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How bad is the crisis for Mahinda Rajapaksa?


“Although certain foreign powers have attempted to conspire against and oust me from the presidency, I will not leave this position before completing my duties” – President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Ada Derana Online / February 19, 2012 01:27 am)
That perhaps is the easiest of the answers possible for any Head of State under pressure from his own people who voted him to power and from the international community, to explain his own dilemma.
The Resolution proposed to the UN Human Rights Council’s19 Session will pressure the Rajapaksa regime to honour it’s own Commission’s Recommendations, while Chilaw now, after Katunayake FTZ workers’ agitations on May 24 and 30 last year, followed by local vendors and rural farmer protests against plastic container rule, turns a wholly new militant page on protests against this Rajapaksa regime, albeit glib talk about foreign conspiracies. Anthony Fernando from “Wella” fishing village, a protester in Chilaw died of police shooting on Tuesday while three others were critically injured. These protests were very militant and continued for six consecutive days and still continues, despite the top leadership of the Catholic Church wanting to pacify its parishioners along the coast.
One day before Anthony’s funeral, a joint Opposition call for a protest in the Fort on Friday afternoon had more numbers and militancy than there was before. The UNP was not very effective with previous protests. By late afternoon, this protest gathered momentum to sustain itself much longer than the UNP wanted it to be, even after police tear gasing. The protests are definitely growing and growing militant too. Shocking price increases in all fuels, electricity and gas that provoked a private bus owner strike and a fare hike as well within just 03 days, have shaken the people out of their “patriotic slumber”.

Certainly not world prices
This price hike was not provoked by any significant price increases of fuel, in the global market. The maximum price this same regime stubbornly stuck to, despite a Supreme Court order, was Rs. 125 per litre of petrol and Rs. 76 per litre of diesel, when a barrel of crude oil in the world market was around USD 145. That was despite all the wheeler dealing with the infamous hedging in petroleum was being talked of. In October 2011 when the government increased prices to Rs. 137 per litre of petrol, Rs. 84 per litre of diesel and kerosene to Rs. 73 per litre, the price had dropped to between USD 82-87 per barrel of crude oil, from its previous USD 145 per barrel. This time round, the world price of a barrel of crude oil was around USD 93-97 when this sudden huge increase in fuel prices were announced.

The Iranian embargo does not seem an urgent reason for the present increase either. One major reason for such increase is in the depreciation of the SL Rupee from 110 to a US Dollar, to 121 per Dollar and expected to keep falling. It effects all goods transport and bakery and confectionery products too, with bread already hiked. All imports to the country from wheat to sugar to the Berri Apple in Super markets will now be on the hit list. Despite what Cabral had been saying and now says, the forced reinforcement of the Rupee value at the expense of reserves, became impossible to continue with. The economy is in to a dizzy spin and lets be clear on this too. Its neither Cabral at the Central Bank nor Jayasundera at the Treasury that has to take responsibility to this chaos. Its President Rajapaksa, both as head of the government and as its Finance minister, who has to take total responsibility.
Locally, no subsidies given to agitating social sectors can hold the prices down to bearable level. Subsidies given to any sector is an economic burden to all others. On a reverse argument, if the government can afford subsidies to so many sectors, then there was no reason for such punching price hikes. Though ordinary citizens will not be able to understand and explain these economic moves, common sense and past experience tell them, their earned income would no more sustain their families for 30 days even at the lowest standards of consumption. That they can not now harvest fish nor engage in livelihood practices as before. Well if MPs can not live on 90,000 plus and plus rupees, how would a worker, leave alone his family, survive 30 days with a minimum wage of 6,900 plus 1,000 rupee budgetary allowance ? Buying power shrinks. So are markets then.

String of protests with more on the cards
This comes in the wake of many protests triggered by the first joint protests by the Joint Trade Union Alliance over the private sector “Employees’ Pension Fund” Bill, brought to parliament. A well organised protest, especially in the FTZs, shattered the myth that this regime can never be challenged with its “Gulliverian” majority in parliament. Two thirds majority in parliament could do nothing and the government folded its Bill, accepting defeat at the hands of organised labour.
These workers played catalyst in protests that next provoked vegetable and fruit vendors, farmers in North Central Province and traders in Pettah to stage protests against the regulations that barred transport of perishables in gunny bags. The government was once again forced to back down. The regulation was basically withdrawn,with the government saying it is operative but not enforced.

