Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence. The country’s population of 22 million have endured months of severe shortages in food, fuel, and medicine amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Prolonged power cuts have meant that many doctors are forced to treat patients by flashlight, and essential medical supplies are running low. Basic foods, even locally produced ones, increased by 30 percent in March, becoming unaffordable for many. The price of white rice, a common food staple, increased by 93 percent since 2019. People are dying in the scorching heat waiting in queues for hours to get fuel every day.
How Did we Get Here?
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, running on a strong nationalist campaign, won the presidential election in November 2019 after securing 52 percent of the votes for the Sri Lanka People’s Front party, seven months after the Easter Sunday bombings. He ran on a platform of national security and made renewed appeals to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to protect Sri Lankans. However, this manifested in amassing greater powers to the Rajapaksa family. Gotabaya appointed his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president, as prime minister and several other family members various ministerial positions.
In 2020, the Rajapaksa government amended the constitution to give more power to the president. It paved the way for Gotabaya to crackdown on political dissent, dissolve parliament, appoint ex-military officers to high civilian administration positions, and further institutionalise discrimination against the minority Tamils and Muslims.
The crisis was entirely predictable and followed years of poor economic policies by a corrupt, authoritarian governing elite. While external factors such as COVID-19 and the Ukraine conflict are partly to blame, key government decisions have played a major role in the crisis. Sri Lanka owes large amounts of debt to countries such as China, and significant tax cuts have not helped the situation. Another significant factor was the government’s 2019 decision to ban chemical fertiliser, which caused the shutdown of several plantations and drastically reduced Sri Lanka’s ability to feed itself. The ban on chemical fertiliser negatively impacted farmers and plummeted crop yields, triggering inflation and crushing Sri Lanka’s key export industries like tea and rubber. The island is on the brink of bankruptcy.
Financial Bailouts but Government Corruption is Rampant
The government is scrambling to secure a financial bailout, as a severe shortage in foreign exchange means that the country does not have money to import basic goods. India has provided US $2.4 billion since the beginning of this year through a mix of donations: supplies, loan deferments, and currency swaps. China has pledged $31 million of humanitarian aid through the China International Development Cooperation Agency, with the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo stating that Sri Lanka had sought a new loan and buyer’s credit from China for $2.5 billion.
Finance Minister Ali Sabri is in Washington negotiating a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the IMF showed commitment to work with the Sri Lankan government, it also stressed that this support would be “premised upon the policy actions,” implemented to address the economic crisis. Economists argue that policy actions should include ordinary citizens – the informal creditors who bear the brunt of the crisis – through referendums at key points in the lead-up to bailouts.
Yet, Sri Lankan governments have employed a number of tactics to fund their corrupt activities that do not bode well for democratic governance and citizen input. Long-standing corrupt measures include interference with the public service, the abuse of state-owned enterprises and public resources, the siphoning away of public funds, and cronyism. Transparency advocates state that in the context of the economic crisis, evidence from the Pandora Papers about the Rajapaksa family’s “unexplained wealth held offshore hit close to home.”
Anger and rage have gripped the population, as thousands of people take to the streets each day in protest against the Rajapaksa government. Galle Face Green, a popular promenade in Sri Lanka’s business capital of Colombo, is ground zero for protestors. Anti-government sentiment is swelling across the island, further aggravated by recent police shootings of protestors that killed one person and left several others injured in Rambukkana in the South.
Meanwhile, the government has ramped up police and military presence “for the maintenance of public order.” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned Sri Lankan authorities for arresting and torturing protestors and journalists covering the protests. The entrance to the president’s office has been occupied by protestors demanding Gotabaya’s immediate resignation.
This mounting civil unrest marks a massive turnaround in support for Gotabaya and his election promises of security. Buddhist monks are protesting, demanding that Gotabaya and other members of his family quit. While these may be the first demonstrations of mass Sinhala resistance to the government, for the minority Tamils and Muslims, the crisis is part of a longer history of government-induced suffering and oppression of ordinary citizens.
Gotabaya’s refusal to step down in the face of the current protests is an indictment of his authoritarianism, underpinned by Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. Current and past crises can be directly linked to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, which is based on the view that Sinhalese Buddhists are the owners of Sri Lanka. The constitution grants Buddhism the foremost power on the island and paved the way for state suppression of minority groups.
Gotabaya has used Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to reject criticisms of the Sri Lankan state, including international calls for investigations into human rights violations and war crimes against the Tamils during the civil war. In blatant disregard for Muslim communities, the government implemented forced cremations that prevented Muslims from burying their dead who died from COVID-19, despite the World Health Organization stating it was safe to carry out burials.
The Rajapaksa family dynasty will seek to remain in power. Nearly all cabinet ministers and several MPs have quit, but Gotabaya “will not resign from his post under any circumstances.” Sri Lanka’s main opposition party has presented a constitutional amendment bill that, among other provisions, seeks to replace the presidential system of governance with a system that reinforces constitutional democracy. It aims to curb the power of the president.
Widespread protests will not ease any time soon, as Sri Lankans blame Gotabaya and the government for the crisis. Even if Gotabaya quits due to public pressure, genuine economic stability in Sri Lanka can only be achieved if the ethnocratic policies of the Sinhala-Buddhist state are addressed, including embracing the political aspirations of its pluralistic society.
—–By Dr Niro Kandasamy.
The writer is a Lecturer in History in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI) at the University of Sydney.
This article first appeared on the website of Australian Institute of International Affairs