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Will Sri Lanka develop alternative to hateful political nationalism of Rajapaksas?

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*

The mighty nationalist leaders from the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka looked helpless and cowardly when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was humiliated at the airport as he tried to flee abroad to protect himself from the agitating people who protested at the airport. Still, he used his powers as the arm forces followed it ‘dutifully’, knowing fully well that it was actually a criminal act. How do you allow a person to run away from his own country when the people of that country are seeking his accountability? Unfortunately, it is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president who is the target while the other Rajapaksa are silently enjoying the game, perhaps waiting for their right moment to come. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has now taken over as acting President of the country. The point is how has he taken charge of it when the president of the country has become absconder and the entire ministry has resigned. Rather than speaking to the people, the ‘acting president’ has called the protesters as fascists even when his own appointment as prime minister was questionable and against all the norms of democracy.
Frankly, the massive protests in Sri Lanka against the government particularly President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as his ministry, in the last couple of days reminded us of the powerful protests in Egypt, Tunisia and many other countries which was termed the ‘pink revolution’. In India such massive protest in the streets of Delhi was seen during Anna Hazare’s ‘anti-corruption’ movement as well as the Nirbhaya rape case protests which resulted in a long exile of the Congress party from the power centre of Delhi. But the Sr Lankan spring will definitely send a chilling reminder to all those authoritarian rulers who think they are the ‘law’ themselves and people can be crushed through their military and police powers.
The scenes at the President's House were unprecedented and unseen till date. The way people thronged and captured the most powerful centre of Sri Lankan political system remains a historical event and will be reminded to students of political science and history about the might of the people and what happens when the people stop obeying the order. Prime minister and now acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal house too was burnt which was extremely sad but then in such open protests such things are bound to happen when political leadership ignore people’s issues. It was important for the prime minister to assuage the feelings of the people and call not only political parties but also civil society and student organisations to think about the future. These protests were not political yet they were political but organised by non-political parties hence civil society and student organisations too are stakeholders in the wider coalition meant to govern the country.
But the farce was out in the evening on July 13th which was the date when the President had promised to resign but he did not. Instead, there was a gazette notification signed by the President that he has appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as ‘acting President’ as he is unable to perform his duties because of being away from the country. It is clear that the president wants to come back and is looking for the Prime minister to bat for him till the situation comes back to normal. The fact is that till July 14th, the President has not resigned and he is in the Maldives waiting to be allowed in a special plane to Singapore. It is surprising that all the constitutional institutions in Sri Lanka have virtually not shown autonomy and none questioned the power of the president and the government. If the current chaos is not stopped or things are delayed then there is a greater danger of anarchy, chaos and escalation of tension. As the president has now officially resigned and with his protégé Wickremesinghe has taken over declaring nationwide curfew, we hope the people of Sri Lanka will find out a path for themselves and learn from the past mistakes. The current crisis is manifold and political leaders and analysts will have to do honest soul searching about what went wrong.
I personally feel there were several issues all combined together made their impact but most importantly the power became too powerful and none was able to question them for the wrongs happening probably because the Rajapaksa family symbolised the Sinhala nationalism, the macho nationalism that thrived on hating the minorities and persistently vilifying them. In this ‘powerful’ Sinhala nation, all the sins of the power elite were ignored and now the same devotees of this nationalism are protesting powerfully and throwing them away but frankly speaking things are not simple and the Rajapaksa family is still there. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the hero of Sinhala nationalism is still in Sri Lanka and the entire anger actually is aimed at the younger brother Gotabaya for his alleged ‘mishandling’ of the situation. Now many people feel that Mahinda was better and his advice has never been ‘accepted’ by Gotabaya who was just a military person and had little political understanding but such arguments are dangerous.

