Some notable aspects as Sri Lanka implodes and President Rajapaksa flees the country amidst furious protests
Over the past week, beleaguered Sri Lanka has plunged into an intense political crisis with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa choosing to flee the country after his official residence was stormed and taken over by protesters enraged at the economic chaos and the consequent humanitarian crisis that the Rajapaksa siblings are accused of having brought upon the country. The persisting economic crisis has meant that people have been waiting in line for days for essentials such as cooking gas, kerosene, gasoline, sugar, milk powder, and medicines, and UNICEF has said that 5.7 million Sri Lankans, including about 2.3 million children, now require immediate humanitarian assistance.
Sri Lanka’s current political instability has resulted from an economic collapse brought about by poor governance and bad policies, and getting Sri Lanka's economy back on track requires urgent fiscal and economic policy reforms, which only a stable government can provide. At present, public distrust, indeed aversion, of the political class that the average Sri Lankan believes has been largely self-serving and has led them into this mess, combined with the absence of a trust-inspiring leader or political dispensation on the horizon, makes such a stable government appear like a distant wish to most Sri Lankans. In such gloomy times, the role that China, which is widely accepted as the main benefactor and promoter of the Rajapaksas, has played in exacerbating Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and taking it to the point of no return has come under increased scrutiny. The efforts by neighbouring India, which Harim Peiris, the former adviser to the Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs, said “has pretty much done the most she can, and more than Sri Lanka expected” during his country’s darkest hour, is reflective of the refreshing new attitude that the country has adopted towards its neighbourhood in recent years. Perhaps the most notable aspect, though, was the demonstration of the power that a wronged and ill-treated mass of protesters held to take their incompetent, and more importantly insensitive, rulers to task.
The developing crisis in Sri Lanka has been documented in several EFSAS publications, and the protests against the government of President Rajapaksa that had persisted for months ran their full course and culminated on 9 July in the most momentous day in the annals of recent Sri Lankan history. On that day the protesters, swelling to their hundreds of thousands, filled the streets of Colombo and overran the President’s House, the President’s office and the Prime Minister’s official residence. The global media was filled with videos of protesters overcoming barricades and tear gas to storm into the President’s House, of them swimming in the President’s pool, resting on his bed, using his gymnasium, and fixing meals in his kitchen. President Gotabaya had fled the scene before the protesters arrived. He and his family had to be evacuated to safety by the Sri Lankan security forces. A few days later, on 13 July, Gotabaya fled to the neighbouring islands of The Maldives on a Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft, from where he appointed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as the acting President. He flew on to Singapore on 14 July.
Meanwhile, a meeting of party leaders chaired by the Speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament called for the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister. After missing the deadline of 13 July that he had himself set for his resignation, Gotabaya finally resigned as President on 14 July. He had enjoyed immunity from arrest as the President, and he apparently wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained. As per the country’s Constitution, in the event of President Gotabaya’s resignation Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would automatically become acting President until parliament elected a member to serve out the remainder of the presidential term, which ends in November 2024. Wickremesinghe, however, is also deeply unpopular. Protesters set fire to his private residence on 9 July. Enraged at Wickremesinghe’s continuation despite their demands that he quit all government positions, the protesters on 13 July also overran the Prime Minister's office, taking control of key government institutions and offices.
After his office was stormed, Wickremesinghe said he had ordered military commanders and the police chief to do what was necessary to restore order, and that as acting President he was declaring a state of emergency and a curfew in the Western province. He also said that “Those who are in my office want to stop me from discharging my responsibilities as acting President. We can’t let them tear up our Constitution. We can’t allow fascists to take over. Some mainstream politicians too seem to be supporting these extremists”. Wickremesinghe’s response of asking the security forces to use force against the protesters to quell the protests would not have endeared him to them. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan military establishment decided against adopting such a course of action as it did not want to be seen as anti-people. The army maintained that the “peaceful protests should not anyway be dealt with full force, but with minimum force as long as those protesters do not resort to violence or damage the public property”.
