Sri Lanka under emergency: Land of the Gods weep
Sri Lanka, 74 years after her independence from colonial rulers, is now experiencing the worst-case scenario — politically, economically and strategically. What brought Sri Lanka to this tragic state is the mindless governance unleashed on its people by the chauvinistic, self-seeking and short-sighted representatives elected by the people’s democracy. What was once a prosperous ‘pearl in the Indian ocean’ now stays afloat as a stagnant landmass, a solidified teardrop in the high seas.
In the few decades after independence, Ceylon, present Sri Lanka, was adjudged as the best democracy in the region. Its standard and percentage of education were also found to be superior, the per capita income the highest in the region, while the rupee was the strongest. Sri Lanka was once a fertile and prosperous land blessed with a sublime climate and pristine rivers. The rich land of Sri Lanka once had non-failing paddy harvests and tea gardens producing the finest tea in the world. Abundant in minerals, Sri Lanka was also known for its precious gems sourced from Ratnapura (City of Gems), which the famed 13th-century Venetian explorer and writer Marco Polo mentioned in his writings. The country was known as the ‘Land of the God of Wealth’. Businessmen, traders and artisans from other countries sought Sri Lanka, lived here and prospered.
What befell Sri Lanka of late is tragic and heart-wrenching. Today, in most parts of the country, we see neverending queues of motorbikes, trishaws and vehicles stretching miles. People of all ages waiting long hours, with angst, fatigue and uncertainty in their eyes, desperately seeking the elusive fuel at an exorbitant cost is a regular sight. Some of these helpless citizens have collapsed and died haplessly waiting in such extreme conditions.
Occasional sightings of large gatherings or demonstrations demanding price reduction, wall writings and posters springing up in several parts add to the sombreness of the plight of the Sri Lankan people who ended up suffering at the very hands of their elected representatives.
The police firing on peaceful protesters at Rambukkana that led to 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. Fast-unto-death protests are being waged by many collectives and citizens, especially Buddhist monks. They demand that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, along with the entire Rajapaksa clan in power, should quit immediately and pave the way for an alternative group of parliamentarians to take over. These contentious issues and widespread unrest are regularly aired on TV news channels and radio stations.
The manifold increase in the prices of essential food items and the overall heavy demand for cooking gas, which is mainly unavailable, has left many in deep distress, especially people of the low-income groups. Adding to this, repeated imposition of curfews in several parts of the country, lately, in Rambukkana in the central hills, to avert mass gatherings have worsened the situation.
Picketing by Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, nuns and citizens was held in many parts of Lanka 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 that the government must uncover the real conspirators behind the attacks.
Scarcity of fuel led to months of lengthy blackouts, which has put virtually every sector of industry, services, and education in peril. When the Corona pandemic struck, the government incurred huge expenses on vaccinations, preventing and controlling measures. The lockdowns brought in by the pandemic adversely affected the tourism sector, and foreign reserves dwindled. The country has to pay billions of dollars in foreign debts for loss ridden infrastructure projects.
The draconian constitution formulated and introduced in August 1978 by the then President, JR Jayewardene, giving the executive President sweeping powers to the extent of dictatorial authority, appears to be the root cause of the perennial curse on Sri Lanka and its people. In the hands of the politically hawkish, authoritarian Rajapaksa clan, these powers have been misused to the maximum in all matters to solely accumulate wealth for the clan. To make things worse, they went on promoting nepotism and corruption among family and party members, choosing personal gains over national interest.
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. It is also 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 acted against any family or party members for corruption, malpractices or even criminal activities. Corruption has afflicted the country, and the President’s executive powers are beyond the control of the judiciary and the legislature.
The only way to remove the President is through impeachment with a two-thirds majority, and this is absolutely impossible as Sri Lanka has a history of parliamentarians being bought over. 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, has brought Sri Lanka to this pathetic situation. According to political analysts, this has been the main contributor to the current “going around the world with a begging bowl situation”.
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, and several other parliamentarians have suggested various other methods for overcoming the crisis. This includes 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 the requests and proposals of the Maha Sangha, it will be compelled to issue a ‘Sangha Order’ which no one can bypass.
For the economic recovery, rather, for the bail-out from binding loans, India is at 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 and 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 partially help 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, Sitharaman affirmed that support would 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 reached Sri Lanka recently, 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 severe economic burden. According to the latest reports, it is willing to commit up to $2 billion in financial assistance while supporting the island nation with food and fuel. India’s unstinted and multi-faceted support will be continued. In an 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 to the rescue at this challenging 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.
Whether or not the country will extricate itself from the current crisis in the coming months or years is a matter that can only be determined by the response of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the ruling party, and other stakeholders. Much depends on how they address the public outcry across the suffering nation asking them to quit and the consequent political moves to abolish the presidential system, which has given unilateral powers to one single individual. Undoubtedly, the past and present executive Presidents’ wrong decisions have led the country to this helpless situation.
It is a series of wrong moves and inaction that had a domino effect on Sri Lanka, resulting in the current plight of its people. It started off with Jayewardene’s refusal to clamp down on a curfew immediately when the July 1983 violence broke out. This was followed by 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). Then came Maithripala Sirisena’s inaction to avert the Easter Sunday bomb attack on churches. This was followed by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s decision to ban the import of chemical fertilisers and his procrastination in approaching the IMF for a bail-out. Rajapaksa is now apologising to the people on these two issues after causing such irreparable damage to the country.
Indeed, Sri Lankan citizens believe that the democratic world, especially its closest neighbours like India, will continue to steadfastly support them in the slow recovery of the country. They believe that a recovery is possible only if the parliamentary system of good governance is restored, corruption is decisively blocked at high places, and the dictatorial Rajapaksa clan is shown the door.
(Dr Damenda Porage is a Colombo based public intellectual specialising in Tibetan Buddhism studies. This article first appeared on Hardnews)