Some Thoughts for the New Year



Celebrating Avuruddu this year was twice as expensive as in 2019

By Uditha Devapriya

Last week was the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Avurudu in Sinhala, Puththandu in Tamil. It marks the end of one harvest season and the beginning of another. Celebrated by Sri Lankans of all shades and stripes, of every class and background, it demonstrates, as does no other event, the multifaceted character of Sri Lankan culture.

As Sri Lanka lurches into a New Year three months after January 1, then, this is the time to reflect on what it is becoming and will become of us over the next 12 months. What shape will the country take by April 13 next year? Will the status quo – political, social, economic – stand, or will there be a rupture in the way things are? Will the present batch of leaders become politically irrelevant? Most crucially, how will the world around Sri Lanka change, and how can, and how should, Sri Lanka adapt itself to that brave new world?

The answers to all these questions lie in hard realpolitik and geopolitics. But it also depends on how we want to define ourselves, how we want to see the world and, perhaps most significantly, how we want the world to see us. Without addressing these concerns and resolving these problems, there really is no point talking about political change – though the present state of affairs is simply too irrelevant to continue as it stands. But if the system has indeed run its course, then that system needs to be replaced, not by another system, but by another totally different way of seeing. Ensuring that is up to us.

The Sri Lankan electorate is presently divided between those who are content with the way things are going and those who are not. The latter urge an end to the present system, disregarding official narratives of stability, recovery, and growth. The former emphasise the government’s reform efforts and its negotiations with the IMF and World Bank, conflating economic policies with political change while also noting the importance of the latter. As for the President, he too reiterates the need for a new political culture, even as he finds himself cohabiting with the most despised political elements in the country.

On the surface, everyone wants a change to the present system – even the government, which keeps talking about a new culture even as it consolidates its position with one law and political move after another. But can change occur in the absence of accountability and transparency, in a context where the most fundamental norms of governance have been disregarded, where judicial rulings on those responsible for financial crimes and the Easter Attacks go unheeded? Frankly, I don’t think so.

This is as much a critique of the government, incidentally, as it is of the Opposition – at least a section of it. There is a tendency now, among both ruling and Opposition parties, to view economic reforms as the panacea for all evils. The government’s gung-ho enforcement of austerity-at-all-costs is, in this reading of things, framed as necessary and inevitable, as the consequence of decades of welfare spending.

There is a term for this attitude: TINA, or There Is No Alternative, period. Political parties, ideologues, and activists who question the present spate of reforms, accordingly, are either shut down or shut out, with MPs going as far as to call them clueless. “Now is not the time to try out alternatives,” some of them say. “Some of these alternative prescriptions are the same as the policies that got us into this mess,” others add.

However, this is a caricature and a misrepresentation of what is essentially the national mood. People aren’t calling for an end to IMF negotiations; they are only disgruntled with the rift between the many who are bearing the brunt of austerity and the few who are getting away scot-free. Economic reforms, after all, are not an excuse to do away with political reforms, still less to prop up the establishment on the grounds that economic policies are too important for us to think of radical political ruptures. But this is more or less what is happening in Sri Lanka, what has riled people up.

Mainstream Opposition parties are playing a dubious double-game here: while pandering to the discontent that austerity has generated, they are also indulging in McCarthyite rhetoric against the more radical parties that are questioning the economic policies unleashing the discontent. Recently, for instance, the Leader of the Opposition got onstage to warn the public of the dangers of “extreme socialism,” calling for a “social democratic” Third Way for Sri Lanka. In this reading of things, left-wing parties are experimenting with policies that will get us back to the drawing board, and they must be avoided.

This columnist does not necessarily see the left-wing solutions being paraded today as any better than the social democratic policies that the Leader of the Opposition touts. But throughout the country, there has been a perceptible shift to the left. The best response to such a development would be, not to ostracise left-wing parties and thus make them feel like outsiders and pariahs, but to incorporate them into the mainstream – not least because multilateral institutions and the foreign ministers and ambassadors of other countries have recognised their growing importance, and relevance.

According to a report by Verite Research, the New Year was more than twice as expensive as it was in 2019, though it is two percent less expensive than last year. The next few months will play out against a highly charged atmosphere, a battle between those who think things are getting better because the cost of living is improving at a snail’s pace and those who think such a pace is not worth the sacrifices they are making every day.

Contrary to the hosanna-singers, then, Sri Lanka is not a comeback story. Not all the listicles and magazine rankings in the world can or will belie this simple truth – or belie the fissures and divisions that are growing in the country. Come next year, or even later this year, we will see a change – for better or for worse.

Uditha Devapriya is the Chief International Relations Analyst at Factum, an Asia-Pacific focused foreign policy think-tank based in Colombo and accessible via . He can be reached at .