ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is heading for a perfect storm around the end of the year as political and community opposition to the government rises amid looming food and fuel shortages.
Just in the past few days there have been more significant protest campaigns that should worry the government.
Hundreds of Catholics, including many priests and nuns lined the road leading to the Supreme Court on Nov 8 as a petition filed by Rev Cyril Gamini Fernando, a spokesman for the Catholic church calling on the apex court to prevent his arrest by the Criminal Investigation Department was heard. The protestors who were joined by some members of the Buddhist Clergy as well, did not shout slogans or hold placards. Instead, some silently prayed the Rosary.
Fr Cyril Gamini, as he is popularly known, had earned ire of the head of the State Intelligence Service Major General Suresh Salley by raising the question of how the intelligence agencies could have been unaware of the existence of the National Towheed Jamaat and its leader Mohammed Zaharan. He was participating in a webinar along with Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith on Oct 24 hosted by a group of Sri Lankan expatriates based in Australia. This group is among many that have formed overseas by concerned Sri Lankan Catholics calling for justice for the Easter Sunday attacks.
Maj Gen Salley complained that he had been defamed by this comment and called for an investigationalleging that the priest had endangered national security and incited communal disharmony. He could have been charged under the Sri Lankan Law modelled on the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The law has been abused by the Sri Lanka police in prosecuting several people including a Sinhala short story writer in the Kurunegala area and a Tamil language poet from Kattankudy.
Links between the intelligence services and Zaharan have been spoken of before. Prof Rajan Hoole in his book on the Easter Tragedy enumerated the many times Zaharan had been arrested but had been released due to pressure from the Security Forces. Several cabinet ministers have spoken about it and former Army Commander and Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Sarath Fonseka gave more details in a speech in Parliament.
The Supreme Court ruled in Fr Cyril Gamini’s favor and the Attorney General’s Department pledged that the priest would not be arrested.
The following day saw a mass protest, a raucous parade of several thousand angry people from the Negombo area, a predominantly Catholic region of the island. They were calling for justice for the Easter Sunday attacks as well as protesting a government move to acquire and sell lands around the Negombo lagoon. The lands are within the Muthurajawela wet zone protected under the Ramsar treaty.Many people said they would lose their property if the government goes ahead and acquires their lands. The protest shut down the Negombo urban area and the police did not intervene. The protestors were joined by members of the Catholic clergy from parishes in the area.
The Catholic Church’s demand that the investigations into the Easter attack reveal who was the mastermind behind the blasts that killed some 260 people is gathering strength. The Church has shown it is unstoppable and is willing to fight for answers. Cardinal Ranjith has openly expressed his anger and disappointment against the government for failing to come up with answers to questions his congregationhas raised.
The Cardinal who was seen as leaning towards the Rajapaksas in the past has stood firm with his congregation on this issue. Fr Cyril Gamini is the public face of the protest and has been addressing concerned Catholic groups that are agitating for answers.
In the meantime, many famers’ groups worried about low yields after the government abruptly stopped the import of artificial fertilizer have continued to protest against the government, burning effigies of Agriculture Minister Mahindanda Aluthgamage and staging demonstrations in many areas.
The country’s teachers and Principals are also on the warpath after promised salary revisions were not granted to their protest. In early November teachers and principals in the Mawanella area surrounded a local police station alleging that the police had failed to arrest a governing party local councilor who had assaulted protesting teachers and parents.
And now riding on this wave of anti-government feeling the main opposition SJB wants to organize mass protests led by farmers next week on Nov 16. SJB MP Dr Harsha de Silva was quoted as saying “anyone” can join.
Inside the government the eleven smaller parties in the coalition have been making meek sounds of protest as well. These parties which include the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Wimal Weerawansha’s National Freedom Front and Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya have tried to form a caucus within the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna alliance. Although they have had several meetings with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to address their concerns, they are yet to leave the government or appear to reconcile.
The SLFP has been complaining of poor treatment by the leaders of the government and the SLPP General Secretary Sagala Kariyawasam told reporters that the smaller parties could leave the government if they wished to. While most of the dissidents are not raising their voice too high veteran Communist Party Member D E W Gunesekara called the current Cabinet the worst he has ever seen and “a bunch of buffaloes.” He also said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a “scarecrow” using a Sinhala term that can also mean he is without life.
Prime Minister Mahinda, however, seems to be more in touch with the feelings of the SLPP’s constituency. At the party convention held last week he upbraided the SLPP members for not being in touch with constituents. “We have to do politics with the farmers, teachers and others,” he said.
Coming up shortly of course are the Budget proposals. Most Sri Lankans are hoping there will be some relief for them from the rising cost of living and lack of jobs. But Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has not been promising anything. Most likely the government may go ahead with cutting government pensions and other measures to pull the government out of its financial woes.
With rising protests, embarrassing questions over the Easter Sunday attacksand a perception among the ordinary people that the government is inept, the ingredients are there for a perfect storm.