Debt Trap

There are issues of the debt trap too which has happened because of the existing economic crisis and the growing uncertainties. The Indian media has been speaking a lot about the Chinese debt trap. There is no doubt that Chinese have been investing in several infrastructural projects and the Rajapaksa brothers were able to get a lot of attention but if we look at the figures, one should not be surprised that big funding and investment is basically from the International institutions, US as well as Japan. Asian Development Bank and World Bank are multilateral institutions. As per reports published in various international media organisations following were the major debtors for Sri Lanka.
  • International capital markets borrowing: 16,383 US$ millions (47%)
  • Asian Development Bank: 4,415 US$ millions (13%)
  • China: 3,388 US$ millions (10%)
  • Japan: 3,360 US$ millions (10%)
  • World Bank: 3,230 US$ millions (9%)
  • Others: 3,038 US$ millions (9%)
  • India: 859 US$ millions (2%)
The continuous fall of the local currency and rise of the US Dollar has complicated issues for various countries like Sri Lanka. World saw crisis after Crisis emerging and many countries lost their foreign exchange reserves as the expatriates lost jobs, returned to the country and the foreign inward remittance reduced further. On the other side, the weakening of the local currency against the USD aggravated the crisis.
So, it was not merely a decline in the foreign remittances but also the fall in the export of various products such as coffee, tea and other natural produce which Sri Lanka used to export. Now what happened to that export and why Sri Lanka lost it is an extremely important issue but remember that is not the only thing. As we mentioned earlier, various things combined and resulted in the collapse. Yes, the most important thing among that is the political leadership which actually was enjoying power without accountability and not ready to listen to the people.
Frankly speaking, Sri Lanka’s downfall is the result of the ‘world order’ where every international remittance has to be made in US Dollars and only those countries can survive it who are self-dependent and are high on export and less on import. The Western World tried to create a similar situation with Russia but as a mighty and powerful country it responded with much more vigour and sharp financial management resulting in Rubal rising high and dollar continuously showing poor performances but elsewhere even of the US economy dwindle, due to imbalances between import-export, most of the countries of South face the crisis. Sri Lanka’s tourism faced difficulties in post covid time apart from its failure to export which resulted in its foreign reserves getting emptied.

Organic verses inorganic

The agrarian crisis in Sri Lanka was absolutely man made and brought disaster into the life of the most beautiful country in South Asia. While nobody can say that it was a bad decision to have a country of organic farming yet it should have been done with a great care and slow process when the farmers had acclimatised the situation. You can not order the entire country to switch towards organic farming in one day and ban the chemical fertilisers which the farmers had been using for long. Sri Lanka was a food sufficient country which used to export many of the agricultural produce such as tea, coffee, banana. There are 20 lakh farmers in Sri Lanka who used to get subsidised fertilisers and the result was it was one of the most successful economies in South Asia. Suddenly all of them were asked to switch to organic farming without any arrangement of understanding the methodology and things which could have increased the production. It was as if organic farming does not have to be professionally managed. It needs to be understood that organic farming itself has become a huge commercial venture world over and those who think organic farming in merely traditional non-fertiliser traditional system actually ignore the huge international market behind it though local communities engage in it in many places particularly those who live a natural life and have been away from commercial consideration. In the absence of proper guidance as well as government support, the farmers lost everything and in turn Sri Lanka lost more than it imagined. Today, it has become a bankrupt country with huge unrest which has threatened to destabilise the island nation.
Frankly, it is not a debate between organic and inorganic farming but logistics to manage the things. Remember, if Gotabaya Rajapaksa had succeeded in his mission ‘organic farming’ in Sri Lanka then you would have heard from ‘expert’ how great was he as a president as in most of the states in India where organic farming is being promoted we always held them in high esteem whether Uttarakhand or Sikkim. Internationally, experts are promoting organic farming. The fact is that in the absence of any alternative guidelines the farm sector which till date depended on using the modern methods, fertilisers etc for increasing the yields were suddenly left to think for themselves. Though the Sri Lankan government felt that they saved the foreign remittance by banning the fertilisers in May 2021 but by September 2021, the situation started turning grim as farmers lost their yield and lots of pressure on the government. There is a big debate between organic and inorganic and it should be healthy but these days in the varied corporate interests you don’t know who is speaking the truth as each one has ‘enormous’ data to ‘prove’ others wrong. While everyone accepts and admits that organic farming must be promoted, the question is whether organic farming can really address the wider issue of global hunger. Should scientific invention in agriculture stop where farmers think of increasing the crop yield. This is an issue which needs serious discussion among the stakeholders. Global hunger has already aggravated the crisis and demolished the theories that by 2030 the world will be hunger free. So agrarian policies may only be one of the reasons because the process just began in March 2021 when the president banned the import of chemical fertiliser but as it found out the repercussions of the blanket ban on the farmers, it lifted partial ban on fertiliser and its import in September 2021.
It is important for us to understand whether issues of access to resources and democratisation of them is important or not before we actually venture on the debate of what is good and bad as in these increasingly polarised times it would be difficult for people to decide without understanding the politics and economy behind it. There is a huge corporate lobby of the chemical fertilisers and other insecticides who fund numerous agrarian programmes internationally but extremely shockingly the so-called organic lobby too is hugely sponsored by international corporations. It is therefore important to promote democratisation of the agrarian process which means letting the local communities decide what is good for them and what is bad. If some people want to opt for commercial farming let them do that but the government must develop a minimum standard and keep a strict watch over them. Equally important to promote local crops and traditional seeds but an entire nation can not be left to one set of production. Sri Lanka like India gained a lot due to the Green revolution though it is another matter that today that green revolution is being questioned but this is bound to happen. No scientific invention is final and new research sometimes rubbish the old findings. Also, commercialisation of the crops or anything actually compels people to opt for using chemical fertilisers and other unethical things to increase their production. It is therefore important that local and the national governments keep a close watch on these issues so people’s health are not compromised.

