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Agonies of the Divided Island – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Agonies of the Divided Island - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Will the Sri Lankan Phoenix Have A Rebirth in the Aftermath of Political & Financial Bankruptcy

Gouri Sankar Nag, Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay

In Theravada Buddhist thought and practice in the Island state, says professor Rita Langer, death and the doctrine of rebirth have always been pivotal concepts. Through her meticulous work based on Vedic and Pali texts, she goes deep into the rituals existing from the pre-Buddhist era to bring out how rebirth may be achieved by the cultivation of an earnest wish. Simultaneously she also refers to the commentaries replete with “a wealth of stories relating to the rebirth of a good person in a bad existence (and vice versa) due to the quality of his last conscious moments”.

At present, we don’t know the sin for which the poor but innocent Sri Lankan brothers and sisters are suffering from such a severe turmoil that seems like a blue from the bolt. But if we can apply professor Langer’s framework certainly we find some insight. The present crisis is much like a warning to evil-doers as well as a lesson to keep working till the end with determination for urgent course correction.

By now it is clear that the Sri Lankan state must have been involved in some unsustainable practices that ultimately landed its people in such a quagmire of crises much like the inevitable punishment out of the law of unscrupulous Karma. So it is time for introspection while observing austerity and a pragmatic path for a resilient response to the humongous crisis. Immediately it seems impossible to reverse the situation but we hope that Sri Lanka can have a rebirth soon if it follows a sensible path of enhancing understanding, planning carefully and thus rectifying the past mistakes instead of banking upon violence and counter-violence that might unsettle things more.

Note that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (once ex-President) has been forced to leave his official residence ‘Temple Trees’ and take refuge with his family at a naval base at Trincomali in Sri Lanka to save a life.  The irony of fate is that the people of this island nation put him in the seat of God to quell the anti-government rebellion of the banned militant group ‘LTTE’ almost a decade ago in Sri Lanka. In the subsequent years, the Rajapaksa family rose to prominence like a storm. There was no opponent to stop them then. Now the whole world is stunned to see Mahinda Rajapaksa fleeing with his family in fear of life.

We need to go back a little bit to know the causes behind today’s situation. Political and financial turmoil has been going on in Sri Lanka for some time now. In Sri Lanka, there is no electricity for hours in this scorching heat of summer. The vehicles parked in rows on the road due to lack of fuel. Hospitals are running without necessary medicines. The prices of essential goods are skyrocketing. This is the regular scene in Sri Lanka for the last few months.

As a result, ordinary people have started revolting little by little. Despite sporadic violence in some areas over the past few weeks, anti-government protest movements have been going on peacefully on the whole.  It was exactly when unarmed civilians were attacked and the attack was carried out by none other than a group of supporters of the ruling Rajapaksa family. As a result, the island state is newly seething with widespread unrest again.

As the public discontent and chaos expanded, the Sri Lankan administration was compelled to impose an indefinite curfew, first in Colombo and then across the country. At least 150 protesters were injured in the clashes. Private news media claimed that 3 people had been killed in the violence, including a parliamentarian. By anticipating this situation, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his own resignation around noon on 9th May 2022. In a tweet, he urged all parties to remain calm.

In fact, the demands of the movement that has been going on for so long were one and the same, i.e., every member of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s family must resign from the government posts. But, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, has been saying for some time that he would not resign unless the President says so. On the contrary, according to sources, the President himself advised Mahinda to step down a couple of days ago. However, the PM Mahinda’s vacillations added fuel to the fire of the aggrieved protesters and provoked them to set fire to his official residence.

Under this situation, Mahinda finally resigned as the Prime Minister and simultaneously he gave many assurances to the agitators; he also twitted that the process of finding a solution to the financial problem had already begun. He also condemned the attacks by his supporters on the protesters and called on both sides to maintain peace. But none of this could work to assuage the anger and concerns of the masses. After that law and order situation in the entire country got out of hand.

