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IndiaScope: Lessons From the Sri Lanka Crisis

By Tinaz Pavri Email By Tinaz Pavri
September 2022
IndiaScope: Lessons From the Sri Lanka Crisis

South Asia is not used to the kind of shocking collapse we witnessed in Sri Lanka recently. While mass unrest, because of poor governance and repression, is not uncommon in the region, a mass uprising of everyday citizens—like the one we saw in Sri Lanka—is rare.

The crisis was building, unseen, for a while now. The Rajapaksa dynasty stands accused of siphoning off and squandering vast amounts of money that should have been used to address some deeply red economic flags—budget deficits, increasing dependence on imports that depleted foreign reserves, dysfunctional state-owned enterprises, massive indebtedness to China for grandiose and useless infrastructural projects. Instead of addressing these critical economic problems, the Rajapaksas—deposed President Gotabaya, his brothers, former prime minister Mahinda and finance minister Basil, and lesser ministers of irrigation and sports, brother Chamal and son Namal—made a series of grave blunders while rapaciously enriching themselves. These included populist but indefensible tax cuts that slashed revenues by 25 percent and banned non-organic fertilizers that essentially led to widespread crop failure. When Covid-19 closed down world travel, Sri Lanka was hit especially hard—tourism is a key economic sector—and the ratio of debt to GDP became 110 percent. The war in Ukraine seemingly dealt the death knell, with the government unable to pay for spiraling gas prices and the country heading towards famine and despair.

The Rajapaksa modus operandi had been to consolidate power by appealing to majority nationalism at the cost of minority rights, and to offer economic sops such as subsidies on fuel or monetary handouts. Four months ago, all these variables—economic, political, and global—collided to form the country’s implosion. It had literally run out of money to pay for the barest of essentials—food, fuel, medicines, and electricity. It was tragic to see Sri Lankans across the economic spectrum having to ration food and forcibly stay home because all transportation had ground to a halt. For the poor, this meant starvation. For the middle class, this might mean meager rations, a lack of needed medications, and cars that couldn’t go anywhere.

Sri Lankans across the spectrum poured into the streets of Colombo in a modern-day people’s revolution that led to the fleeing of Gotabaya and cronies, and the installation of Ranil Wickremasinghe as the new acting president. Images of citizens seizing the presidential palace, some taking selfies in the lavish bedrooms, others watching TV in the sitting rooms or opening up a picnic lunch on its lawns, were astonishing and harkened back almost to the times of independence and the ouster of the British. One was also struck by the largely nonviolent nature of the protests and occupation, which could easily have led to escalating deaths but didn’t.

Will a people’s revolution change Sri Lankan politics forever? Or is this the end of representative democratic politics, however flawed? As of now order seems to have been somewhat restored, although the country remains on edge and none of its problems have been resolved. Sri Lanka has a difficult road ahead that will require a debt repayment plan, a unity government, as Wickramesinghe has asked for, and continued pain for its citizens. Sri Lankans, initially hostile to Wickramesinghe’s leadership, confronted the alternative—an endless political street battle that would shake the very foundation of the modern, post-independent state itself. For now, the streets are quieter and security forces are in control.

For countries in South Asia, there are some lessons from this crisis. China’s heavy infrastructure investment in places like Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh—the hallmark of its belt and road initiative (BRI)—has been exposed to have feet of clay. The fruits of the investment are useless: abandoned buildings and mountains of debt. Equally important is the lesson of how decades of communal conflict can sap the resources of a country until in the end all will suffer in a great reckoning. India seems to understand the consequences of yet another failed state at its border, and is offering immediate aid and loans. It has certainly understood the consequences of becoming the recipient of China’s “largesse,” but has it understood the danger of unending communal conflict and disharmony?




 Tinaz Pavri is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Spelman College, Atlanta. A recipient of the Donald Wells Award from the Georgia Political Science Association, she’s the author of the memoir Bombay in the Age of Disco: City, Community, Life.


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