Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has united a divided nation against the Rajapaksa regime
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (left) during the Independence Day celebrations on February 4, 2022 (Photo: AFP)
SRI LANKA IS on the verge of falling into an economic, political and social abyss with no real prospects of getting out of it in the near future. Till now, daily but increasingly larger, vociferous and so-far peaceful protests have erupted all over the country. Though it began with the slogan “Go Home Gota”, specifically targeting the once popular incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it soon snowballed into a broader agitation encompassing the entire Rajapaksa clan, their political cronies in government, and now, to a large extent, the entire 225 members of parliament irrespective of their party affiliations. Not surprisingly, given this distaste for established politics in the public mood, most daily protests across the county are not organised by established political parties but by local organisations or individuals with the help of social media and messaging apps for mobilisation. In this situation, one can hear from the government as well as opposition groups from the left to the right that leaderless protests like these are dangerous. But a textbook understanding of social movements does not always tally with what happens on the ground. What we are seeing is the spillover of years of frustration and unrecognised patience on the part of the polity and the lack of confidence in Lankan politics in general.
But why is this happening now? The immediate triggers for the crisis and the ongoing agitations are the rolling power cuts sometimes extending for 13 hours a day, extreme shortage of fuel, including cooking gas, scarcity of essential items like milk, power and medicines, and the inability of hundreds of thousands of people to make ends meet. In the final analysis, all of this is linked to Sri Lanka’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves, which have now reached an all-time low. More broadly, it also shows the lack of vision of successive governments post-independence, particularly after 1977, in not diversifying and localising Lanka’s economy and keeping it so dependent on imports and tourism. People like daily-wage earners with routine sources of income who were not destitute as recently as two months ago have suddenly been thrown into the depths of poverty. This turmoil unfolds against a background where Lanka’s inflation is increasing at its fastest pace in Asia while the Lankan rupee is the worst performing currency in the world right now.
The conditions that pushed Lanka into this turmoil have been described well globally. And much of it has to do with irrational borrowing without working out the means for repayment and thereby getting into a serious debt trap. While these conditions are not entirely created by the incumbent president or the government, they are seen by most people as primary drivers of the present crisis. This is because numerous white elephant projects have been undertaken by the previous Rajapaksa regimes, such as the loss-making Hambantota International Airport, the Hambantota Harbour and the Colombo Lotus Tower, all of which were constructed with Chinese loans. The harbour has now been leased for 99 years to the Chinese. And the only reason for locating the first two projects in Hambantota is its being the hometown of the Rajapaksas.
While these kinds of projects have clearly worsened the debt problem, a consistent popular discourse has maintained that these projects were not merely wasteful and irrational from a planning and developmental point of view but also financially benefitted only the ruling family. A number of wide-ranging global exposes have been conducted directly naming them in corruption allegations, none of which has been contested in courts by the Rajakaksas so far. And much of the Rajapaksas’ and their political cronies’ obvious wealth remains undocumented and undeclared. Given this situation and its popular manifestation, it is not difficult to understand the public mood and particularly its frustration with the ruling family and their close associates.
The rather unconvincing address to the nation by president Rajapaksa on national television on March 16 in which he claimed that the current crisis was not his creation infuriated many Lankans. The President’s address was one of the most important recent triggers for the protests to be focused on him
But we need to focus on a number of issues beyond bad economic and financial management to understand the current situation and the prevailing public mood. These issues are crucial in matters of governance and the confidence people have in their government. It is mostly anger that currently drives Sri Lanka’s ongoing agitations. And much of that is focused on the president’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. This has much to do with ground politics as well as perception. For instance, take the issue of nepotism in the present government. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the prime minister. Another elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, was the minister of irrigation, state minister of defence and state minister of home affairs. And yet another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, was the minister of finance until the farcical cabinet reshuffle earlier this week. This is merely at the top. Many of their siblings and other close kin are either in parliament or in important government positions. According to some estimates, nearly 70 per cent of the national budget was controlled by politicians associated with the Rajapaksa family via kinship links. Even by South Asian standards, where nepotism is almost an accepted norm in politics, the Sri Lankan situation is a case by itself. In such a context, it is not completely feasible to blame the current conditions merely on the pandemic and global issues as the government has been doing. Clearly, there have been serious issues of mismanagement and corruption. One of the most consistent slogans that has recently emerged in the ongoing protests focuses on the unexplained riches the ruling family and their cronies have made and the need to recover these funds. Given this situation, it is not possible for the Rajapaksas to claim they have nothing to do with the crisis. In fact, the rather unconvincing address to the nation by President Rajapaksa on national television on March 16, in which he claimed that the current crisis was not his creation, infuriated many Lankans already tired of the excruciating economic and living conditions. The president’s address was one of the most important recent triggers for the protests to be focused on him.
