There is no war in Sri Lanka, but late Saturday night, battle tanks rolled through Colombo's deserted streets. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defense secretary who in 2009 had been a leading figure in orchestrating the vicious end to Sri Lanka's 27-year civil war, had imposed a 36-hour curfew. The curfew was announced only hours before it went into effect.
This is a city that enters curfews like a hand slipping into a well-worn glove.
There had been countless through the course of the war, between 1983 and 2009, when bomb blasts frequently brought Colombo to its knees. Since 2019, curfews that followed the Easter Attacks were followed around a year later by several sudden Covid lockdowns.
Over the weekend, flurries of news alerts and calls from family, sent Colombo residents spilling out into the streets, where they collected in clots of traffic, and queues outside grocery stores and pharmacies. This was a rush to secure household necessities, but the mood was resignation, rather than frenzy; a dark routine to accompany each iteration of the trauma the island invites upon itself.
The Rajapaksa-led governments, which have ruled Sri Lanka since 2005 save for a hiatus between early 2015 and late 2019, have their own habitual response. Theirs is a finger finding its place on the trigger.
Two evenings before the curfew, many of the thousands that had protested outside President Gotabaya's residence in the Mirihana neighbourbood, had water cannons, and tear gas turned on them. Dozens were brutally beaten. When an army bus was torched, it appeared the protest had turned violent.
But in the next 24 hours, theories emerged that Rajapaksa operatives in the crowd had themselves set the fires, in order to mark what had been a peaceful protest with the stain of a riot. Conspiracies, false flag attacks, government plants … in each dramatic new political turn on this roiling island, are the echoes of past plots, former conflicts, bygone crises. The cliches are rarely allowed to gather dust before being called into use again.
Next morning, one man's impassioned speech in front of a wall of police went viral on social media. He had thundered not only against the president and his family, but clergy, and the police as well. For many Tamils in the north and east, even this man's being allowed to make the minutes-long speech instead of being brought immediately to the ground or worse, was a clear sign of Sinhalese privilege.
It is not that the Sri Lankan state spares Sinhalese exactly. There have been two merciless crushings of communist uprisings from the south in living memory, and the previous Rajapaksa government itself left three dead in a protest in a Sinhalese village in 2013. But the Sinhalese certainly have a longer rope than the minorities. As this harrowing economic crisis has deepened, a view has begun to coalesce even among the country's ethnic majority that they have only used this rope to hang themselves.
In late 2019, it was largely the Sinhalese who handed Gotabaya Rajapaksa a landslide victory, after his party threw itself into anti-Muslim dog-whistle grandstanding in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks.
Just as poverty obliterates the future - a rapidly growing proportion of Sri Lankan families now forced to live hand-to-mouth - in the last two months, it has also obliterated ethnic differences. Muslims stand in the same gas queues as the Sinhalese, who swelter in the same oppressive heat as Tamils. They pay the same exorbitant prices for rice, for daal, for the spices common to all Sri Lankan cuisines.
It has not been lost on a nation that is well-heeled in gallows humour that only in abject hardship do its people find common ground.
Over the weekend, it became ever clearer that this president and his government were now as unpopular as any rulers have been in 74 years of self-rule.
In the past weeks even the Rajapaksas' most ardent supporters had abandoned them, and the cabinet has gradually come undone, while their own coalition members railed against the family. Television channels that had helped bring the Rajapaksas back to power cooled rapidly on the rulers once the public's anger had become unmistakable. Corporate partners and influencers have also more recently jumped ship.
On Sunday, the president's own nephew Namal Rajapaksa, a high-ranking member of the government and the next prospective leader on the family roster, tweeted his objection to the "blocking of social media" by his uncle.
He is the state minister of digital technology, so his taking to social media to voice his displeasure was merely an attempt to pit himself as one of the more reasonable members of the clan.
But the mere fact that breaking rank was now politically expedient revealed the depths to which the Rajapaksas' stock, which seemed to be at an all-time high a mere two years ago when their party won a two-thirds majority in parliament, had plunged.
How this profoundly disliked president and government can fall unless they themselves resign, is unclear. The government still commands a majority in parliament, so the prospect of a no-confidence motion appears slim for now. The primary opposition party appears weak, and unwilling to pursue such a course, in any case. For all this public displeasure, the opposition has not presented a concrete plan to end the crisis.
It is only in the public's continuing rage at the Rajapaksas' crippling of the economy that some little hope springs.
On Sunday, in defiance of the curfew and the State of Emergency that grants extraordinary powers to police and the military, dozens of protests erupted in Sri Lanka's urban centres. The thousands-strong demonstrations were shared widely on social media, which had by now been unblocked following substantial pressure.
Whether this is a moment of genuine transformation or another cycle of Sri Lanka's self-destructive vortex depends largely on the Sinhalese majority. Have they taken on the lessons of this presidency? Or are momentarily shelving their anti-minority sentiments while bigger crises abound? Have they learned that the weapons of a heavily militarised state could just as quickly turn against them? That there exists a limit at which they too become objects of the state's violent disdain, rather than the horses on which strongman leaders ride to such unyielding power?
There is no telling how this will end.
Even the Rajapaksas' once-adoring southern supporters were so inflamed on Monday that they stormed the barricades outside the family's ancestral home in Tangalle. The president responded to nationwide calls for his removal by merely reshuffling his cabinet - a response so laughable that it may turn out to essentially be an act of escalation.
There is despair in Sri Lanka. There is hunger. The nation continues to wrestle with hours-long power cuts in suffocating heat, not knowing which direction its restless rage will spiral.
Updated On: 2022-04-04T21:00:10+05:30