Nationalism protected Political corruption

The radical Sinhala nationalism played by the Rajapaksa family actually resulted in this crisis. How and why such kind of nationalism is dangerous for our society should be analysed. The dangerous game that they played put Sri Lanka on the verge of complete collapse. But Sri Lankan politics is an example of how in the colonised world powerful families and ‘jatis’ controlled the narratives. Though Sri Lanka had a family of Bandaranaike which actually ended with the Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Since 2005, it is Rajapaksa who has dominated the politics of Sri Lanka. At the end of the day it was Sinhalese who dominated the politics, culture and economy of Sri Lanka and somewhere not ready to share it with the minorities of that country particularly Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The Buddhist clergy and political elite of Sri Lanka actually protected each other and legitimised. In terms of population, Sinhalese constitute 70%, Hindus 13% Muslim 10% and Christians 7% in Sri Lanka. It is an irony that this majority Sinhalese were made to believe that all others are a threat to them. Rajapaksa used this nationalism to strengthen their hold on the power structure of Sri Lanka. Since 1983 Sri Lanka was facing heightened ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and minority Tamils who felt they had been neglected and faced persecution both by the government as well as majoritarian nationalism of the Sinhalese. This led to the demand for separate Tamil Elam led by V. Prabhakaran who formed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to get to their desired nation. The insurgency was so powerful that Sri Lanka became one of the most dangerous nations of the world. In 2004, Mahinda Rajapaksa was made Prime Minister and in 2005 he succeeded Chandrika Kumaratunga, as the new president of Sri Lanka. He belonged to a political family and used the Buddhist Sinhala sentiments to strengthen his power base. He gave full powers to the military to take the LTTE head on and in 2009, the armed forces got huge success when they killed Prabhakaran in Jaffna area. The killing of Prabhakaran and complete decimation of LTTE boosted Mahinda Rajapaksa’s image as Sri Lankan nationalist and made him the biggest hero of Sri Lankan nationalism. Mahinda realised that his military nationalism was being liked by the majority Sinhalese and therefore he made no attempt to form an inclusive polity which can have Tamils as equal partners. In fact, very much like India, Mahinda and his party never needed the minority votes. Buddhist clergy too enjoyed this phase.

