Colombo, December 8 (South Asian Monitor): As political uncertainty continues in Sri Lanka after President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26 plunging the country into a constitutional crisis, Sri Lankans hold divergent views and positions on the manner in which their leaders have behaved.
The takes of ordinary Sri Lankans—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims—vary from scathing remarks to total support for some of the principal political actors, including Sirisena and Rajapaksa who was ‘appointed’ as PM in place of Wickremesinghe.
The opinions of the people not only vary but also converge on specific issues of governance and yet most want their identity and livelihood intact as the political wrangling continues.
In her large bungalow in Colombo, Kumari paces the airy hall. She is angry. Very angry. She wants the president impeached. She thinks Mahinda Rajapaksa is a common criminal who did not hesitate to assassinate people who opposed him. “We are still waiting for justice to be done for the assassination carried out in broad daylight of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga,” she says.
Kumari, 42, considers the appointment of Rajapaksa as prime minister by President Maithripala Sirisena an abomination. Having voted for Sirisena in January 2015 she now feels cheated that Rajapaksa, who, she believes, should have been banished from politics, has been brought in through the backdoor. She wants Sri Lankan democracy rescued. And she is an active participant in doing so.
Kumari has three houses she rents to tourists and has agricultural land in several locations. Her relatives are in the highest echelons of business. She is worried about the economic impact of the current political crisis. She is active on social media and does not shy away from voicing her thoughts in public domain, in English, the language she is more fluent in than Sinhalese, her mother tongue. She is among Colombo’s elite who are diehard opponents of Rajapaksa, and they believe that the country will be thrown to anarchy should he continue to remain PM.
Driving his three-wheeler in the vicinity of Colombo, Arulraj is a 29-year-old from the quaint suburb of Kotahena, about 5 kms from the city centre. The main breadwinner in a family of five, he lost his job eight months ago when the import firm he worked for, closed down 14 of its 15 branches across Sri Lanka. Educated up to A-level and having done several computer and technical courses, Arulraj, a Tamil, speaks quite fluent Sinhalese and a smattering of English which he says he is trying to improve. Having worked hard at his job as a sales executive, he had saved diligently to buy a three-wheeler, to drive his aged parents to the kovil for daily morning pooja. He had never thought he will have to use it to earn a livelihood. Arulraj prefers not to comment on the ethnic conflict and the post-war arguments surrounding it, saying only that he and his family were born and brought up in Colombo.
“My former boss started his business about 20 years ago and was doing well. My former colleagues are not Rajapaksa supporters. They are UNPers. They had grand hopes that in 2015 the country would develop, that the unemployed would get jobs and our company will prosper. Instead, the tax schemes introduced by the UNP led government ran the company aground,” Arulraj says.
While Arulraj is not a Rajapaksa supporter, he still considers the ex-president a “strong leader”. He does not think of Rajapaksa as a criminal or dictator. He believes that Rajapaksa may have committed “excesses” but blames it all on his brothers and children. Arulraj does not quite grasp the complex constitutional arguments and counter-arguments related to the dissolution of parliament and presidential powers that are a part of the 19th amendment. But he has long ceased to be a Sirisena supporter and accuses him of throwing the country into “a mess”.
“On a lucky day I earn Rs 2,000 (about $15). But now, with the economy in trouble, people hesitate many times before taking a ride on a three-wheeler and instead prefer a bus. We ration food at home so that all could get to eat at least twice a day,” Arulraj says.
In Ratmalana, another Colombo suburb, 65-year-old Kusumawathie is on her way to work and struggles to get a foothold in a bus packed to capacity. Age is catching up with her and her arthritis has become more painful over the years. She has worked as a janitor in hospitals and universities for much of her youth. For the past 15 years, she is employed in a rich Colombo household but she also doubles up as a helps at an elite clothing store.
Kusumawathie earns Rs 20,000 a month and occasionally takes home delicacies made at her employer’s place. She has three children who are self-employed. Her two daughters stitch garments and curtains for richer households and the son is a mechanic in Dubai. She works because she wants to contribute to the education of her four grandchildren and dreams of one day sending them to “universities abroad”. She recalls that she did not turn up for work on January 9, 2015, when Rajapaksa lost his presidency. It was an “unofficial mourning day” for her. She considers Rajapaksa a national hero who understands the common man. Kusumawathie is aware that there is a stay order on Rajapaksa’s premiership but she believes that it is a matter of time before the Rajapaksas return to power through elections.
