What Is Happening In Sri Lanka?

by Damenda Porage

Nepotism, the creation of large circles of the family clan and giving them a free hand in accumulating wealth at the cost of deterioration of national wealth and economic stability, has been the main contributor to the mess in Sri Lanka perpetrated by the Rajapaksa brothers and their lust for money and power

Half burnt vehicles thrown into water by angry Sri Lankan residents protesting against historic inflation in teh island nation.

Sri Lanka, 74 years after her independence from colonial rulers, is now experiencing the worst-case scenario – politically, economically and strategically. It has reached this tragic state after having been governed by chauvinistic, self-seeking and short-sighted ‘democratic’ people’s representatives, which has, consequently, tragically transformed the prosperous ‘pearl in the Indian Ocean’ into a tear drop.

Ceylon, the present Sri Lanka, was adjudged in the few decades after independence as the best democracy in the region, its standard and percentage of education was also found the best, the per capita income the highest in the region, while the rupee was the strongest. Sri Lanka was indeed prosperous with rare gems available in Ratnapura, many minerals available in many parts of the country, a fine and sublime climate with bountiful and non-failing harvests of paddy and other crops, several perennial and pristine rivers, never-ending fountains, and a hub of tea gardens producing the finest tea in the world. The country was known as the Land of the God of Wealth. Businessmen, traders and those engaged in other crafts and professions from other countries in the region and distant places, sought Sri Lanka, lived here and amassed wealth to become affluent in their own motherland.

In sad contrast, today, while travelling to any part of the country, what does one see with a heavy heart? Long queues stretching miles – of motorbikes, trishaws, vehicles ranging from small cars, large lorries and buses, and men and women of all age groups waiting long hours, with frustration, fatigue and uncertainty in their eyes, desperately seeking the elusive fuel, even at a highly exorbitant and unimaginable cost. There have been shocking incidents of helpless people collapsing, even dying, while waiting for such infinitely long hours in these long, dreary, endless queues.

Occasionally, one can see large gatherings or demonstrations of angry people demanding reduction in the fuel prices; or, protests insisting on the Gota Go campaign. While notices, wall writings and posters are put up on the walls everywhere seeking this demand.

The police firing on peaceful protesters at Rambukkana, who demanded reduction in fuel prices and the tragic death of a youth on the spot, followed by the deaths of two other critically injured people, drew angry protests from virtually all parts of the country, with banners of condolence and protest banners put up everywhere. Fast-unto-death protests are being waged by many collectives and citizens, especially by Buddhist monks, demanding that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, along with the entire Rajapaksa clan in power, should quit immediately, thereby paving the way for an alternative group of parliamentarians to take over. These contentious issues and widespread unrest is repeatedly broadcast in news bulletins of all TV and radio channels.

With the manifold increase in the prices of essential food items, and the prevailing heavy demand for cooking gas, which is largely unavailable, some people of the low-income groups can be seen roaming the streets or market places to buy what they can – fruits, yams, cheap vegetables, to fill the starving mouths of their children and themselves. To worsen the situation, curfew has clamped down repeatedly in several parts of the country, lately, in Rambukkana in the central hills, to avert mass gatherings which seek to protest against the government.

Picketing by Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, nuns and citizens were held in many parts of the country to protest and seek justice for the victims of April 21, 2019 and the gruesome Easter Sunday bomb attacks on three churches in the country. They demanded from the government that it must uncover the real conspirators behind the attacks.

With months of lengthy blackouts, due to the serious want of fuel in a crisis-ridden scenario of drought, virtually every sector is affected, be it the hospitality and services sector, manufacturing, tea and fisheries industry, various businesses, and the academic sector. The government had to spend hugely on preventing and controlling measures, including on vaccinations in many stages, against the Corona pandemic and lockdowns that ravaged the country for about three years. Foreign reserves dwindled and the tourism sector has been severely affected due to the pandemic. The country has to pay billions of dollars in foreign debts for infrastructure projects that are just not making money.

The draconian Constitution that was formulated and introduced in August 1978 by the then president, JR Jayewardene, giving the executive president sweeping powers to the extent of dictatorial powers, appears to be the root cause of the perennial curse on Sri Lanka and its beleaguered people. In the hands of the politically hawkish, undisciplined and uncultured Rajapaksa clan, these powers have been misused to the maximum in all political, national, regional and international matters to solely accumulate wealth for the clan, for promoting nepotism and corruption among family and party members, without any far-sighted plans and approach towards universal national welfare.

Buddhist monks on fast-unto-death protests have openly accused the Rajapaksas of accumulating millions of ill-gotten dollars, concealed in banks in Uganda, with miscellaneous properties overseas, while it is alleged that they own a palatial 40-storied building in Australia. Former president and the present prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is not known to have taken action against any family or party members for corruption, malpractices or even criminal activities. From the top to bottom, it has been corruption all round and the executive powers of the president are beyond the jurisdiction of the judiciary and the legislature!

Muslim women of Sri Lanka busy in prayers in February 2021

The only way out to remove the president is through impeachment with a two-third majority which is absolutely impossible in this country where even parliamentarians can be bought over with money which has happened on many occasions in the past. With the introduction of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, they took away the little powers that were left with independent government institutions.

