There is no safety net for the poor of Sri Lanka, says Arthanayake (Phot by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
When does a person become rich enough to declare that they have all that they need and require no further material enhancement? What happens when the layer below the most powerful declares that they too have been blessed with riches beyond their wildest dreams and are happy with the houses and paintings they have? On the third tier of the wealth pyramid, those who do not wish to emulate those above them in tier one and two, also consider themselves content with their lot in life and begin to relax into their relative opulence.
And so it cascades as money trickles down and those who require the very best in goods and services have a well-paid workforce who can supply those needs.
But what if it is never enough for those at the very top and that ravenous need for enrichment only grows more demanding? What if greed takes hold to such a degree that no amount of money will satisfy its cravings? Then, of course, there are a legion of acolytes who desire a bigger slice of the cake to ensure their loyalty to the ultimate power brokers.
What if that greed is emboldened and enabled by political power and the ability to feather the nest from the coffers of foreign entities? Then, take into account the ‘crony capitalists’ who wish to ensure that the gravy train keeps running – but stops at fewer stations.
They want even lower taxes for themselves and their businesses even though they are best placed to pay a fairer percentage of their vast earnings into the public pot. Perhaps this new rapacious system turns what was once a sovereign state into a family business that is created to enrich one family while trading percentages for obedience with an army of hangers on.
What if members of that family systematically begin to remould the institutions that were designed to ensure political independence and freedom of expression in order to cling onto power. Journalists are intimidated, killed and some simply disappear.
The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption has its independence undermined so as to weaken its ability to hold power to financial account. What if one family are accused of using a set of horrific terrorist attacks as a jumping off point to clear their way back to power after a brief relaxation of their grip on it? This family’s detractors accuse it of harnessing fear and exploiting ethnonationalism and division for success at the ballot box. These are the mixture of facts and allegations that have plagued the Rajapaksa family since 2005 when Mahinda Rajapaksa became president of Sri Lanka.
In 2016 his brother Gotabaya was charged with corruption.
In the same year Gotabaya’s nephew Namal was arrested and charged with money laundering. Accusations that both members of the family have always denied. In August 2020 The Island newspaper in Sri Lanka reported on an opposition MP who claimed that 29 per cent of the state’s institutions were under the control of the Rajapaksa family. The response from a (non-Rajapaksa) government minister was that the MP who was critical of the Rajapaksa Government had no regard for family values.
Sri Lanka has faced many challenges since its independence from Britain in 1948. In living memory there has been a decades long civil war which killed between 80,000 and a 100,000 people, the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that killed over 30,000 people and the Easter terrorist attacks of 2019 which targeted places of worship and hotels and killed 269 people.
That series of attacks destroyed the tourism industry. Then came the pandemic. Every time it looks like the country will rise from its knees and tourists will flock back to this paradise on earth something happens to derail the hopes and aspirations of the wonderful ordinary Sri Lankans who exemplify courtesy, hospitality and warmth.
I landed in Sri Lanka at the end of June to visit family and friends and see for myself what was happening to a country I love dearly. Since April there had been fuel shortages as Sri Lanka’s foreign currency reserves dried up and the country no longer had enough money to pay for imports. This has been an unmitigated disaster for the Sri Lankan people who have seen food prices soar and people sometimes wait days in a queue to receive a few litres of Sri Lanka’s most precious commodity: fuel.
For people who rely on a vehicle for their job the situation is dire.
There is no welfare state in Sri Lanka to speak of, no furlough scheme to soften the blow of economic hardship and no bounce back loan to help ordinary Sri Lankans reverse the decline in their standards of living.
There is no safety net for the poor of Sri Lanka.
As I drove past the seemingly endless line of abandoned vehicles waiting for petrol I noticed Range Rovers, Porsches and BMWs lined up next to the banged up tuk tuks, scooters and motorcycles. This is a crisis that is even affecting those whose wealth usually insulates them from the trials and tribulations of the masses. There are many who argue that the problems facing Sri Lanka were not created by the pandemic, nor the terrorists, but by the erosion of fiscal responsibility, a lack of planning and no serious attempt to root out endemic corruption and impose a fairer tax regime that benefited Sri Lankans as a whole rather than enriching the few. As I travelled out from the capital Colombo, where protesters have been camped out close to president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s official residence for months demanding that he resign, I wondered if similar sentiments would be felt away from Sri Lanka’s biggest city.
As soon as I got to Galle, a stunning town on the South eastern coast of Sri Lanka, I came upon a large demonstration with banners that read #GotaGoHome which has been the rallying cry of many people who have clearly had enough of the Rajapaksa family. It is anyone’s guess where this current crisis will lead and while the Sri Lankan diaspora cannot force the president to resign it can encourage people to visit Sri Lanka and bring much needed foreign currency into the economy. This sorely needed income will not be hoovered up by corrupt politicians and their cronies but will tell a message to ordinary Sri Lankans that the world hasn’t abandoned them.