I’ve just returned from an unsettling trip to Sri Lanka. The country has run of of fuel, electricity and dollars. Some places suffer power cuts of upto 13 hours a day. The Rupee has been devalued by 80%. Food price inflation is running at 30%. Fuel prices have doubled. Everyone is affected. Hundreds of thousands are on the street every day, protesting.
I’ve hung out with many protest groups in my time. I remember the Occupy movement where young people with impressive beards camped out in city centres (There were no grown ups involved since they had jobs to go to). I forget what the young people were trying to accomplish, but the movement ran out of steam when everyone got too stoned to remember the second verse to Kumbaya.
The Sri Lankan protests are different – everyone is on the streets, from children, to parents and grandparents. Tuk Tuk drivers and their passengers, priests and sinners, bankers, doctors and lawyers – they are all out protesting. While I was there a crowd gathered to sing a chorus of the Angry Man from Les Miserables. This was life imitating art – the French Revolution channeled through London’s West End.
The focus of their ire is the Rajapaksa family who have run the country on and off for a couple of decades. The President, the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and a full third of the cabinet were, until recently members of the immediate family (the entire cabinet has since resigned). The Family controls all branches of government so that they are no longer distinct branches, but a single organism dedicated to spending other people’s money. It’s an organism like the large intestine; you can’t tell where the intestine ends and the asshole begins.
The Family ended a long running war which was a good thing. They were corrupt which is a bad thing, but people still voted for them because the alternative was worse, which was a really messed up thing. Then their pyramid scheme blew up. Now everyone is screwed.
Thinking on their feet the Family came up with a creative scheme to save money and the environment. The use and import of chemical fertilisers was banned – overnight. It could have been a brilliant idea, if it weren’t stupid. Farmers were told to switch to cow manure, but they soon ran out. And despite the best efforts of politicians, there just wasn’t enough shit to go around.
The crops failed and the people literally ran out of food. The Family did the sensible thing and checked in en masse to the Shangri La hotel which has a lovely buffet breakfast. They couldn’t actually go home because their homes were surrounded by protestors.
Looking for a place to have dinner I gave the Shangri La a wide berth and popped into the home of a former prime minister. Tintagel, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s former home, is now a boutique hotel and restaurant. He was shot to death in his driveway – the security guard can show you the exact spot so you can pose for a selfie. Politics has always been a deadly business here. I wined (off of a depleted list – the country is also running out of wine) and dined with some of the country’s best and brightest.
The best and brightest want the Family out of politics. But it is unclear what should happen next. There’s talk of a unity government where people who hate each other kiss in public (no tongues), and make nice until they can figure out how to stab each other in the back. It doesn’t sound very hopeful but that’s about all the best and brightest can come up with.
However the power struggle ends, the country faces a difficult future. Money has been squandered, yet debts have to be repaid. And in the background is the ever-present possibility of violence. The Family have no intention of giving up power tamely.
As I write this, localised violence has broken out. It is unclear who remains in the cabinet or if there even is one. The Prime Minister has finally quit and has been flown out of Colombo for his own safety. One expects him to pop up in a sunny tax haven. The President – target of much of the anger, refuses to go. There are troops on the streets. My niece is navigating military roadblocks to get to her AS Level exams which are continuing at the British Council.
Popular protests in the modern era, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square have rarely ended well. I hope this one ends better. My friends and family are protesting. I am with them.