A popular self-perception of the government’s lack of care for people’s suffering and its visual representations particularly on social media has further exacerbated the situation. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, during a visit to Colombo in late March, observed in a tweet that he was “disturbed” to hear that a premier hospital in the country had suspended scheduled surgeries due to lack of medicines and had asked the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo to see how help can be offered to the Lankans. No comparable public statements of care and concern came from politicians of the regime. Instead, what captured the public attention was former Minster of Youth Affairs Namal Rajapaksa, the elder son of the prime minister, in a carefree manner engaged in watersports in the Maldives while the country was embroiled in crisis. The aesthetics were simply mindboggling. Besides, while people were enduring 13-hour power cuts, the president’s private house, official residences of ministers and members of parliament experienced no such deprivations. They also did not have to wait in queues for fuel and cooking gas like ordinary citizens. Again, the aesthetics of these incredibly vulgar contradictions were too obvious. For the people in general, the hardships were both cruel and personally felt, and this was across regional, class and ethno-religious divides. In a sense, at least for the moment, the crisis and people’s anger towards the regime seem to have unified Lanka’s divided people towards a common set of goals: to oust the president, to oust the government, to recover public funds they think have been stolen from them, and to form a new government which they hope would make their lives better. But real life cannot be this liner, simple and easy, however reasonable those expectations might be.
While people were enduring 13-hour power cuts, the President’s private house, official residences of ministers and members of parliament experienced no such deprivations. They also did not have to wait in queues for fuel and cooking gas like ordinary citizens. The aesthetics of these incredibly vulgar contradictions were too obvious
It is against this background that the protests began initially as night-time vigils at a few places in a number of Colombo suburbs by a handful of ordinary people. These were followed by two mass rallies by the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya on March 15 and Jathika Jana Balawegaya on March 23. Since then, hundreds of independent and well-attended protests in key towns and cities across the country have taken place and they are continuing. For the moment, there is no sense of cessation of these protests and the government’s lack of finesse and political commonsense in dealing with the situation does not help matters as well. The ban on social media and communication apps enforced by the ministry of defence and the island-wide curfew declared to stall massive public protests planned for April 3 did not go down well with most people. These actions were seen as both anti-people and a sign of weakness on the part of the government. While the social media ban was bypassed easily by many citizens by resorting to freely available VPN technology, the curfew did have an effect on the planned protests—though only up to a point. Most protestors went online while many citizens simply took their placards just beyond their gates and protested anyway individually or in small groups. In some places, protest marches took place irrespective of the curfew. It was a clear signal of the defiant mood and resilience of the protestors. Under pressure, when the cabinet of ministers tendered their resignations in the backdrop of a general and vocal conversation on forming a “national government” consisting of individuals drawn from different parties represented in parliament, no such thing happened. Instead, the president simply appointed some of the same despised politicians to their former positions or new positions. It seemed like an arrogant “in-your-face” gesture by the president. It was also yet another clear sign of his political immaturity. But newly appointed Finance Minister Ali Sabry resigned within hours. Now, on the eve of scheduled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country does not have a finance minister. What is worse is that an able political operator and negotiator is certainly not available in the president’s political fold anyway.