On the other hand, another political crisis started with the resignation of Mahinda as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, since the question of dissolving the ministry under the Prime Minister would gradually arise in this context. President Gotabaya called for an all-party meeting to deal with the emergent situation.

The primary aim was to nominate a new Prime Minister through an interim government. However, SJB (Samaj Jana Balawegaya), the country’s largest opposition party led by Sajith Premadasa, said in a statement that the party would not be part of the government if the Rajapaksa family remained in power.  

But under intense pressure, in a speech to the nation, the ruling President Gotabaya, representing SLPP (Sri Lanka People’s Front), assured that the Sri Lankan people would get a new Prime Minister soon, and he kept his word very quickly. Gotabaya appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the five-time Prime Minister of the UNP (United National Party) as Prime Minister on 12th May 2022. Of Course, Mr Ranil’s swearing-in as Prime Minister was not unexpected at all since the name of Mr Ranil was agreed upon by both the ruling and opposition groups. So for the time being, it is believed that Mr Ranil has been put in that position to protect President Gotabaya’s face.

And it may be said here that the people are still very much sceptical about the new Prime Minister since the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not yet indicated that he would step down accepting the demands of a section of the Sri Lankan people, despite the selection of a new Prime Minister for the country. On the contrary, his speech for the nation suggests that the power of the President may be curtailed and the Parliament as the people’s representative body may be strengthened by amending the constitution. Yet, the President is not willing to resign from the post in any way and that is why most of the people in the country are angry.

Since we have had the opportunity to observe the state of Sri Lanka in its glorious days, it is quite difficult now to compare the past with the present situation of the island nation in the Indian Ocean. When Sri Lanka’s economic growth fell to minus 1.4 in 2001, the then Finance Minister did not show any concern for that. The current financial crisis in that country is proof that if he had been careful since then, the national economy would not have come to such a pass of a terrible mess as it is today.

A few days ago, the Tamil and Sinhalese New Year passed, but everything from retail grocery stores to supermarket shelves was empty. There are long lines in petrol pumps. As much as the product is in the market, the prices of goods are quite exorbitant. Moreover, the allocation of products per head is also fixed. Besides, cooking gas is not available; power-cut is going on for hours. History has shown that such a crisis is unprecedented in Sri Lanka; the island nation did not have to face such a financial crisis even in the days of deadly civil war.

In this situation, angry protesting citizens are taking to the streets every day. Demands for the President’s resignation are growing stronger day by day. There is no hope for a country like Sri Lanka to survive unless the international community intervenes in the current situation.

However intervention is a strong word which is unacceptable for us; even though we know apparently benign international humanitarian aid politics including the much talked about the proposal of IMF bailout, instead of bringing relief, could provoke to ignite hitherto fault lines to weaken the government and the consequent conflagration could adversely affect the regional status quo. Hence, we surmise whether India would at all jump on the bandwagon of aid politics even if the prevailing situation is one of sombre humanitarian nature.   

But forget not to note that it would be a hard decision on the part of India to see things slipping into the depth of chaos in her immediate neighbourhood. So we think India has both a lever to use and a responsibility to help her neighbours before the situation gets further complicated by the entry of outside powers with ulterior design. However, the war-ravaged Europe would not be coming up at the point time to salvage the tiny nation-state.

Even the politics of West Asia seems too fragmented today much like the stressful situation in Southeast Asia with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea with a nuke arsenal at its disposal to up the ante under the covert patronage from China. Nevertheless, emotional reactions immanent in ethnic links to India won’t help to ameliorate the Sri Lankan situation.

Hence India’s approach would be to appreciate the genuine concerns and advise upon matters within the economic realm. Any further pushing towards some domestic political settlement, however well-intentioned, might backfire, hence to be avoided lock, stock and barrel. Thus viewed we need to concentrate on the pattern of the present financial crisis covering the wide spectrum of food, fuel and electricity. All of these have become scarce and the purchasing power of the country’s currency has decreased during the recent period.  

So the initial question has to be asked again: what is the cause of such a socio-economic and political crisis?  Needless to say, there is nothing inconsistent in the demands of the citizens, mainly due to the recklessness of the family-controlled administration on the part of the Rajapaksa.

