As Sri Lanka descends into anarchy, India watches with caution
JULY 9, 2022: Protesters break into the president’s office in Colombo (Photo: Getty Images)
A WEEKEND AGO, protesters had stormed the Sri Lankan president’s residence in Colombo and sent him into hiding. Soon after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country on July 13—before resigning on July 14—and picked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president, the military was asked to restore order. Wickremesinghe quickly declared an emergency and violence marred the hitherto mostly peaceful protests. The crisis had been in the making for at least a decade. Sri Lanka has run out of forex reserves and failed to make a payment on its foreign debt in May for the first time in its history. With inflation above 50 per cent, prolonged power cuts, a healthcare system without medicines, little fuel for public transport and none for private vehicles, schools shut, and no money to buy even essential goods from other countries, Sri Lanka’s economic collapse would have inevitably led to political chaos. While the government blamed the pandemic and a series of terror attacks in 2019 that kept tourists away, the malaise has had its roots in the brief boom the Lankan economy had enjoyed after the end of the civil war and a string of wrong policy decisions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has laid down the condition that taxes and interest rates must be raised for a deal—a deal Colombo will hardly be able to do without. India, too, has offered help.
ON JULY 13, JUST A DAY AFTER REPRESENTATIVES of the “Gotagohome” protests, seeking the ouster of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, were invited to all-party talks convened by parliament Speaker Mahinda Abeywardena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe placed the country under a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in Western Province which includes the capital Colombo. His decision followed the storming of his personal residence on Flower Street from where he was functioning since his appointment in May with videos recording several gunshot-like sounds as a mob milled around. It also came on a day when the world was treated to the extraordinary sight of a protester, a young bearded man wearing a cap backward, appearing briefly as ‘anchor’ on the state run Rupavahini broadcaster, reminiscent of military coups and armed takeovers making state radio and television their first port of call. The incident on Flower Street occurred days after hundreds of protesters entered Rajapaksa’s official quarters and videos showed sundry people jumping into a pool and using treadmills in a large gym on the premises. Wickremesinghe’s office-residence Temple Trees, which he is not using, was targeted as well, with a media unit wrecked and reports saying valuables were stolen. The attack on the prime minister’s personal residence, however, made it clear the protesters were not stopping at Rajapaksa’s ouster, demanding complete political change, the contours of which were left undefined.
July 13 was a dramatic day as Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe acting president before fleeing to the Maldives with the assistance of the military. He later conveyed to Abeywardena that he would indeed formally hand over his resignation, which he did on July 14. His elder brother, Mahinda, who was replaced as prime minister by Wickremesinghe, is reportedly hiding at a naval base. Armed with his dual authority, the prime minister said a “fascist threat” to democracy and destruction of state property could not be permitted and set up a committee of senior military and police officials to manage law and order. Wickremesinghe had previously described the looting of his official residence as a reflection of a “Hitler-like mindset” and said hundreds of books and paintings had been destroyed in the arson attack. He offered to resign for an all-party government but with little sign of any consensus, he vowed to restore normalcy to the street. The task is a tall order as the mobs on the capital’s streets seem to pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the entire political system, not just the ousted Rajapaksa clan. What began as an outburst of public anger and rioting after a foreign exchange crisis triggered fuel and food shortages has become an inchoate revolution calling for the overthrow of political authority. The uncertainties unleashed by events have not left the “Aragalya” protest site at Galle Face untouched either with reports of four men between 15 and 20 suffering stab injuries, amidst dozens of such incidents at the venue even as air force helicopters flew overhead to keep an eye on the crowd.
The swarms of protesters waving Sri Lankan flags, seen by some observers as evidence of the ‘people’ taking over, appear a motley crew with Sinhala monks, unemployed youth, rural residents and radical elements all part of the anarchic scenes. Largely leaderless, the crowds were nevertheless mobilised and brought to the capital by transporters and others who took over trains and forced railway staff to ferry people to Colombo. The spontaneous anger over the gross mismanagement of the economy by the Rajapaksas, the flagrant nepotism of their rule with brothers and sons appointed to key cabinet and official posts and the stench of corruption erupted in early May and has not subsided since. The ‘people’s movement’ has inevitably evoked comparisons with events such as the Arab Spring, the lawyers’ movement against former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, or the mass protests against Hussain Muhammad Ershad in Bangladesh. The protests in the Arab world ended badly, with democracy barely flickering in Tunisia. Musharraf was weakened but finally ousted by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) joining hands on an impeachment motion while Ershad indeed had to quit.
There are worrying shades of nihilism in the Sri Lanka protests as ‘occupants’ of official residences snack on foodstuff and loll around on sofas and beds. The country’s fractious political parties are struggling to find a unified approach and efforts to form an all-party government are yet to bear fruit. The leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa, aspires to lead the country while, ironically enough, five-time prime minister Wickremesinghe may have better credentials to negotiate with international institutions even though he occupies a nominated seat, the only one held by his United National Party in parliament. Meanwhile, efforts to establish a modicum of order and negotiate bailouts and assistance from friendly nations and multilateral agencies have been repeatedly challenged by mob rule in Colombo and other cities. The attack on his Flower Street residence left Wickremesinghe with few choices but to order a crackdown. The still lingering suspense over Gotabaya’s resignation and reports of his flight to the Maldives did nothing to ease the tension. (He left the Maldives for Singapore on July 14.) The nebulous political situation led to rumours and unbridled speculation. Talk swirled about India helping Rajapaksa making a getaway, which was promptly denied by the Indian government. Struggling to make sense of Sri Lanka’s descent into chaos, commentators speculated about who would “gain” from the current uncertainty, with some looking to cast India as a suspect despite New Delhi having committed to go beyond the $4 billion of loans, currency swaps and aid provided and help the country meet it basic necessities. Meanwhile, China has kept a studied silence, hoping to avoid drawing public anger over the usurious terms of its economic assistance that aggravated Sri Lanka’s fiscal crisis. Interestingly enough, the Chinese foreign ministry praised India’s efforts to stabilise the situation saying New Delhi had done a lot and its efforts were to be commended.