WHERE WOULD ALL this lead? The tragedy of Lanka’s predicament is that no quick solution or even a viable mid-term solution is visible despite people’s euphoria and expectations in the protests. The relative success and the ability to shake the government’s confidence at different levels have made the slogans and the expectations of the protestors loftier, broader and idealistic but not unreasonable. But what is possible in this situation?
By late July 2022, $1,000,000,000 in international sovereign bonds must be paid in full. This is besides many multilateral loan payments. Whatever Lanka’s future might be in the coming months, this amount must be paid. If not, Lanka will enter a condition of “disorderly default”, one of the worst positions a country in debt can get into. But neither the government nor the parliamentary opposition or the protestors on the ground have so far shown even a semblance of a plan on how to achieve this seemingly impossible goal.
Some protestors as well as the established opposition parties have been talking of snap elections. While this might have been a viable option under relatively ordinary conditions, it is not really an option for Lanka at present. As a veritably bankrupt country, it simply cannot afford elections despite having the machinery and the knowhow for it. Besides, an election at this time, with hardly any time to organise, means that the same political actors who are at the receiving end of the people’s wrath might become future candidates too. That obviously is not an option at all.
In this unenviable situation, however unpopular it may be, the only short-term option is to try to find ways to work with the existing parliament. But to do that, considerable and necessary compromises will have to be made in the prevailing power structure. To begin with, instead of acquiring loans from different countries from China to India and serving their own strategic and national interests in the process, it is much safer to negotiate with an entity like IMF for a bailout package. Lanka has done this 16 times before, but this would be the most crucial. But this cannot be done with the kind of people in the president’s fold now. The newly appointed governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, a competent technocrat, can be a crucial member of such a team along with independent and competent economists and financial experts untainted by political affiliations and dubious professional practices. It is not that the country does not have such experts, but they are not in government. But when negotiating with an entity like IMF with its own crude neoliberal slant, one must also have in the team of negotiators individuals with an established track record in social justice issues. Moreover, Lanka’s plan to be presented to IMF must be made available to the public. This is the only way at least a part of the people’s almost complete distrust in the government might be addressed. At present, the government’s lack of transparency in its dealings with countries from China to India to the US when it comes to financial and economic relations is a major complaint entertained by many people, and rightly so.
Also, if one were to work with the present parliament in a situation when many people have lost confidence in all its 225 members—if persistent slogans are any indication—some degree of confidence needs to be re-established in the parliament. It is an almost impossible task but not undoable if a degree of political commonsense is exercised. This can begin by revoking the 20th Amendment to the Constitution which has given the president an unhealthy and anti-democratic amount of power and re-establishing the supremacy of parliament. But the present parliament itself suffers from a general lack of confidence. And rightly so when one takes into account the individual track records of many members. But this does not mean a relatively reasonable interim cabinet of ministers cannot be drawn from the existing parliament representing different parties, the selection criterion being only competence. But in so doing, to ensure that democratic practices are brought back, it is necessary to reactivate the parliament oversight committees that have been defunct since 2019 when the incumbent president took over.
As a veritably bankrupt country, Sri Lanka cannot afford elections despite having the machinery and the knowhow. Besides, an election at this time, with hardly any time to organise, means that the same political actors who are at the receiving end of the people’s wrath might become future candidates too
But clearly this is an interim measure at best. It does not mean that the reasonable and idealistic aspirations of the protestors and other citizens will be fulfilled in the short term. But it will offer a minor breathing space at a time breathing is literally very difficult and when imagining a palatable future is next to impossible. Beyond the short term, the crisis and protests have helped bring to the political fore road signs for future politics in the mid term and beyond. And that is a complete restructuring of the way in which Lankan politics is conducted, from recovering ill-gotten public funds, litigating against political actors found guilty of crimes, eradicating corruption and nepotism, rescinding the unreasonable benefits given to parliamentarians, and raising the educational requirements to enter politics particularly at the national level, and so on. But if the past is any indication, it does not seem evident that the government and the president are capable of reading the writing on the wall.