Using Political system for family gains

Mahinda Rajapaksa became so powerful that he amended the constitution to and removed two term bars for being the President of Sri Lanka as the Constitution had allowed only two terms for the president. He also made another amendment which was that a president can not face prosecution or litigations in the court of law. More importantly, Sri Lanka which had a hybrid electoral system of First Past the Post System as well as certain constituencies elected through Proportional Electoral System, removed the proportional system. Certainly, a majoritarian leader would not like inclusive politics. Not only the leader, those surrounding him never wanted this. Mahinda now became so powerful that he felt nothing was going to beat him and to everyone’s shock his party got defeated in the 2015 Presidential election which made Maithripala Sirisena as the president of the country. The president then amended the constitution again and brought back the old law that no one can become president for more than two terms therefore ensuring that Mahinda Rajapaksa does not become the president again. But surprisingly and shockingly, Sirisena too appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister after he had serious political differences with prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe but that did not work well. In the 2019, elections, Rajapaksa brothers joined hand and fought elections under the leadership of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna which won the election and thus Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was actually a military man and defence minister under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, became the President of Sri Lanka on November 21st, 2019. The younger brother then appointed elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister on August 9th, 2020. Can you imagine such a thing happening anywhere in the world where a powerful president becomes prime minister just to protect his interest? Unfortunately, there was not much protest against the brothers in Sri Lanka and both used religious and ethnic polarisation for the best of their personal gains.
When the protest started in Sri Lanka against the growing inflation, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign in May 2022. The aim was to deflate the protests. Interestingly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa then appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister of Sri Lanka against the popular mandate as his party did not have enough MPs and protesters felt that it was a deliberate attempt to protect the Rajapaksa family. Ironically, the focus of the protest in Sri Lanka is against the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa while his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son, who is his heir apparent still are in Sri Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was an American citizen and he was invited by his brother Mahinda to come to Sri Lanka and assist him. He got Sri Lankan citizenship but never relinquished the American citizenship. He was made secretary in the Ministry of Defence in 2005 and till 2015, he worked as Defence Minister who oversaw all the military operations against LTTE.
Power, success, popularity all goes over the head of dictators who actually come through the route of democracy. Rajapaksa family or dynasty actually used all that has become a norm in colonial democracies where families, castes, religion, identities dominate the political discourse and the rest is controlled by corruption. Political elite have no shame in using nationalism even when they themselves have citizenship of western world. What a classic case of betrayal that a president is unable to face his people and use his power to leave the country as president and allowed to leave from Maldives and land in Singapore. It is certain that many other members of his cabinet as well as family were eager to leave the country and leave for the United States. It is important to ask questions to the western leaders and their governments as to how long they will allow corrupt leaders and despots from the global south to live in their countries.
Sri Lanka’s chaos also reflects one more thing that their problems and hardships are not going to end with the regime change. Secondly, the system remains the same and the third is international agencies such as World Bank, International Monetary Fund ( IMF) are going to put harsher conditions on Sri Lanka which means seeking more import, liberalisation and bigger privatisation. The burden of ‘strengthening’ the American economy is now on the shoulders of developing countries like Sri Lanka. Many other countries of the global south are waiting for a repetition of what has happened in Sri Lanka. So, we must not ignore the bigger picture that the Sri Lankan crisis is a mixture of international fiscal policies imposed by the powerful developed countries and thoroughly corrupted communal local elite which exploit people’s emotional issues and not address their economic issues. The Sri Lankan revolt against economic policies will not end in a change in its economic policies but I am afraid the country will again go to the same kind of economic forces which brought them to this level. Let us see what happens next but it is important that no country can progress by marginalising and isolating the minorities. It is time for all other countries to understand that ultra-nationalism and vilifying minorities actually take the ‘majorities’ nowhere but make them subservient to a so-called nationalist leader or nationalist party who are unable to resolve their crisis.
At the moment, we hope Sri Lanka’s political forces, civil society and other stakeholders will join hands and form a government of National Unity bringing all forces together including minorities and marginalized. International organisations, UN agencies, governments must support Sri Lanka in this hour of crisis and not burden it with further loans and various terms and conditions. These are the times when international agencies like World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank must think of waiving off the loans from countries like Sri Lanka so that they can return to their old glory.
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*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat. Twitter: @freetohumanity

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