Amid shortages of even essential goods and runaway inflation, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s image has taken a solid beating, writes P. Jayaram for South Asia Monitor
A day before New Year eve, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was returning to his suburban Mirihana home, having wound up his day’s work at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. As his convoy approached Mirihana, the President noticed a long queue of restless people outside a store bearing the nameboard Ariya Milk to buy milk powder.
As the President, widely referred to as Gota, lowered the glass of his car for a better look, someone from the crowd shouted “Dan sapada?” (“Are you happy now?”) That is a Sinhala phrase made popular by his older brother and former President and incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to taunt those who voted out his government in 2015.
Even as a shocked President rolled up the window, others in the queue booed and heckled, a public humiliation for a strongman who had stormed to power in November 2019 promising “vistas of splendour and prosperity”.
According to locals, within half an hour after the incident, a posse of about 100 policemen led by a senior officer descended on the spot, forcibly dispersed those standing in the queue, and sealed the store. The police denied media reports that the dairy store was sealed and said they had only intervened to ensure a more efficient system of distributing milk products.
The above incident provides an insight into the grave economic crisis in the island nation of 22 million people that has taken the sheen off Gotbaya’s built-up image as a leader who can do no wrong. The irony is that this is happening in a country that was once a model of development, having been the first in South Asia to embrace market liberalization way back in 1977 under then-president J.R. Jayawardene and was often compared to Singapore, making it an unfolding Shakespearean tragedy.
Gotabaya, who, as Defence Secretary in brother Mahinda’s government, is credited with crushing the violent separatist campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, stormed to power two years ago, riding on a tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist fervour.
But inept handling of the economy, agriculture, trade and various other facets of the national life has virtually reduced him to what a Colombo watcher described as a “paper tiger”.
Mounting mass anger
The unaffordable prices of even vegetables – the humble beans, for instance, now sells at Rs 700 a kg in Colombo markets – and the long queues outside shops even for daily essentials like milk powder across the country are reminiscent of the infamous bread queues outside bakeries during the ultra-socialist regime of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, says Colombo resident Ananda de Silva (name changed).
“As a 13-year-old then, it was my job to get the bread and that meant standing in the queue from 3 am to 6 when the shop opened,” he recalled. “They were tough times. There were cases of someone being stabbed for merely jumping the queue. We seem to be heading in that direction,” he moaned.
The news about the President being heckled near Mirihana spread like wildfire, particularly on social media. One wit quickly identified on Google Map the exact spot where the incident took place and posted a screenshot, flagging it as “Jubilee Post where ‘Sir’ was hooted.”
It went viral and provided a rare occasion for humour and burst of laughter in an otherwise bleak scenario because the word “hooted” in Sinhala is a double entendre with sexual connotations. Referring to Gotabaya with the sarcastic “Sir” was apparently borrowed from opposition parliamentarians’ refrain that “Sir has failed”.
Rajapaksas get hit
The President has not been the only target of the public. His nephew and Sports Minister Nimal Rajapaksa was similarly heckled when he presented awards to winners of the Lanka Premier League T20 tournament last month at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium in their home constituency of Hambantota.
At least two other ministers reportedly left restaurants in a huff, their dinner half-finished, after other diners heckled them, according to accounts in the social media. These reports have not been independently verified but public anger over shortages and price hikes has been spilling onto the streets across the country.
Long queues to buy LP gas, milk powder, sugar and lentils have become a daily scene from Dondra in the south to Point Pedro in the north and Ampara in the east to Kalpitiya in the west. Departmental stores have started their own food rationing. Each customer can buy only one kg each of milk powder, sugar and lentils and five kg of rice at a time.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has been trolled on social media after TV channels showed pictures of him bathing a stone idol with milk during a recent visit to the famous Tirupati temple in India, at a time when children of his country have to go without milk. Many angrily pointed out that he had gone on the pilgrimage with his family in a private jet even while exhorting the locals to tighten their belts.
Perhaps, it is Gotabaya’s organic fertilizer drive that has drawn the fiercest criticism and united the farmers and rural communities, who were largely responsible for bringing him to power. Widespread crop failure due to an ill-thought-out ban on the use of chemical fertilizers and skyrocketing vegetable prices that are pinching even the rich is testing the patience of the public.
With mounting public anger and the spectre of an acute food shortage looming, the government revoked the ban on the use of agrochemicals in November. But importers are unable to place orders for chemical fertilizers and herbicides because commercial banks have no dollars.
In fact, the scenario is so gloomy that Agriculture Secretary, Prof. Udit Jayasinghe, at a media interaction, spoke about the need for a formal food rationing scheme to avoid famine that would plunge weaker sections, pregnant women, the sick and elderly into starvation.
Instead of heeding his advice, Gotabaya promptly sacked the official within hours.
Sri Lanka’s Central Bank had in April 2019 imposed a ban on most imports in the face of a worsening balance of payments crisis. The country’s reserves of $7.5 billion when Gotabaya assumed office has dwindled to $1.5 billion. The government blames the unprecedented foreign exchange crisis on the loss of tourism and drop in foreign remittances from workers due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of the Central Bank’s regulations to shore up foreign reserves have backfired and led to a thriving black market, where the dollar is trading at about Rs. 250 against the official buying rate of Rs.190. Another recent directive by the bank to all exporters to convert their foreign exchange to rupees has led many to park their money abroad.
A series of LPG cylinder explosions reported in recent months from across the island that claimed at least seven lives, wounded many and damaged or destroyed houses and wayside shops were attributed to the state-run gas company changing the composition of the gas to save money.
“Gota managed to do what even Prabhakaran failed to do, that is to send a bomb to each house,” said a social media post, referring to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, known for his trademark suicide bomb attacks before he was killed in May 2009.
After public interest litigation, the gas company has begun to supply better quality LPG to the consumers, but supplies remain disrupted due to lack of foreign exchange to import gas.
With his image taking a severe beating, a seemingly chastened Gotabaya admitted at a year-end interaction with local editors that his strategy of placing technocrats in key positions might have failed and that politicians who were close to people at the grassroots would have been a better choice.
Whether the President’s change of tack would help him refurbish his image and help lift the island from the economic morass, only the coming months will tell.
(The writer, a veteran journalist who was posted in Colombo for 14 years in the 1980s-90s, is currently Visiting Professor at Amrita University, Coimbatore, India. The views expressed are personal.)