Dr. Jehan Perera opines that the government is ignoring the people’s wishes

A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it seems to be no more. What now appears on the streets from time to time is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from the north and south, who occupied the main roads of the commercial capital for more than three months last year.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is leaving no room for people to occupy the streets again through a combination of efficient and strong-arm policies that exceed those of the previous regime.

The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought people out onto the streets. Crippling shortages of fuel and gas that resulted in kilometre long queues are not to be seen today. And the receipt of the first instalment of the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) has eased the foreign exchange crisis significantly.

There is now enough to go around especially as the demand for basic commodities has dropped considerably due to price increases. And there’s an outward appearance of normalcy for the segments of society that are financially better off.

However, this belies the economic difficulties that many are still facing.

The government has also shown that it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. Wickremesinghe has displayed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders.

Protestors have been warned that their protests shouldn’t inconvenience the general public. And those who don’t heed police guidelines have found themselves being teargassed, baton charged and arrested.

Unlike the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be suppressed. And the contrast with what happened last year couldn’t be starker. The main call of the aragalaya was to arrest those who bankrupted the country and compel them to return their allegedly ill-gotten gains.

The Anti-Terrorism Bill, which has been approved by the cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act, is in many ways a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life.

Clause 105 defines a person who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, an organisation or a body of persons. Readers of George Orwell’s 1984 – a classic novel about an authoritarian government – will feel a chill when they think of protesting against the government if this new law is passed.

A key demand of the protest movement last year was the call for system change. At its core was a desperate need to remove the government that had bankrupted Sri Lanka. Citizens also wanted accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished Sri Lankans by their mismanagement, bad governance, corruption and indifference to the plight of the people.

However, most of the members who were leaders in the previous regime continue to remain in positions of power. And allegations of corruption and abuse of power continue.

Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failures of its government in early 2022, which plunged it from a middle to low income country. When people called for a system change, they were demanding that the government steps down and go.

But it didn’t go and instead, rearranged itself to remain in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to evict has grown stronger under the leadership of Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for system change.

The president has also announced that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia.

As pointed out by corruption watchdogs and civil society organisations such as Verité Research and Transparency International, the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka stems from a failure of governance.

It’s not only due to a shortage of finances that can be overcome with international assistance or debt relief measures. The crisis was caused by a breakdown of governance practices coupled with the entrenchment of high levels of corruption.

A sustainable economic recovery will require actions that address corruption. The International Monetary Fund has also recognised that corruption vulnerabilities can stand in the way of economic recovery.

The willingness to take on the issue of corruption needs to be coupled with consultation and feedback from civil society watchdogs, to guide the government towards economic decision making that’s not undermined by self-interest and dishonesty.