The Channel 4 documentary rocked the country on 5 September 2023. The Rajapaksas were pushed back to the corner, but the camp managed the affair, reading the local audience well. The Channel 4 team used Rupert Murdoch’s The Times of UK to build credibility to the story. A senior foreign correspondent, Catherine Philp, broke the news on 3 September 2023 at 00:01 UK time as a precursor to the Channel 4 release.
The initial teaser was a minute clip with Moulana, the whistleblower. However, Channel 4 released the 5:15-minute clip with Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, adding credibility to the story. The learned Cardinal is probably the most politically savvy religious leader in the post-independence of Sri Lanka. He understands the political narrative well and is not afraid to speak up differently based on the circumstances. These Machiavellian tactics could cater well for some, but others could see through some of the statements, especially post-21 April 2019.
On digital platforms, the Rajapaksas were roasted, and within 10 hours on the 5th, three million views were recorded on identified Facebook pages, Twitter handles and YouTube channels. We monitored approximately 17,000 unprompted responses, and 90% of the reactions sought justice and were against the Rajapaksas. The regular Rajapaksa fans did not step up to defend the family. While the political landscape in the country is highly unsettled, it is also deeply divided. Almost all conventional polling data suggests no party starts with over 25% of the votes.
Throughout my lifetime, Sri Lanka was never united. We are deeply divided by religion, caste, creed, and local geography. Politics divide us further. In the past 20 years, we have had golden opportunities to rise as a nation. The first was the Tsunami in 2004. The second was the defeat of LTTE and the end of a 30-year civil war. Third was the 2015 presidential election, where most citizens stood for good governance, transparency and integrity. We all know how it ended up electing a man unfit to hold any severe position, anywhere. The fourth was the 2019 Easter attacks.
We never learned from the Sirisena election. In 2019, most voted for someone who proved unfit to be the country’s chief executive. 60 years ago, the great Lee Kwan Yew wanted Singapore to be a Ceylon. I believe this was said to J.R. Jayewardene in a private conversation, who went on to become Sri Lanka’s first executive president. The rest is history. Singapore is the first world, and Sri Lanka is bankrupt. Many local political leaders see Singapore as a model for Sri Lanka. This is blindness. No Sri Lankan leader wants to do what LKY did, and most Sri Lankans don’t want to go through what most Singaporeans did under LKY. As a country, we have a history of saying one thing and doing the right opposite. People are asking for a system change. But to begin with, we don’t have a system.
The race for the presidency has begun. If a person like Sirisena can become the president, I don’t find a fault in anyone aspiring to contest and win. The country has had a history of going into hibernation one year before a presidential election. Nothing moves forward. President Wickremesinghe’s challenge is delivering, especially, economic prosperity when everything else moves in the wrong direction. He is always the man for the crisis, but deeply divided politics will be too much of a task for any human being on top of the economic woes.
The next presidential election will be fought and decided on who could steer the economy. Taxes are hurting corporations and especially mid and high-income professionals. Enterprises are struggling, and a mass migration of professionals is no joke. I have not seen any political leader discussing solutions to resurrect the economy, generate jobs, combat the migration of professionals, and look after the welfare of the needy and poorest in the country. Parliament speeches are a waste of time; press conferences are even worse. The media is happy to air gossip, and even Sirisena expelling his general secretary was the most pressing issue of the press for three long days.
One of the leading research agencies in the country, PepperCube, this month released a survey. Based on CBSL data, PepperCube suggests that tourism income has increased by 57% to $ 1.3 billion. Foreign remittances were up by 74% to $ 3.9 billion. Export income is down by 10% to $ 6.9 billion, whilst import expenditures are down by 16% to $ 9.5 billion.
There are silver linings based on the above data. Except for significant, negative growth in export income, the other three metrics are commendable. However, the irony is based on the all-island sample of 500 per month: 67% of people feel there will be a downfall in economic development. 74% of the people think that development programs will be stopped. Also, 78% feel the cost of living will increase in the next 12 months. This is a ticking time bomb for any Presidential aspirant.
Do AKD or Sajith Premadasa have solutions to these pressing issues?
What is President Wickremesinghe’s path to solving this misery?
Can President Wickremesinghe seduce the masses and give them hope? Or would any other candidate have an alternative strategy?
Will geopolitical power centres endorse a particular candidate?
Can any candidate cross the magical 50% plus one vote?
A deeply divided nation is what we have now; political instability is a catastrophe. Can Sri Lankan politicians agree on a standard minimum program to resurrect the country before an election? It has never happened before, and indeed, it will not happen soon. I will be the happiest to be wrong if that ever takes place.
Given over 70% of Buddhists in the country, Sri Lanka should have been the happiest place on earth. Temples, churches, mosques and kovils are everywhere, but people have become so gullible. The anger, jealousy and illusion are deep-rooted, and there is no clarity on what we do. A happy-go-lucky nation, triumphing individualism, is set to make another blunder. Youths are worried. I see it on digital platforms and conversations. Leaders should not take the youth of this country for granted. They are different from their parents.
I hope sanity prevails.
(The writer is an Alumni of Harvard Kennedy School and a serial entrepreneur and a former senior corporate executive with nearly 30 years of experience covering the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. With an academic background in public leadership, public policy, marketing, and digital economy, he has advised many senior political and business leaders over the last 12 years. He could be reached via email at [email protected].)