Ganeshan, a 49-year-old lawyer who specialises in company law, lives and works out of his modest office in Wellawatte, another Colombo suburb, and enclave for Northern Tamils. Ganeshan moved to Colombo in 2005 during the last stages of the peace process between the LTTE and the government. Earlier, as a resident of Jaffna, he had lived under the shadows of LTTE, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the Sri Lankan army. According to Ganeshan, when he moved to Colombo, he carried with him the LTTE propaganda that “all Sinhalese are killers of Tamils”. “We were forced into believing this,” Ganeshan said, drawing a parallel with the fears expressed in the current political sphere.
His views are in sharp contrast to the general opinion among Northern Tamils but he emphases that many of his brethren “are beginning to see the political choices they are faced with, in a different light”.
Ganeshan opines: “Rajapaksa won the war against the LTTE. But we must remember that soon after he became president in 2005, he offered peace to Prabhakaran. Many Tamils have always voted for the UNP, expecting great things. In 2015, the Tamils wanted a permanent solution to our issues through a new constitution and the LTTE suspects who were held without being charged to be released and the Northern territory freed from the army’s occupation. Besides, we expected development initiatives. But the reality is we did not get anything. Not even what we got under Rajapaksa”.
While refusing to discuss issues related to the Constitution, Ganeshan considers the many viewpoints on Sirisena’s move to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointing Rajapska as PM. Taking a conciliatory stand on the alleged excesses that were committed during Rajapaksa’s tenure and when Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was defence secretary, Ganeshan says, “we must understand the context”.
“Under Rajapaksa we at least knew what we could get or not. No fancy promises were made. He took on the LTTE and it is fanciful for us Tamils to expect him to be generous towards us. But we should work within what we can expect from him which will be distinctly more from what we can get from anyone else,” Ganeshan states, adding that he expects Rajapaksa and his party, SLPP, to win a parliamentary election and believes that if permanent peace were to be achieved in Sri Lanka, the Tamils must strategise how to engage with the Sinhalese without alienating them.
Thirty-year-old Ramesh, who lives in Colombo but travels often on business to the North, vehemently disagrees with Ganeshan’s view of Rajapaksa. He maintains that the harassment of Tamils in Jaffna began soon after Rajapaksa was appointed PM on October 26. “The media does not report everything. Hordes of ‘Sinhalese Rajapaksa tourists’ from South are now visiting the North, buying things from shops and not paying and behaving in a rude and insulting manner. The mysterious sword-wielding Avaa group that was active in 2014 is back in action and it is believed that elements of the army are behind this, emboldened by Rajapaksas’ return,” charges Ramesh.
“The people in the North are fearful, as it was when Rajapaksa was President. At least the UNP-led regime allowed the people to vent their frustration and anger against the government. People did not have to fear white vans,” Ramesh says.
In central Colombo, Sampath, a 34-four-year-old human rights activist is busy on social media, requesting people to take part in a peaceful quest to reinstate the UNP government. He is affiliated to a foreign NGO. A passionate believer in human rights and equality, Sampath says that Sirisena acted against the Constitution by appointing Rajapaksa as PM. According to him, for other countries to exercise non-interference, Sri Lanka should ensure it does not give them any opportunity to interfere.
“Working for an international NGO is my job. It is seen as a crime by Rajapaksa’s camp followers. We are not robbing people. We are doing legitimate work. Patriotic Sri Lankans work in NGOs and our promotion of democracy is not part of our work. There are NGOs connected to agriculture, animal rights, environment etc. I work for an NGO promoting environmental protection. My choice of working for the promotion of democracy has nothing to do with my NGO work. I am doing striving to protect democracy as a duty I am obliged to do for my country,” points out Sampath, who is originally from Kandy but now lives in Colombo.
Aslam, a 58-year-old cab driver fears an assault on Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority if “the Rajapaksas come home to roost”. He speaks of isolated incidents in which goons stoned several Muslim houses in Kandy soon after Rajapaksa was appointed PM.
“It is a fear that will not go away easily. He is a man that the Muslims were once close to until the anti-Muslim Aluthgama riots in 2014. There have been attempts to patch up and erase that memory and some Muslims hope that things will be different now, though old fears and wounds remain,” says Aslam, who travels across the country working for a reputed cab service. “The economy is in shambles. My hires have come down drastically. But what can we do? Three of my children are settled in life but I have another school-going daughter and my responsibilities are not over. We hope for wise leadership,” Aslam says.
(The featured image at the top shows from left to right: Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena, and Mahinda Rajapaksa)