Nepotism, the creation of large circles of the family clan and giving them a free hand in accumulating wealth at the cost of deterioration of national wealth and economic stability, probably, has been the main contributor in the current “going round the world with the begging bowl situation”, according to political analysts.

In fact, Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power with the mandate to abolish the executive presidential system, but chose to deviate from that assurance for the benefit of his family. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has handed over a proposal for abolishing the presidential system, several other parliamentarians have suggested various other methods for overcoming the crisis, including a request to President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to quit. But, Gotabhaya is not budging and he has appointed an interim, new cabinet.

The four Mahanayake Theros of the Maha Sangha have written him a letter that if he does not heed to the requests and proposals of the Maha Sangha, it will be compelled to issue a Sangha Order which cannot be bypassed by anyone.

Sri Lankan Muslims protest the forced cremation of the pandemic victims in early 2021

For the economic recovery, rather, for the bail-out from binding loans, India is in the forefront in extending assistance on a substantial scale. China, the biggest creditor to Sri Lanka, has to cooperate and extend assistance, but, so far, an assurance on large-scale financial assistance has not been committed by China, although its IT sector has promised humanitarian assistance to the people of Sri Lanka which has still not arrived.

India, recently, extended a $1 billion credit facility to Sri Lanka. The ‘short term concessional loan facility’ is to be provided by the State Bank of India, under an agreement signed between the two governments during the visit of Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa to India. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar were present when the deal was signed.

While Sri Lanka has drawn on Indian credit lines amounting to $1 billion for essential imports, in addition to other lines for the import of fuel, the Indian finance ministry made a representation to the IMF on behalf of Sri Lanka for a Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI). It was posed as a ‘humanitarian measure to help the Sri Lankan people during a difficult time’, according to an Indian official statement.  With this move, Delhi has provided a total financial assistance of $2.4 billion to Sri Lanka since January, 2022, but this will only help partially to mitigate the country’s severe economic meltdown.

It has also been reported that India has agreed to assist Sri Lanka in its negotiations with the IMF, or, a possible bail out. During a meeting with Sri Lankan Minister Ali Sabry in Washington DC, Seetharaman affirmed that support will be offered to Sri Lanka within the IMF, for expediting an Extended Fund Facility (EFF). A stock of 40,000 MT of diesel from India under the Indian credit line has reached Sri Lanka yesterday and a total of close to 400,000 MT of various types of fuel has been delivered with Indian assistance in two months. India is to provide an additional $500 million in financial assistance to Sri Lanka to purchase fuel.

India has offered support by extending the duration of the $400 million currency swap facility to help Sri Lanka ease its serious economic burden. It is willing to commit up to $2 billion in financial assistance, while supporting the island nation with food and fuel, according to the latest reports. India’s unstinted and multi-faceted support will be continued, and, as ongoing currency support, the Reserve Bank of India has extended the duration of the $400 million currency swap for the Central Bank of Sri Lanka which was concluded in January, the Indian High Commission in Colombo has stated. Along with India’s emergency financial assistance, Delhi has conveyed to Colombo that Indian investments in renewable energy, ports, logistics, infrastructure and connectivity will help Sri Lanka build its capacity ‘holistically’, thereby repairing its economy in the long haul.

India has come for rescue at this difficult time in Sri Lankan history as it had done so several times in the past in the spirit of a long history of neighbourly ties, brotherhood and lineage. According to a latest report, 101 types of medicines and surgical items donated by India will reach Sri Lanka soon, while Rs 340 million worth of medicines donated by Indonesia will also be received within a week. The World Bank (WB) and the IMF have promised help in the coming days to get over the crisis to a certain extent, according to reports.

Whether or not the country will extricate itself from the current crisis in the coming months or years is a matter which can only be determined by the manner of response of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the ruling party and other stakeholders, to the public outcry across the suffering nation, to quit, and the consequent political moves to abolish the presidential system which has given unilateral powers to one, single individual. Undoubtedly, the wrong decisions of the executive presidents of the past and the present uncertainly have led the country to this helpless situation.

Site of Srilanka suicide bombing in May 2019.

Starting from Jayewardene’s refusal to clamp down a curfew immediately when the July 1983 violence broke out, Premadasa’s decision demanding that India must withdraw the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from the Sri Lankan soil immediately, and his clandestine support to the Liberation Tigers of  Tamil  Eelam (LTTE),  Maithripala Sirisena’s inaction  to avert the Easter Sunday bomb attack on churches, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s decision to ban the import of chemical fertilizers and his procrastination in approaching the IMF for a bail-out, are standing examples. Rajapaksa is now apologizing to the people on these two issues like a school boy after doing so much irreparable damage to the country.

Indeed, Sri Lankan citizens believe, that the democratic world, especially its closest neighbours like India, would continue to steadfastly support them in the slow recovery of the country, if the parliamentary system of good governance is restored, if corruption is decisively blocked at the highest places, and only if the dictatorial Rajapaksa clan is finally shown the door.

(Dr Damenda Porage is a Colombo based public intellectual and specialises in Tibetan Buddhism studies. The essay appeared in the Delhi based Hard News Magazine.)

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