The Sri Lankan military is being called in to tackle the severe protest movements of the common masses. Even curfew is being imposed and the state is now facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy because the Sri Lankan administration is in such a precarious position that none wants to take the responsibility of resolving the present issue, or, in other words, to come back to a normal situation like before. The biggest Achilles heel is that none in Sri Lanka seems to have the ability to take on this responsibility right now.

However, this condition in Sri Lanka did not occur overnight. Rather, little by little, Sri Lanka inched towards political and financial volatility. Let us look back a little in this context. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes from such a family that totally wiped out the ‘LTTE’ militant group from Sri Lanka, and ended up 3-long decades of fierce terrorism, although serious allegations of human rights abuses were made against him at that time.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to the ruling power with a huge majority in the year 2019, promising to put an end to the terrorist unrest and to show the way to convert Sri Lanka into a new prosperous destination. Sitting at the height of the wave of Singhalese hegemony, the President Gotabaya appointed his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the Prime Minister, and also appointed 2 more of his brothers, Chamel & Basil as ministers showing the absolute parochial pattern of nurturing his own relatives, which is otherwise known as a corruption of nepotism.

Basil (Brother of the President) who is an American citizen is the Sri Lankan Finance Minister incidentally. In fact, the members of the President’s family shared a number of 11 ministerial portfolios of Sri Lanka among themselves, thus a family fiefdom built up by huge Chinese investment.    

That is why the responsibility for turning the financial crisis around is directly on the family of President Rajapaksa. The voters are demanding accountability from the country’s leaders, as well as a solution to the financial crisis. Here, the exciting matter is that the Rajapaksas have always been accustomed to receiving great respect and support from the people of the country. But today they are confronting a completely different situation which exposes the story of Rajapaksa’s huge popularity among southern farmers and the toiling masses is nothing but a myth.

There is no denying the fact that the crisis is the result of many wrong decisions taken by the present Sri Lankan government. Many faulty policies of the government can be said to be responsible for this financial crisis. However, it should not be forgotten in this context that Sri Lanka’s economy is richer in imports than exports. But its failure to generate revenue to defray the cost of imports led to ever-increasing borrowing.

According to a source, Sri Lanka borrowed ‘at least $8 billion from China and was asking for another $2.5 billion in order to pay for an essential import bill of fuel and medical supplies. The country’s defaulting on its foreign debt repayments was therefore a matter of time and the collapse of its economy showed that its dwindling foreign reserve was even lower than Zimbabwe.

In addition, one more thing that should be kept in mind here is that the economy in Sri Lanka was already weakened by the protracted civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil ethnic groups from the early 1980s till 2009-10. Thereafter although it took some imaginative programmes yet, on the one hand, populist measures and on the other hand, Chinese funded projects combined to exacerbate Sri Lanka’s dire fiscal predicament.

In fact, the country’s financial mismanagement was two-fold: one, the government has borrowed so much money from the market that regular repayment of loans has become impossible; and two, the huge deficit in international trade. This second crisis is the result of the 2019 Easter Sunday explosion and the Covid-19 Pandemic. Naturally, as a consequence, there was a shortage of foreign currency again because the panic of terrorism and pandemic drove away vital revenue from tourism and remittances—a lifeline of the Sri Lankan economy.

Of Course, it was not impossible for efficient administration to cope with this shock. But the Rajapaksas made all the unnecessary mistakes even after this. Such as adopting organic farming practices by abolishing chemical fertilizers overnight or using foreign currency to control the rupee’s depreciation as well as imposing controls on imports. Even during the last few months, when the crisis of electricity and essential commodities began to intensify, the Sri Lankan ruling class, that is, the Rajapaksa family did not feel the urgency to embark on urgent course correction.

