Sri Lanka’s Road to Ruin Was Political, Not Economic

The proximate cause for the protests is inflation, but the roots are in Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

By Neil de Votta, Foreign Policy, Washington, DC, July 12, 2022

Protesters shout slogans during an ongoing anti-government demonstration near the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 19.

Protesters shout slogans during an ongoing anti-government demonstration near the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 19. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

On Saturday, Sri Lanka’s horrific saga took a consequential turn when protesters stormed and occupied the presidential offices and both the president’s and prime minister’s official residences. Global media are now filled with videos of protesters swimming in the president’s pool, resting on his bed, using his gym, and fixing meals in his kitchen—after overcoming barricades, tear gas, and beatings. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had half a term still left to serve, had fled the scene before the protesters arrived. A few hours later, the speaker of Parliament announced the president would step down on Wednesday, although Sri Lankans want to see the president publicly announce his resignation himself. By this time, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence had been set ablaze—an act that may be associated with pro-Rajapaksa elements, some of whom detest Wickremesinghe and want to discredit the protesters.

Wickremesinghe was made prime minister in May, when protesters entered Temple Trees, as the prime minister’s residence is known, and forced then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—the president’s brother and himself a former two-term president—to flee and resign. This took place after Mahinda Rajapaksa and his minions egged on supporters to attack anti-government protesters, who thereafter also torched numerous homes belonging to mainly pro-Rajapaksa members of Parliament. When Wickremesinghe was prime minister previously—this being his sixth stint, although he has never completed a full prime ministerial term—he obstructed efforts to prosecute the Rajapaksas for sundry crimes; his latest appointment was therefore viewed as providing Gotabaya Rajapaksa a lifeline and blunting the protest movement. It is why the protesters demand his dismissal as well.

The proximate cause of the protests is ruinous economic policies, but what put the Rajapaksa family in power—a family formerly considered village bumpkins—was Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. It was nationalism that enabled governance rooted in meritocracy to be supplanted by ethnocracy, which over time has led to kakistocracy—governance by a country’s worst citizens. As a Sri Lankan newspaper once bemoaned, “drug dealers, fraudsters, murderers, rapists, bootleggers and cattle rustlers” control politics, and they have bankrupted a country with so much potential.

Anti-government protests were spreading by June 2021 when farmers and trade unions criticized the government for declaring a ban on imported chemical fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides, which drastically threatened crop yields. By then the country was facing a dire balance of payments crisis, and the ban was supposed to save $400 million in subsidies. Sinhalese Buddhist farmers voted overwhelmingly for the Rajapaksas, and this may have been why they were initially averse to protesting Gotabaya and Mahinda directly. Fear was clearly another reason. In the past, some journalists who criticized the Rajapaksas were murdered.

But this time, the farmers’ agitation took root and spread among the middle classes, who lined sidewalks with placards and candles. In March, women supporting the opposition led a spontaneous protest outside the president’s private residence. The next month, protesters congregated outside the Presidential Secretariat, from which the president works, and branded their movement an aragalaya (struggle). Subsequent protest sites were set up throughout the island, and it was violence against protestors outside Temple Trees that led to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ouster on May 9. The protests at the presidential secretariat were in their 92nd day when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled. It was a far cry from when his election campaign in November 2019 promised “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour.”

The immediate reason for Sri Lanka’s current crisis is its foreign currency shortage, and poverty and ruin made the protests more intense. The currency shortage stems from a number of events: The 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and COVID-19 negatively impacted tourism, while the pandemic also reduced remittances from thousands employed abroad. Ill-conceived tax cuts the president instituted upon his election minimized revenue. Together, this made servicing the island’s $51 billion debt—with $7 billion due this year alone—impossible.

The rolling economic crisis meant that people have been waiting in line for days for essentials like cooking gas, kerosene, gasoline, sugar, milk powder, and medicines. (Sixteen people have died waiting in fuel lines this year.) In a country that in 2019 had reached upper-middle-income status, Sri Lankans wielded placards directed at the president and his family asking, “Why have you made us beggars?” Even middle-class families are going without meals, and UNICEF says 5.7 million people require humanitarian assistance, including around 2.3 million children, many of whom are suffering from malnutrition and wasting. With the government printing trillions of rupees, food inflation in June was up to more than 80 percent. Eighty percent of Sri Lankans were forced to eat less food or cheaper food as of last month.

Still, while Sri Lanka has been here once before—in the mid-1970s, when dirigiste and autarkist governmental policies led to lines for food—it was a much different country then. There were few vehicles; most villages lacked electricity. Today, most households own a vehicle (including motorcycles), and most also use gas cylinders for cooking. Even farming small plots is mechanized, with the result that fuel is a more important commodity than ever before. So when late last month, on top of everything else, the dollar-denuded government decided to halt fuel sales to nonessential workers—the first country to do so since the 1979 global oil crisis—it made a frustrated populace furious.

After the fuel announcement, organizers began using social media to encourage attendance at Saturday’s protest. The government imposed an overnight curfew on Friday, deployed thousands of troops, and spread rumors about potential terrorist attacks, but nothing stopped hundreds of thousands of people from descending on Colombo, the capital. Few could have envisioned the complete takeover of the most powerful domains of government that followed, but there were a handful of harbingers. Four days earlier, the Rajapaksas were delivered a sign of the intensity of opposition to their regime when some in the opposition jeered at the president and forced him to leave Parliament. The government hovering at a 3 percent approval rating was clearly another ominous sign.

