LAST year, in spite of the best efforts of the mainstream media to block the news, the world watched as the South Asian nation of Sri Lanka descended into political and social chaos. All seems quiet now; recently I had the privilege of visiting the country and learned a little of the causes of the trouble and the possible consequences for the future.
In 2020, the majority Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lankan government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was returned with a landslide in parliament. It continued to do what it had done for the previous decade since the suppression of the Tamil revolt and war in the north of the country which had plagued the country for decades, and at one point even prompted a military incursion by India: it borrowed huge sums from foreign lenders, in particular China and India, to fund public services. It also sold the rights for enormous developments, such as the docks at Colombo, the capital, to the Chinese, effectively handing control of large swathes of the economy to an exploitative foreign power. Selling these rights, however, came nowhere near the requirement to service debt and it was never explained how this problem would be addressed.
This borrowing spree was made worse by natural disasters: unusually heavy monsoon rains in particular hit the farmers hard. Their struggle was then made far more difficult by an arbitrary government ban on artificial fertilisers. The president was, of course, an enthusiastic member of the World Economic Forum and therefore wedded to any idea that would reduce populations by any means and introduce controls over people. As a cover, the government said it aimed to be the first ‘green’ economy in the world – whatever that might mean – no matter what the cost to the farmers. A gradual shift away from nitrates towards nitrogen-fixing crops between the two main harvests and the use of organic fertilisers could probably have succeeded. An immediate and outright ban simply caused widespread crop failures.
The political scene was already one of simmering discontent. In 2018, the President dismissed the then Prime Minister, leading to a constitutional crisis; at Easter 2019, Islamic terrorists bombed a series of hotels and Christian churches, killing 269. In 2020, Covid arrived with all the nonsensical restrictions on movement and the death of tourism, one of Sri Lanka’s most important sources of revenue.
Faced with a massive deficit, President Rajapaksa panicked and cut taxes in an attempt to curry favour with his enraged people, but this served only to reduce government revenue. Credit agencies downgraded Sri Lanka’s rating, denying it access to foreign markets. The government used up two-thirds of its reserves in servicing debt and paying for imports of food and fuel, which raised prices and sent inflation skywards – food inflation is currently around 80 per cent. In a final effort to qualify for an IMF loan, the government floated the rupee, sending it in a downward spiral against the US dollar and sterling and further increasing the cost of imports.
This turned the daily lives of ordinary Sri Lankans into a never-ending nightmare of queueing for basic commodities, many of which were rationed. Fuel queues, for example, were typically four days with soldiers keeping order. When food could be bought it was so expensive that people could afford just enough for one day, or even one meal. Many shops had to shut because they could not afford electricity (when they were not suffering power cuts) to run their fridges, freezers, air conditioners or fans. People looked to the government to solve the problems, but the government did nothing.
Frustration boiled over in late March 2021. Huge street protests demanded government action and for those responsible for the chaos to be called to account. The response was the usual platitudes and on March 31, demonstrators began throwing rocks and starting fires outside the president’s private residence in Colombo. Police used tear gas and water cannon to break up the protests and government imposed a 36-hour curfew, followed on April 1 by the declaration of a national state of emergency. This was aimed not so much at solving the causes of the unrest as at giving the government and police more repressive powers: these included entering property, searches, arrest and detention without a warrant and the blocking of many social media platforms.
This merely fuelled the unrest. On April 2, protests continued in defiance of the curfew, during which hundreds of people were arrested by police and others shot. Matters could have been far worse. At one point, the president ordered the chief of defence staff (CDS) to put troops on the streets, and fire on the protesters. Courageously and correctly, the CDS refused to give orders to shoot. To have done so would have been a criminal act, but just as importantly, no armed forces can take up arms against their own people and survive for more than a short time. Soldiers come from the communities they may be ordered to attack – how would they ever again face their families and neighbours in the wake of such acts? It may be possible in China, but China is a different planet.
Protests continued, although they remained largely peaceful. Crowds of student protesters surrounded Rajapaksa’s residence again, calling for his resignation. On April 5, the state of emergency had to be revoked and over the next days and weeks, the entire cabinet resigned, as did the Governor of the Central Bank, and the ruling party lost its majority through desertions. Even so, popular dissatisfaction continued to the extent that on July 22, the houses of around 50 politicians of the ruling party were attacked and burned. Government sources have sought to explain this away as the action of rival political parties; in fact, it is a very pointed example of a widespread phenomenon in the current world – the alienation, mistrust and hatred of the governed from those who govern.
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, there is no political vehicle to harness this discontent and turn it into positive social change. There is no alternative party waiting to contest this year’s local and next year’s national elections. The protesters articulate clearly what they are against, but cannot put up a rival structure to deliver what they are for. This is at least in part because of deep-seated political corruption in Sri Lanka. To get anywhere near standing for Parliament requires patronage and funding. These are closely controlled by the ruling elites and their Chinese friends. Decent people do not, therefore, stand for parliament and most electors simply stay at home. We have a similar problem in Britain: a crying need for an alternative socially conservative political party with no one filling the gap. Mr Tice’s love affairs with Matt Hancock and the green blob mean that Reform UK is a busted flush, while UKIP, Reclaim, Heritage and so on fail to register with most voters.
The Sri Lankan president’s only response has been to take more handouts from China and India; the latter has already issued credit of $1billion in March last year with more coming any time soon, but this will only prolong the debt problem. A large bailout from the IMF has been sought; however IMF loans carry fierce conditions and can turn into donations, which only encourage bad behaviour. Western governments offer little help beyond lectures about transgender rights: for Sri Lankans struggling to put food in their children’s bellies, such help is not quite what is needed.
Eventually the president could take no more and fled to the Maldives in a military aircraft, offering his resignation. On July 15, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the acting president, later winning a parliamentary ballot until new elections are called.
A high priority must be to restore finances and in particular cut government spending. One major area is the police and the military, both major employers and still the same size they were during the Tamil war. The armed forces number 317,000, mostly in the Army. This needs to be reduced, and the high command knows it. The military has also to be refocused on to maritime-air capabilities in order to combat the huge increase in drug trafficking from Afghanistan and Pakistan through the country, its ports and territorial waters.
For now, there is calm of a sort. Inflation is high and there are shortages everywhere; there are no political alternatives; the Chinese buy up more and more land and businesses. The ban on nitrate fertilisers has been rescinded for now and farmers are doing their best. Sri Lankans remain calm, polite, courteous, welcoming, kind and patient – but if the toxic nexus of political corruption, foreign control, unemployment and spiralling prices, fuelled by drug money, is not properly addressed, the consensus is that by May, the streets of Colombo will once again be a battleground.