Last week the Government unleashed a brutal attack on a student demonstration organised by the Inter University Students Federation at the Colombo University. The protests which were organised by students from universities across the island were attacked by police and military personnel. The police used water cannons and tear gas against the protesters and pursued them inside the Colombo University premises to attack them.
Students attending lectures, schoolchildren in neighbouring schools and those who were in school vans were affected by the attack. These attacks come amidst growing agitation among students and trade unions against the current administration. The heavy-handed manner in which protests, and dissent have been handled will only fuel further violence.
It is but natural that there is palpable frustration among suffering people. Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis that is no fault of the public. The country is in this situation due to the actions of a few. Disastrous economic policies since the end of 2019 and system-wide corruption have led to this situation. Neither those who orchestrated this crisis due to poor decision making nor the corrupt who exacerbated the crisis have been held accountable. Instead, they are continuing to hold high office and continue with their plunder of the country. It is in this backdrop that the public are made to pay a heavy price in the name of economic recovery. Many millions have been dragged into poverty, their savings losing value, salaries paying for less amount of goods and services while at the same time numerous taxes being imposed and the cost-of-living skyrocketing.
Under these circumstances it is but natural the masses are feeling angry and frustrated. As Sri Lanka prepares to enter into an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a package of $ 2.9 billion, they must be aware of the economic decisions that are taken on their behalf. As the public bear the brunt of the economic burden due to the colossal mismanagement they must at the very least be aware of the conditions they will be subjected to due to international agreements.
Even during the 30-year civil war Sri Lanka held regular elections and allowed for peaceful transition of power. During these times of actual anarchy and breakdown of civil administration in most parts of the island and economic stability was the least of the problems of the State, Sri Lanka managed to maintain its democracy by holding elections on time. By doing so successive governments maintained a sense of legitimacy and avoided outright breakdown of the State.
The Government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe lacks a popular mandate to govern and he himself is an unelected leader. The administration has its legitimacy and credibility hanging on its ability to secure a meaningful path towards recovery from the current economic crisis. The Government owes a duty to the electorate to keep them informed and allow for the voices of the people to be heard.
By stifling the people’s voice, the Government is exacerbating the crisis. Denying the democratic space for expression, through the heavy-handed suppression of protests and free speech coupled with the postponement of elections, have ensured that the space for democratic expression of the people will be further curtailed. This would no doubt lead to heightened crises which can dangerously morph into uncontrollable violence.
FT 13 March