In Sri Lanka, divisions don’t add up

The island nation’s rival identities fade away as protesters unite against leaders who play only to society’s differences.

Sri Lanka's national flag is reflected in the sunglasses of a protester in Colombo during an April 28 nationwide strike against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Political protests often shift from what people are against to what they are for. That process may now be underway in Sri Lanka. The island nation off the tip of India has been caught in its deepest economic crisis since independence in 1948. That has sparked a sustained nationwide movement seeking to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his Cabinet, and the entire legislature.

Yet as protesters defy curfews and fend off police cannons, their frustrations over acute shortages of food and fuel have turned toward their deeper aspiration: a society united by democratic values rather than divided by rival identities.

One protest placard put it succinctly to elected leaders: “You divided us to come to power. Now we are uniting to send you home.”

Divisions run deep in Sri Lanka. The country has a long history of ethnic and religious strife. But now as the protests go on, Christians and Muslims, Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil nationalists, students and professionals, farmers and teachers, are finding common cause. In early April, a large group of them held a “people’s parliament.” That was followed by a “people’s university” on social media to encourage “diversity, inclusion, and equality to uphold social justice through knowledge sharing.” One group of protesters set up tent camp near the presidential residence to remind Mr. Rajapaksa daily that they seek a new government. Local bakeries and restaurants responded by bringing them food and water.

“Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, and the anger it generated, has given rise to a protest movement that is so large, so sustained, and so widespread that it can be called a nonviolent people’s uprising,” Alan Keenan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. “The country has never seen such a nationwide movement involving all communities.”

There is no single cause for Sri Lanka’s current crisis. The country endured a 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists. Since 2005 its politics have been dominated by a single family whose rule has been marked by corruption, economic mismanagement, and violence.

It has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 110% and an inflation rate of more than 20%. The government is currently in talks with a range of creditors – including China, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – to restructure portions of its overall $51 billion in external debt. When the pandemic struck, the public was already at a breaking point.

In what may be the clearest sign yet that the demonstrations are having an effect, Mr. Rajapaksa offered a rare apology last week. “Today people are under immense pressure due to this economic crisis. I deeply regret this situation,” he said during the first meeting of his new Cabinet on April 19. He exhorted his ministers to avoid exploiting their offices for personal gain. “We must always tell the truth to the people. There is no point in hiding the reality from the people.”

In Sri Lanka, presidential contrition is as unprecedented as the country’s current crisis. The people may doubt his sincerity, but it is a confirmation of what they are discovering – that democracy and its institutions derive their strength and authority from the shared purpose of a united citizenry.

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