Sri Lankans in Melbourne on the political disenchantment

By Indira Laisram
Sri Lankans protestors in London. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

On 21 April 2019, in what is now infamously known as the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, Monash University’s Mathematics Lecturer Dr Ranjith Weerasinghe was in Melbourne awaiting the arrival in two days of his family from Colombo when he received a telephone call.

Nine suicide bombers had detonated their devices in six locations around Sri Lanka that day including one in Kingsbury luxury hotel in Colombo where his wife Vipuli and daughter Chathudila Weerasinghe were spending their last few days of their visit. Fortunately, both survived but for Chathudila, it has been a good two and half years’ road to recovery. She has just learnt to drive on her own.

For Weerasinghe, 2019 will remain edged in memory. It would also be the year Sri Lankans, emerging right out of the shadows of the blasts, voted the Rajapaksa family back to power after a presidential elections defeat in 2015. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa became President in 2019. When he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development between 2005-2015, it is alleged that thousands of people—particularly Tamils—went missing in what have been described as “enforced disappearances”.  His role in ending the civil war was what got him the coveted seat of the country.

Weerasinghe, whose own wife and daughter have been the casualty of Sri Lanka’s chequered past, says the people elected Gotabhaya Rajapaksa knowing fully well he was not innocent because they believed he could rebuild the country. “They put the country’s security first, they had expectations—of development, rehabilitation, investigations, etc.”

Dr Ranjith Weerasinghe // Pic supplied

But, says, Weerasinghe, every government—from the Rajapaksas to others—plunged the country into a deep economic crisis and once COVID-19 came tourism was badly hit, and there was no sympathy for overseas workers stranded especially those in the Middle East. On top of that, Gotabaya’s overnight decision to stop chemical fertilisation affected the whole agricultural sector with farmers getting only 25 percent of the harvest.

Therefore, what followed was inevitable. The government had no choice but to default, there was no gas and electricity in the country, people were queuing for days to fill fuel or get LPG cylinders for cooking. A badly-affected youth and the middle class started peacefully protesting for Gotabaya to go home. But in a frightening turn of events this week, government supporters attacked protesters. According to reports, eight people have died since and hundreds injured. The country is in a nationwide curfew at the time of writing this story.

For many of the Australians of Sri Lankan origin in Melbourne, what is happening in their country of birth and origin is one of shock and horror.

Dihan Dewage, a Facilities’ Manager, says he has not been able to sleep thinking about his family and countrymen. Dewage, whose parents live outside of Colombo are stuck in the city with his sister since the violence broke out as no transport buses are plying because of the fuel shortage.

Dihan Dewage // Pic supplied

“Besides, regardless of whether you have money or not, you cannot get basic necessities such as food or medicines. They are giving only six panadols per person and two kilos of rice per person, and then there is the long queue for that. Also, people’s hard-earned money is cut down to half within weeks because of inflation,” he says.

Dewage, who has been living in Australia for 23 years now, has memories of the war and the 1988-89 protests. “I was in year 5-6, we couldn’t go to school and I didn’t want a repeat of those times.” But he has seen the good times too and when he went to other countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, he remembers people talking about the country’s booming economy. And now it feels like the country is back to square one.

Similarly, Vernon Tissera, a media professional, worries about his sister who lives in Ja-Ela, a city close to Colombo. “They are facing shortages of important things like milk, wheat, flour or medicines. They are experiencing load shedding every morning and night. Everything is expensive, my sister told me,” he rues. “Add to it, my brother-in-law, who is a tool maker, is not getting any job because the contractors don’t have any work.”

Even students are not attending schools and exams are postponed because they don’t have paper to print, says Tissera.

Vernon Tissera // Pic supplied

Sunil De Zoysa, a Migration Consultant, worries about his 94-year old mother-in-law, who is in a private age care centre. “They are fed minimal food and she can’t move.”

Also, the option of sending stuff from here is ruled out as his friends have said they will not reach the right person. People are tempted to pinch something out of the boxes out of sheer desperation.

As the clamour and the uproar grow in Sri Lanka, those outside the homeland are praying for peace to descend. But some like De Zoysa strongly feel that the international community should do everything to stop corrupt people such as the Rajapaksas, who loot and plunder the country, to flee to a foreign land to settle down afresh. He cites a social media post alleging that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son has moved to Melbourne and bought a house in Glen Iris.

“You have to make sure this information is 100 per cent correct. The world should get together and punish these kind of rulers. How can they escape the country by robbing, they have looted the funds, artefacts and wiped the country,” he vents.

Tissera believes the fears now are that of lawlessness pervading the country. “People have taken law in their hands.”

Sunil De Zoysa // Pic supplied

At this point, Weerasinghe says, “If Gotabaya wants to stay, he has no support from the general public. If he gets support from the army, it’s going to be a military government but Sri Lanka never had a military government so people would not tolerate one.”

And with no trust in the Opposition and no political leader in sight, he says, discussion are on about few think tanks getting together and running the country for few months to economically settle down and then go to the elections.

The fact remains, everyone wants the corrupt out. “Not just the Rajapaksas, but every corrupt politician,” says Weerasinghe.

“We are willing to help them when good governance starts. We need the trust,” adds Dewage.

With uncertainties in view, for now, people like Tissera have to keep up with their phones buzzing all night.

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