place. Not yet at least. While Sri Lankans negotiate queues and rising prices and wait for the economic hitmen to save them, the jokes will continue to write themselves. As the popular phrase Nava Gilunath Ban Choon states, the band will keep playing while the ship sinks. The papare trumpets will blare while the team loses.
News Curry responds to queries through DM and is predictably coy about who they are and how many of them are there. ‘We are the voice of reason or treason, depending on who’s doing the laughing’ they say in an online exchange. ‘We are anonymous for security reasons and to prevent the state from having the last laugh.’
These days it is difficult to tell the difference between News Curry headlines and actual ones like ‘No more nepotism says Namal Rajapaksa’ nephew and son of two former Presidents. In the tough months ahead, Sri Lankans may draw strength from their ability to grin at tragedies and laugh at their fears. Though perhaps it is also time to get serious about reform and recovery. To elect a new generation of serious men and women with serious solutions. And to give the jokers a rest.