IRONICALLY, THE Sri Lankan economy was showing signs of incipient recovery in January-March this year after the devastating fallout of the Covid pandemic. The country received the highest number of tourists in a long while in December 2021, with Indians leading the tally of visitors. There were tourists from Europe and North America as well although very few Chinese visitors showed up—as is the case at other destinations too—due to stringent lockdowns in major Chinese cities. Airlines began to ply from cities in south India like Bengaluru, Chennai, Madurai, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, besides Mumbai and Delhi. Sri Lankan Airlines offered discounted tickets on bookings. Though its immediate woes were due to Covid, the tourism sector had been severely impacted by the 2019 Easter bombings carried out by the National Thowheed Jamath, a fundamentalist Islamic group, which resulted in a sharp drop in tourists from Western countries. The terror strikes preceded the Rajapaksa regime and the incessant squabbling between then President Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe (who was prime minister then too) was seen as a reason why signs of growing extremism were missed. Smruti Pattanaik, research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), agrees that a drift in Sri Lankan politics has taken a toll on governance and eroded economic stability. Gotabaya’s fall from grace just two-and-a-half years after winning a parliamentary majority was a result of several ill-considered and short-sighted decisions. “Somewhere, the Rajapaksa clan made a miscalculation. They felt they were invincible and immune from criticism. They did not bother about rising criticism of corruption and other complaints,” says Pattanaik. She also points to the promotion of narratives critical of India and Japan while Chinese investments seemed to get a freer run despite troubling signs that terms of the debt incurred on Beijing-funded infrastructure projects eroded projected benefits. The dire example of the Hambantota port, a project initiated under the previous Rajapaksa government, where China forced the successor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe team to hand over 15,000 acres for 99 years for failed repayments, went unheeded. Instead, in February 2021, Sri Lanka’s central bank foreclosed a $400 million currency swap with India at around the same time the government backed out of the East Container Terminal project with India and Japan. Sri Lanka instead chose to seal a $1.5 billion swap deal with China for bilateral trade and direct investment. The turn of events is such that now Sri Lanka is trying to amend the terms that the facility can only be used if Colombo has three months of foreign exchange reserve. Meanwhile, India has extended the $400 million amenity in a show of solidarity and assistance. China holds more than 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt and while some commentators argue that this is not much, it did constitute a debt trap that aggravated the crisis where the current account deficit rose even as exports slumped. Though the Rajapaksas have been staunch allies, Beijing studiously avoided providing any significant monetary assistance, causing a disappointed Gotabaya Rajapaksa to remark that China’s attention had moved to Southeast Asia.
The lack of any purpose in the discussions between political parties and growing lawlessness on the streets has created a deeply worrying situation not only for Sri Lanka but for India as well which must consider the fallout of the unrest. The protesters, who initially concentrated their ire on the Rajapaksas, have turned on Wickremesinghe and are now demanding nothing short of a system overhaul. Although far from being homogenous, more radical elements have taken centrestage, questioning the legitimacy of the political process itself which bodes ill for any semblance of normalcy returning. “Earlier, I felt that an election is hardly feasible in the current situation. But given the lack of cohesion among political parties who are rather seeking to gain advantages for themselves, and the opposition Wickremesinghe is facing, it might be better if a schedule for a national election is announced,” says Gulbin Sultana, associate fellow at MP-IDSA’s South Asia Centre. She expresses concern about the increasingly chaotic nature of the protests with the state itself becoming a target, creating space for anti-socials to take matters into their own hands.
The options for India remain limited, given the unpredictability of the situation. The consensus within the Indian policy establishment seems to be that prescriptive statements should be avoided while continuing and even accelerating the assistance offered so far
“There is concern that forces like the radical left will use the opportunity to further an agenda that seeks to undercut the political process,” says Pattanaik. The options for India remain limited, given the unpredictability of the situation. Wickremesinghe assuming the post of president may well be contested by others although there are constitutional provisions that allow this. However, even his resignation may offer no comfort as an interim or all-party government may prove elusive with political parties on the left and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) opposed to approaching the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The consensus within the Indian policy establishment seems to be that prescriptive statements should be avoided while continuing and even accelerating the assistance offered so far. Prolonged uncertainty through the year seems inevitable even as the spectre of an economic and political meltdown in the near-neighbourhood can only raise concerns about the geopolitical situation in the Indian Ocean. The turmoil in Sri Lanka, Pattanaik points out, does nothing to resolve the older problems. “The demands for system change do not incorporate any accommodation of Tamil rights and demands,” she warns. The anomaly in the current situation is brought out by the fact that Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) continues to enjoy a clear majority in parliament which was evident in the election of the deputy speaker and votes on other issues, even garnering support from other parties.