A Sri Lankan Ghost Story
In August I had an Op-Ed published in the NYTimes. I think it was edited to death, and now that 30+ days have passed, I thought I'd bring out the ghost. This is the original article as written.
Seeing news coverage of Sri Lanka is like showing up at your own funeral, with everybody speculating on how you died. Tucker Carlson says the Green New Deal killed us. The western and Indian media blame China. Everybody blames the Rajapaksas and their obviously dictatorial mustaches.
Most of these explanations are nonsense, some are outright propaganda, and some are true but inadequate. As a ghost whose privileged life in Sri Lanka is over, let me tell you my story, how it connects to my country’s story, and how it connects back to America and the world. I hope it haunts you.
A Sri Lankan
Since you cannot immediately understand the last three years of chaos and wanton idiocy that triggered this, or the four decades of neoliberalism that started it, or the four centuries of colonialism that never ended, let me start with something simple. The experience of one Sri Lankan.
I had a car once, but it’s a giant paperweight now. My kids ask if they can play inside it, that’s all it’s good for. The country has literally run out of gas, queues snake around petrol sheds for kilometers. My friend Nigel waited for three days and he said it just breaks your spirit, simmering in your own sweat and humiliation. Personally, I just gave up. I take the bus or bicycle now, sometimes borrowing the electric car from my in-laws. Most of the economy has stopped moving at all. School-runs, taxi businesses, livelihoods, even hospital runs, they often just don’t happen.
I used to have savings and we used to buy things, but now our rupees have been inflated into oblivion and things are unavailable. Now if we feel like something might run out we buy it immediately. Products can disappear or double in price overnight, like bicycles. Bicycle locks are completely unavailable, which at least levels the playing field. Food is the worst, because you have to keep buying it, and it keeps getting more expensive. Every week brings a new class of beggars to my door, and I shudder to think of the people who are too proud to beg. They hunger in silence.
This rank suffering and injustice has led to massive street protests going on for months, including crowds occupying government buildings. That was the fun part. Parents brought their kids, couples went on dates, it was spontaneously organized and beautiful. I saw a crowd singing in the President’s House, drumming on tables, a mother dancing with her toddler. People swam in the pool until it obviously needed to be chlorinated. I walked around a hall with plaques commemorating British colonizers, seamlessly transitioning into the names of Presidents. I thought of the end of Animal Farm, where the pigs sat in the farmhouse and became as brutal as men. I wondered if things had ever really changed at all.
My wife and I rode our bicycles to the Prime Minister’s Office. A man was playing the piano, people gathered all around. A shirtless man draped in a Sri Lankan flag was sleeping on the couch while four men played carrom. A child was doing cartwheels on the lawn where a community kitchen was serving food to anyone. It was a beautiful sight to see in a space where elites had nipped on canapes before, surrounded by armed guards. It felt right for the first time in a long time, but like any revolution, it all got counter-revolutioned almost immediately.
The Sri Lankan people overthrew one ruling family (the Rajapaksas) only to have another one take over. The new President Ranil Wickremesinghe is widely despised, a leftover from another ruling family that has held power even longer than the Rajapaksas. Ranil was completely voted out of Parliament last election, but in a plot twist that puts House Of Cards to shame, he somehow schemed his way into a bonus seat, to the Prime Ministership, to the Acting Presidency, to the Presidency. All after losing his election. Now he’s deployed the military to violently clear the peoples’ protest village I used to visit with my children. To him chaos was just a ladder, to be kicked down on the people’s heads once he clambered up to power.
What had felt like democracy on the streets has become rank oligarchy in the seats of Parliament. 225 MPs chose the President of 22 million people, a total farce. Ranil ‘won’ an election with 134 votes, many of them obviously bought. Nearly 80 of these MPs recently had their houses burnt down, in a very public show of ‘no confidence’ and Ranil promised to rebuild them. These rogues can’t even walk amongst the people without getting slippered, but they still rule over us all. A man that we voted out is our President. It’s all ‘constitutional’, which makes people lose faith in the whole liberal democratic system. I have, and I know I’m not the only one.