The “Z” score then exploded as an issue that shook the urban and the rural middle class. Their remaining faith in free education as a vehicle of social mobility for their children, was rudely shattered. Protests were nevertheless short. They did not get into militant street agitations as the other previous protests. The middle class seldom gets into such militant moods and the Teachers’ Unions themselves were not capable of leading effective protests. The government is thus happy they went to Hulftsdorp instead. But, its the faith, the loyalty the Sinhala middle class pinned on this regime that seriously eroded, with the “Z” score mess.
Breach of trust and the Sinhala support
All of it keep the people agitated and questioning the very integrity of the leader they thought was patriotic enough to take care of them. They now feel the heat on them, not only with the increasing burden of CoL, but also in not having a judiciary they could eventually go to, for justice. In seeing police stations being attacked by locals for custodial killings and seeing police being accused for contract killings and rampant corruption. They see arrogance of power around them and against them.

All of it keep the Sinhala society experiencing the taste of police and military crackdowns in their most ruthless fashion. Its not what this Sinhala society thought would be their share of the “peace dividend” two and a half years after the war. A war, they willingly accepted with very patriotic rhetoric. That breach of trust is what actually challenges this regime. It is that collective feeling of being cheated, which adds to the already growing crisis in society. It is thus the very support base that is now going into a collision course with the regime.

Adding onto pressure overseas
With such social suspicion and pressure within the Sinhala society itself, the international campaign on war crimes and accountability gains strength. The US initiated Resolution to the 19 Session of the UNHRC now on in Geneva, calls for a clear time frame in implementing the LLRC Recommendations. The Resolution concludes by saying,

Expressing concern that the LLRC report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law, and expressing serious disappointment that the Government of Sri Lanka has not fulfilled its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations,
  1. Calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations in the LLRC report and additionally to take immediate steps to fulfill its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to address serious allegations of violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations,
  2. Requests that the Government of Sri Lanka present a comprehensive action plan before the 20th session of the Human Rights Council detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations and also to address alleged violations of international law,
  3. Encourages the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special mandate holders to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps.

While India is not where it was, in completely safeguarding the “little brother” next door, the US initiated Resolution has not diluted the war crimes and accountability issues, in raising the need to have the LLRC recommendations. The regime was certainly being pressured all through last 02 years to come down from where they were, despite Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s a-political interfering in political decisions.

The Rajapaksas feel the heat no doubt, with its Sinhala political base also cracking up and unexpectedly fast too, at that. But where it faults once again is, in its cheap political gimmicks by playing to the local Sinhala society. The government is now playing on this international intervention to deflect protests against fuel hikes and demands for wage hikes. Its a futile attempt to distract social pressure with anti imperialist rhetoric any more. Sure the government could transport a few thousands to Colombo to carry pro government slogans, still. Mubarak and Gadaffi had such crowds till the last minute of their departure.

But, it is difficult for any government to hold itself firm in international forums, when it is being questioned and challenged at home on its performance and delivery. A government that has to use brute force in wading off growing protests, keep the military deployed at every funeral that would not be just funerals but also people’s protests against injustice, a government that has to explain killing of protesters and with a continued trend in abductions and extra judicial killings, can not stand in front of international questioning of its democracy, as comfortable as it did, during pre war time.

All of them put together, the tide seem changing. The never corroding trust, the loyalty the Rajapaksas thought they have among the Sinhala people, is being breached over and over again and more brutally every time the people come out in protests. The economy seems beyond repair, despite foreign funding, that too comes with strings attached. International pressure is getting close to throttling distance. The Opposition parties have come to ride the wave of people’s protests in an effort to keep their place in opposition politics. The question nevertheless is, with no answers at hand, how will this Rajapaksa regime pacify its own Sinhala vote bank ?

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