How Sri Lanka Has Fallen Into Darkness

Drawing by the excellent artist Safiya S

I don’t have a ‘take’ on this. This is just where I am. I’ll tell you how I see it. I don’t know if that’s how it is.

April is the hottest month in Sri Lanka. Just unbelievably hot, like a fever that doesn’t break until the rains. Heat makes everybody cranky, irritable, and I suppose violent. April is the cruelest month, as they say.

This is the worst April in Sri Lanka’s history. I don’t mean that worse things haven’t happened—we’ve had pogroms, a tsunami, various insurrections, a good thirty years of war—I just mean this catastrophe is happening to all of Sri Lanka, all at once. No one is safe from this disaster. It affects every single home.

At a very fundamental level, the island has just fallen into the sea.

What Happened

Why did this happen? Many reasons, and one family (the Rajapaksas).

Sri Lanka was an ancient irrigation civilization and in modern times 50% of our electricity comes from water (hydro). However, after ‘liberalizing’ in the 1980s we stopped building anything useful. Instead we built giant generators that burn fucking oil for the rest of our needs. This has been a farce forever. Now it’s a tragedy.

Now we’re run out of oil for this generator, foreign capital flows have dried up, and the whole thing has been managed abysmally. The ruling family’s elder brother ran up the credit card a decade ago and now the younger brother is paying off those commercial bank loans instead of providing for our families.

And so the entire country has blackouts, every day, for hours at a time. The entire country waits in petrol and diesel queues. Everybody queues for cooking gas, that we cannot find. There are global problems, but we’re really suffering from the compounded corruption and idiocy of one family. Now we can’t sleep, we can’t move, we can’t eat.

And like I said, this effects everybody.

What Happened To Me

I am quite rich in Sri Lanka. We own a house, a car, I earn in dollars—a pittance to you abroad—but a small fortune to me. Previous crises have passed people like me by, disturbing our social media feeds and eliciting empathy, but this isn’t that. This is reality. We don’t have a generator, and even if we did, getting diesel isn’t easy. Everybody in the country uses energy, and we can feel it drain right out of our lives.

So our lights go out. Like every light in Sri Lanka. Our fans stop spinning, like every fan in this heat. Well, almost everybody. When I told my son that the President’s lights don’t go out, he screamed something that’d get him called up by the CID. That’s the sentiment that’s on the streets. Everybody, young and old, feels it. You can’t escape.

For once this is a general misery, affecting the poor the worst (obviously), but still hitting everybody. Last night we slept on the balcony, to avoid the heat, but then the mosquitoes came to eat. We can luckily afford food, but we have to carefully time when to cook it. My wife even planned a power cut menu for guests, dishes we didn’t have to heat. I somehow get the kids to school, but we have to borrow a petrol/electric car. Because finding diesel is an impossibility.

This isn’t actually new, just like the Niemöller poem, it finally ‘came for me’. While Tamils in the north were deprived of electricity for years, while grinding poverty has been chewing up people forever, and while Muslims have been persecuted recently, we never listened to these canaries in the coalmine. And so here we are, all fucking screaming.

Even rich people in apartments with elevators have run out of diesel now, leaving them to walk up 20 flights of stairs. Private schools have run out of diesel, leaving those kids to sweat it out with everyone else. Poorer families often cannot get their kids to school at all, let alone with a full stomach. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I can feel the tension in my own life, I can see it on every face. I love this country and we’ve fallen so far. It’s a disgrace.

What’s Happening

Any government that can’t provide power doesn’t have power. The current government has no clear Constitutional way to fall, but it’s already dead. These people can’t show their face in any village. Only the Indian foreign minister ever visited a petrol queue. Our own guys would get chased away.

For the first time in my life everybody hates the government. It’s not even a debate. Nobody is sleeping well. Nobody is eating well. Our children are all unhappy. We’re all unhappy. The country is just a spark away from revolution, which god knows could go many ways.

Yesterday unorganized, regular protesters marched towards the President’s House, about a kilometer from mine. This is a real bone of contention because he and his homies are exempted from power cuts, cut ahead in fuel queues, and laugh at our cooking gas problems.

These protestors were attacked with tear gas, water cannon, and truncheons, then called violent ‘extremists’. But like I said, we’re all extremists. We’re all that pissed off. We’re all in the same place. In the cruel heat of April, blood is rising and if it gets violent, honestly, so be it. Violence has been done to all of the people, every day. Why shouldn’t we resist the violence of the state?

What Happens Next

I don’t know what happens next. I’ve lived through and seen enough seeming revolutions to know that things often get worse. The most organized and funded group in Sri Lanka is the military, and that’d be the worst.

But whatever we’re doing now, everybody knows we can’t do it anymore. The ruling family running the place, they’ve simply got to go. Uncles, sons, in-laws, the whole lot of them. They can’t even distract us with racism anymore, we can’t see that shit in the dark.

Our only real hope this April is, as always, the monsoon rain. Only that can fill up our ancient reservoirs and our homegrown electricity flow again. This gives you a clue as to the type of development we needed but never got, producing things for ourselves, and building things we could export. Supporting peoples needs, not the greed of a few.

But that’s not the path we took, 40 years ago. And so we’re here, with the power going out. I mean it literally went out right now. I have to finish this and publish. We’re due for a revolution not in the sense that we wanted one, but in that our lives have just been flipped upside down. Whatever this is, we have to turn it over. If we don’t, this isolated island in the sea of global capitalism, we’ll simply drown.