Dr. Shreesh K. Pathak
16th April 2022
Go home Gota”
“Go home Jokers”
“You messed with the wrong generation”
These are few of the slogans on placards wielded by young protesters in Mirihana in front of the Sri Lankan President’s private residence. Even a cursory glance on the opinion pages of different Lankan newspapers would tell one in chorus that the country is going through a politico-economic transition. The people of Sri Lanka are clearly going through hard times, and optimism is hard to come by. Continuous power cut for more than 11 hours, long queue for diesel at pumps and for money at ATMs, scarcity of papers as exams are being cancelled for the students, severe shortage of essential commodities like rice, dal, milk powder, cooking gas, medicines etc. are causing unbearable suffering to the people of Sri Lanka. Power cut is the most serious one as manufacturing and service sector along with common households are dependent on it. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) announced a 13-hour daily power cut from March 31. The CEB Chairman said, “When God gives rain and CPC (Ceylon Petroleum Corporation) gives fuel, CFB can give power.”
Keeping in view around $51 billion external debt for Sri Lanka in this calendar year, the Governor of the Central Bank declared a default on foreign debt. As per J. P. Morgan estimation, the country’s gross debt servicing this year would amount to USD 7 billion and USD 12.55 billion in outstanding International sovereign bonds. The data shared by the Central Bank suggests that Sri Lanka has foreign reserves of only USD 1.93 billion at the end of March to import essentials for its people. Going through the similar economic collapse as Lebanon (2020), Argentina (2020), Venezuela (2017-18) and Greece (2015), the Lankan government would start discussions with IMF later in this month.
What seemed in the beginning an economic crisis looming, is evident now as a political crisis as well emanating from deep social fracture. The Rajapaksa clan government, led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa is trying to cope with the present circumstances anyhow but it does not seem to be recuperating. Public opinion is against the clan, opposition parties are steering that anguish and trying to oppose the existing executive presidential system which was advocated firstly by J. R. Jayewardene and translated fully with the rise of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Lankan government declared and then lifted emergency amidst raising voices of suffering people on the streets and the cacophony of opposition parties.
The crisis is not only having politico-economic dimension but socio-historical as well. Sri Lanka as an island nation is naturally a beautiful country with a diverse multi-ethnic culture. Around 500 BC, after the Indo-Aryan migration, Sinhala spread all over the island. Tamils also arrived around 250 BC here. In the year 1505, with the arrival of Portuguese, Sinhaldweep got colonised. The British subjugated Ceylon demolishing Kandy Empire in 1815. Tamils who arrived from South India as labourers by the British in the country, they have been at margins since then. Sri Lanka won independence in 1948 but its first independent government of Solomon Bhandarnayke in 1956 started its tenure with the ethos of Sinhala nationalism. A country, which should have fought against the ills of colonial past with embracing boons of modern world, unfortunately got engulfed in the politics of majority rhetoric.
Sri Lanka strengthened its economy with the development of tourism sector and export of tea, coffee, coconut, etc. but its political elites failed to unite the country nurturing its ethnic diversity. Around two third of the population of the island are Sinhalese and Tamils make around 15% of the population. Malay, Moors, Burghers, Veddas etc. are other minorities along with Tamils who have never been accommodated in the mainstream politic-social spectrum of the country and this is still awaited. Continuous ignorance and repression caused Tamil uprising led by the LTTE and country was marred by civil war for decades, which brutally ended in the year 2009. Civil war compelled the Lankan economy to spend beyond its means on defence requirements and when it ended, Sri Lanka found itself in acute foreign debt burden and a stagnant economy without the momentum. Sri Lanka had been generally inclined towards western countries embracing welfare liberalism but after the conclusion of civil war, Sri Lanka tried to trade its geopolitical significance and tilted towards Chinese trajectory. This eventually led the country into the Chinese Debt-trap.
In April 2019, the country suffered Easter Bombing terrorist attack, which severely affected the tourism sector of the country. Rajapaksa clan returned to power again in the same year making Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Instead of managing debts and economy of the country, the government took many hasty decisions like the complete banning of chemical fertilisers, cutting the tax as populist step, which jolted the Lankan economy very badly. Arrival of the Covid pandemic severely hit the remittances, tourism industry and exports. Somehow, the Lankan government was managing the situation, but the Ukraine crisis extrapolated stress on the economy as fuel prices are sky high.
In this grim situation, as a brotherly gesture India has provided Sri Lanka financial aid worth almost $2.5 billion, including a $500-million line of credit for fuel purchases and another $1-billion line of credit for buying food, medicines, and other essential items along with a currency swap of $400 million under the SAARC facility and deferred the payment of $515 million to the Asian Clearing Union. A consignment of 11,000 mt of rice reached the island nation from India in addition to 5,000 mt already received through the line of credit. Sri Lanka has sought $2 billion worth of assistance from India, over and above the $2.5 billion extended and “has asked India if it can reach out to some of its bilateral and multilateral partners like the US, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN, and play “guarantor” to seek financial help for Colombo”. India can bargain a moratorium for Sri Lanka and try to help in reconfiguration of economic processes. This would make Indian rebranding in the island nation against the Chinese influence.
Corrupt governments emanated from weak civil societies around the world provoke sensitive rhetoric, majoritarianism, jingoism and populism supported by religious fundamentalism. Sri Lanka seems no different. Divided on ethnic lines, fractured civil society of Sri Lanka elected corrupt governments in a series, established a majoritarian Sinhalese regime of jingoistic fervour supported by Buddhist fundamentalism. Ignoring the health of economy, governments made policies aiming at populist sentiments. What Sri Lanka requires is a federal political system accommodating poised representation of ethnic diversity, inclusive development with optimum utilisation of resources and credible regional-global engagements. The Lankan crisis is a lesson to any nation with colonial past to learn how not to govern. The people of Sri Lanka are passing through hard times and anything better can only be expected in long run provided political elites do not repeat the past mistakes.
*The Author is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Amity Institute of International Studies (AIIS), Amity University (Noida)
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author