The roots of the current crisis lie with ethnocracy, which entails domination and subordination. The Sinhalese, currently 75 percent of the population, subscribe to an ideology that claims they are the island’s original settlers and that all others—including Tamils (around 15 percent) and Muslims (around 10 percent)—live there thanks to majoritarian sufferance. The associated mytho-history enables a powerful ethnoreligious narrative undergirded by Buddhism. Sri Lanka’s flag provides for an arresting depiction in this regard. The lion representing the majority community holds a sword, representing bravery, facing stripes, denoting minorities. The beastly flag represents a fundamental fact: To be a Sinhalese Buddhist has long outranked being Sri Lankan.

Sri Lanka’s ethnocracy started when Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike made Sinhala the only official language in 1956 and successive governments thereby avoided hiring and promoting Tamils in particular. Tamils were, for various reasons, overrepresented within the state services. But within 15 years of Sinhala being made the official language, the tables were turned. For instance, in 1956 Tamils made up 30 percent and 40 percent of the bureaucracy and armed forces, respectively; by 1970 the figures corresponded to 5 percent and 1 percent. A related policy terminated the English stream in schools, as it was considered inimical to Sinhalese socioeconomic upward mobility. With this policy, Sri Lankans permanently lost the English edge they had enjoyed over countries in Asia.

The administrative services were likewise gutted over the same period, enabling cabinet ministers to lord over ministries that competent and professional cabinet secretaries previously managed. The latter were dispassionate, whereas the government wanted ethnocentric enforcers. The universities were not spared either, with the state requiring Tamils to score higher than Sinhalese to gain admission to science-based disciplines while failing to expand facilities so that mainly rural Sinhalese students could be accommodated. Today universities in Sri Lanka are known more for politicization, anomie, and ethnonationalist activism than imparting a skills-based education.

As meritocracy and professionalism were undermined, many among those qualified moved abroad. Tamils had little choice, but Sinhalese who valued integrity and competence also bolted. This brain drain amid ethnocentric recruitment saw standards decline throughout government sectors. Yet to the Sinhalese Buddhists, it was “ape anduwa” (our government).

Tamil youth responded to ethnic persecution by waging a separatist war lasting nearly three decades. Since the conflict ended in 2009, Rajapaksa-led governments, liaising with extremist Buddhist monks, whipped up Islamophobia. Being anti-minority became patriotic, which is why the Rajapaksas could combine their Sinhalese Buddhist credentials with cavalier racism to keep winning elections for two decades. The role they played in defeating the separatist and terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam only bolstered these credentials.

In the postwar period, Mahinda Rajapaksa, especially, embraced Chinese-funded white elephant projects. In doing so, his governments resorted to a debt rollover strategy, using foreign currency acquired via tourism and remittances to pay off interest on loans. When it needed more money, it borrowed more. Yet Sri Lanka actually only owes about 10 percent of its foreign debts to China. At this juncture the issue is less about the amount owed to China and more about the “well-concealed” nature of the loans and the extent to which they assisted kleptocracy.

Sri Lanka is now desperately seeking assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, but these entities and other creditors will demand transparency on China’s debts before agreeing to financial aid and debt restructuring. Indeed, Sri Lanka is a poster child when discussing the debt-trap diplomacy associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Kleptocrats seek to stay in power because they fear being held accountable. Gotabaya Rajapaksa refused to leave for so long because he gave up his American citizenship to run for the presidency and because once out of power he and his family could finally be charged for their predatory past. Parliament may appoint its speaker as the interim president after both the president and prime minister officially resign. As of now, it is scheduled to vote on July 20 for someone within the body to serve as president until the next presidential election is due in 2024. There is such disgust with nearly everyone in Parliament that the legislature may be pressured to dissolve itself so new parliamentary elections, which need not be held until 2025, can be held early.

The weeks and months ahead will likely entail greater scarcities, so the end of Rajapaksa rule will hardly make any difference on the economic front in the near term. India has led the way in trying to help Sri Lanka, contributing as much as $4 billion so far. China, too, has chipped in with currency swaps but is averse to restructuring Sri Lanka’s debts lest that encourage other states loaded with Chinese loans to demand similar treatment. Japan, a major donor and creditor, has demurred, fearing corruption would cause its assistance to be misplaced. Corruption is a major concern among many other states as well, and this weekend’s developments will cause further caution among Sri Lanka’s friends. Quickly reinstituting political stability is the first step for securing further loans, grants, and debt restructuring.

Ultimately, what Sri Lankans achieved on Saturday is revolutionary. The ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa builds on the removal of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cabinet two months ago. What is striking is that it took the worst economic crisis in the island’s history—not a popular commitment to ethnoreligious tolerance and pluralism or the need to account for alleged war crimes committed against Tamils or baseless attacks on Muslims—that made the island’s predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists sour on the Rajapaksa family.

In that sense, what the aragalaya proved is that nationalist sentiment cannot overcome hunger and scarcity. The Rajapaksas are among the most recent autocrats to discover this. In the meantime, the protests have brought together clergy and citizens from all faiths. The “Go Home Gota” campaign has generated discussions about building a future for all on the island. Perhaps the common suffering Sri Lankans are experiencing could be the antidote to the island’s ethnocracy. But given the island’s sorry past, only a fool would bank on that outcome.

Neil DeVotta is a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka.

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