It may be further pointed out here that farming in Sri Lanka in the past was going well by applying chemical fertilizers. But due to its friendly relations with China, organic fertilizers were procured from China and applied to agriculture under China’s suggestion. As a result of shifting from chemical fertilizers to fully organic farming, crop production was badly hit. So when Sri Lanka wanted to return the rest of the unused fertilizer since it was harmful to their cultivation, China did not pay heed at all to that because of the agreement between the two states.

Notably, Sri Lanka’s debt has exceeded the national gross domestic product (GDP). Rather it is safe to say that Sri Lanka has fallen into a kind of debt-trap mainly with the opportunist China. For example, in 2017 when Sri Lanka handed over its Hambantota port to a Chinese state-owned company based on a deal of a 99-year lease, it sparked concerns across the region that Beijing would soon occupy more strategic space in the economy of the island nation.

However, with the resignation of a large section of the current ruling coalition, Rajapaksas have become increasingly cornered and helpless. The irony of fate is that now the Sri Lankan state faces a dire situation in which no one seems either interested or capable enough to take the bull by the horns.

It can be said here that Sri Lanka has a lot to learn from this dangerous situation and the danger is following the wrong politics. The main capital of Rajapaksa’s politics is a theatre of fierce Sinhalese and Buddhist nationalism, where hatred is cultivated against minority Muslims and Tamils. It is pertinent to mention here that in the first decade of the 21st century, it was the military aggression against the Tamil Tiger militants that helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to sit well in political power, and having succeeded in ensconcing himself, Rajapaksa wanted to cut off the dependence on India and the West, which were responsible for spreading the message of Tamil rights.

Naturally, this led to Sri Lanka’s growing hobnobbing with another Asian country—China—a country that would not question Sri Lanka’s majoritarian politics. This is also the reason for the departure from the previous pro-liberal policy of Sri Lanka and its triumphalism became a cover to hide human rights abuses and opaque administration. Will the world accept the teachings of how extremist religious nationalism and authoritarian politics can be a thorn on the side of good governance and cripple it financially?

Let us shed some light on what this financial catastrophe of the neighbouring state means for India. In fact, this situation in Sri Lanka has created a possibility of opportunity for India – The opportunity to regain dominance in South Asia after the pandemic. So in the event of Colombo’s debt defaulting, New Delhi’s posture could be more humane and empathetic to the concerns of the neighbouring state.

This year, India has provided as much as 2.5 billion US Dollars to Colombo for food and fuel, and to avoid the embarrassment of debt default. However, it must be remembered here that India must also see that this assistance should not be seen as an attempt to save the ruling group of Rajapaksas.  The Rajapaksa family is known to be close to China. Sri Lanka’s role in India’s security and strategic interests is therefore very significant. With Indo-Pacific becoming a new theatre of Sino-Indian tussle, India’s hope would be to wean Sri Lanka from China’s close embrace.

Although India wants to play the role of a helpful friend, there are still some hiccups in this situation. Since coming to the ruling power, Gotabaya has openly dominated his Sinhala identity. Before his election, he promised constitutional protection to the Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka but did not fulfil his electoral pledge in practice after being elected. Buddhist Sinhalese attacks on the Muslim minority have not been curbed seriously since the terrorist attacks during the Easter festival of 2019.

At last, it should be kept in mind that the current situation in Sri Lanka also carries a crucial message for the Indian rulers. Public outrage against the heavy-weight leaders could not be controlled if there is no tab on the inflation rate of commodities. Selling national assets like seaports in Sri Lanka, the burden of huge debts etc. has devastated the Sri Lankan economy. 

Similarly, the rapid rise in food and fuel prices in India, if they are not promptly brought under control, will soon push the limits. Then the anger or grievances of the people will fall on the streets. Colombo is sending that message to Delhi. Therefore, we have to be careful and vigilant before the sinews of our economy get fragile.

Read more by Gouri Sankar Nag and Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay here:

The Cycle of Democratic Crisis in Pakistan| 28 April 2022

The Toxicity of ‘Pegasus’ Expose| 3 August 2021

About the Authors

Dr Gouri Sankar Nag, Professor in Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University.

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Dr Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay, Associate Professor of Political Science at the PG Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, West Bengal. 

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