When Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government collapsed under popular pressure on July 9, the hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans who protested his corruption, incompetence and high-handed tactics could be forgiven for thinking they had won. After months of nationwide protests, President Rajapaksa fled, first from his home and then from the island.
Months later, not much has changed. Sri Lanka remains in economic turmoil and ordinary citizens still face brutal repression. Will the IMF bailout help? Maybe for a short time. However, until Sri Lanka tackles its entrenched authoritarian structures, no lasting change will occur.
Since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, the island’s elite have created the conditions for today’s economic and political collapse by concentrating power in their own hands, while appealing to the nationalism of Sinhalese-Buddhists – the country’s largest demographic group – as justification. The country’s powerful executive presidency, established in 1978 by President JR Jayewardene, was presented as a shield to protect “Buddhist” Sri Lanka from Tamil separatism.
The Rajapaksas, whose ancestors served as regional chiefs during British rule, are among these elites. Gotabaya’s older brother, Mahinda, was elected president in 2005, and since then the family has dominated Sri Lankan politics. After his own election to the executive presidency in 2019, Gotabaya used his vast powers under the constitution to reward his friends while punishing his enemies – including the Tamil Tigers, who were crushed in 2009 during a brutal campaign where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were massacred by government forces.
For the Rajapaksas, the ethnic division offered an opportunity. They campaigned as champions of Sinhalese Buddhists, clinging to a passionate nationalist mythology. Since 2009, their allies have also used violent anti-Muslim rhetoric to maintain their popularity. During his 2019 swearing-in ceremony, Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a standard authoritative appeal to the values of the rural heartland of Sinhalese Buddhists, warning that “others” should “be assimilated”. Under Gotabaya, the army continued to receive huge budgets and occupy large swathes of the North and East, 12 years after the end of the civil war. Tamil and Muslim communities feel suffocated, unable to compete with farms and military enterprises. There was no political resolution of the ethnic conflict, only military.
The ruling dynasty took out large loans, which helped Sri Lanka’s GDP grow rapidly and enabled then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa to fund vanity projects like Colombo’s Lotus Tower and the overdevelopment of his small hometown, Hambantota, which now has a cricket stadium too big for the whole population and an international airport – two financial black holes.
This waste and perceived corruption ultimately cost the power of the Rajapaksas in 2015. However, after the devastating Easter Sunday bombings of 2019, they returned, with Gotabaya – nicknamed “the Terminator” – winning the presidency on a security ticket national.
While the new Rajapaksa administration employed many of the same repressive and majoritarian measures as before, it was its fiscal policy that led to Sri Lanka’s ruin. Gotabaya kept military spending high while cutting taxes. His ill-conceived ban on chemical fertilizers devastated agriculture, forcing the country to import rice. Faced with the pandemic and the resulting loss of tourism, the war in Ukraine and the resulting spike in energy costs, the government printed money and remained in denial until to the total economic collapse of Sri Lanka. The rupee has lost half its value. Basic products have disappeared from stores. Fuel and medicine have become too expensive to import. A desperate population took to the streets.
The ensuing protests, which were met with police fire, culminated in chaotic scenes on June 9, with civilians storming the president’s residence. Gotabaya fled the country, first to Singapore, then to Thailand.
Although the Rajapaksas have disappeared, their legacy lives on. Sri Lanka’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was appointed by parliament without a popular mandate and has already served as prime minister six times. Wickremesinghe also immediately drafted “emergency regulations” more draconian than those of his predecessor. His security forces violently chased away protesters and arrested dozens of protesters. There is even talk of Gotabaya being allowed to return to the country.
The problem in Sri Lanka is not simply who occupies the office of the presidency; it is the powerful executive presidency itself, which enables secrecy, corruption and financial mismanagement, and almost guarantees authoritarian governance.
In the short term, Sri Lankans should demand an end to the crackdown on peaceful protesters, which crushes civil rights in the name of fighting ‘terrorism’. In the long term, the country must rebalance its political structure by introducing democratic safeguards against abuses, corruption and human rights violations. This means strengthening local government, the judiciary, freedom of the press and civil society, while imposing limits on the executive. The country’s ethnic fissures must also be addressed through the demilitarization of the North and East, accountability for human rights abuses during the war, the repeal of draconian ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation and a political solution to the conflict. ethnic.
Sri Lanka’s debt and currency crisis can be alleviated through tax reform and international support, but that will not solve the fundamental problem. The island is seeking its seventeenth IMF bailout. Without dismantling corruption and mismanagement, and without building real human rights, the crisis in Sri Lanka is bound to repeat itself.
Ben Kumar Morris is the Campaign Director of the Sri Lankan Peace and Justice Campaign.
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