Wickremesinghe had earlier agreed to resign in the event a divided Parliament could first agree on his successor. The succession process could take between three days – the minimum time taken to convene parliament – and a maximum of 30 days allowed under the statute. The parliamentary Speaker has indicated that the vote could take place on 20 July. As per Sri Lankan experts, Wickremesinghe, former Army chief Sarath Fonseka, the Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa, and the young and fiery leader of Sri Lanka’s leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (JVP – People’s Liberation Front) Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Anura Kumara Dissanayake, are frontrunners in the race to be the next President. It is not clear whether the protest movement has, or prefers, any contender. In any case, whoever wins this race will, before anything else, have to address the deep suspicion of politicians in general that has taken root in a sizeable section of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. As Neil DeVotta, professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University and author of ‘Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka’ pointed out in a 12 July article in Foreign Policy, “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”.
DeVotta also underlined China’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s current political and economic crisis, and described the South Asian country as a poster child of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. After all, as Harim Peiris noted, “It takes a particular kind of genius to bankrupt a country, an outcome which did not even occur during 30 years of a long drawn-out civil war”. DeVotta wrote, “In the postwar period, Mahinda Rajapaksa (Gotabaya’s elder brother who was President from 2005 to 2015 and Prime Minister under Gotabaya), 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… 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”. He added, “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”.
China’s near-total absence from the stage at a time when Sri Lanka could do with its empathy and assistance the most has been as noteworthy as it is remarkable. Following the storming of the Presidential Palace in Colombo by the protestors, all that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to say was that it hoped Sri Lanka would “overcome the current difficulties and strive to restore stability, revitalise the economy and improve people’s livelihoods at an early date”. Professor Harsh V. Pant, Vice-President of Studies and Foreign Policy at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) believes that “China’s silence has also been due to the public sentiment towards the Rajapaksas. China aims to de-hyphenate its identity in Sri Lanka from the Rajapaksas, given they were their main access point into the country. Since China wants to return to doing business later in the country, it was essential for them to stop being associated with them”.
Praveen Swami, the National Security Editor of ThePrint, emphasized that the surreal disintegration of Sri Lanka’s economic and political system marks a disaster for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that was designed to grow China’s power across Asia and Africa. Swami felt that “Leaders across the region, who eagerly signed up for Xi’s BRI cash, will be wondering if it might lead them to the fate of Sri Lanka’s ruler… The ruins of Sri Lanka’s white elephants could mark a turning point in South Asia’s relationship with China—but to seize the opportunity, New Delhi will need to show it has vision”.
The public perception towards India in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region has been in sharp contrast to that towards China. Experts have pointed out that while China has sent emergency grants worth $76 million, India has already provided aid worth $3.5 billion to Colombo. India’s aid supplies to the resource-strapped nation have included rice, kerosene and milk powder, along with 25 tons of medicines and medical supplies. India has also assisted Colombo in approaching the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a financial bailout. Importantly, India is also working on a long-term plan to help the island nation revive its economy. Further, India, on 14 July, made it clear that it would continue to stand by the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realize their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values. In contrast, China has said that any help to Sri Lanka is contingent on it showing adequate foreign exchange reserves for three months. Sri Lanka sought a $1 billion loan for procuring essentials from China, but China never got back. A $1.5 billion credit-line did not materialize either.
As Professor Pant noted, “India has tried to fill the vacuum left behind by China and has provided essential relief to the country. There have been very high-profile acknowledgements in Sri Lanka of India’s assistance. This could bode well for India in the country in the future”. Harim Peiris echoed this when he wrote, “Lending Sri Lanka over two billion dollars in currency swaps and credit lines, India stepped into the gap created by other lenders, bilateral and multi-lateral who all stopped, when repayment became suspect”. He added, however, that “India too has to ensure that economic reforms take place (in Sri Lanka)”.
As mentioned afore, perhaps the defining aspect of the current Sri Lankan situation is the demonstration of what people’s power could achieve against insensitive, incompetent, corrupt, self-serving or oppressive regimes. As Neil DeVotta put it in his article in Foreign Policy, “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… 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”. BBC’s coverage showed that as news of Gotabaya’s departure from the country filtered through, noisy celebrations broke out among demonstrators at Galle Face Green, the main protest site in Colombo.
Notwithstanding what the people of Sri Lanka have achieved thus far through their peaceful protests, merely the fleeing of unpopular leaders will not end Sri Lanka’s woes and the real challenge of stitching together some form of unity government capable of overturning the deep economic crunch may well be a long haul.