For a long time, among the many contenders for the title ‘Singapore of South Asia’, Sri Lanka stood out as the most likely. A nation of 20 million people, strategically located in the Indian Ocean right next to a huge neighbour, from where it could draw tremendous support, it also had everything that promoted high footprint international tourism.
Sri Lanka should have been the world’s envy but for its intense ethnic rivalries, lack of political maturity of its leadership and refusal to learn from mistakes. The number of times it has imploded due to one cause or the other was for many of the reasons mentioned above, but the ethnic and the religious domains stand out for the havoc that they have caused and held Sri Lanka back from what it could have been.
It’s again imploding. This time the reasons for the meltdown are so brazenly obvious that it’s a wonder that the nation allowed the situation to reach such a nadir.
Ethnic divide worsening
From 2009 till 2022, serious mismanagement of governance, wrong choices in foreign relations and sheer corruption have all added to the ethnic and religious issues, making Lanka a basket case.
Sri Lanka’s problem starts from its ethnic divide. A longstanding brutal, internal ethnic war between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority refused to allow the nation to progress. It gave birth to one of the world’s most vicious terror groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The turbulence created by the civil war did not allow the nation’s progress. The huge potential for tourism remained stymied due to the intermittent bouts of violence. International efforts to broker a peace deal were flattered to deceive.
Many say that its location midway between the Suez Canal and the Straits of Malacca gave it tremendous potential for promotion of goodwill and cultivation of its strategic importance. It failed to do either and actually created a blunder by climbing the Chinese bandwagon in linking with it to build the Hambantota port and Matalla international airport, the biggest economic white elephants that have helped drag the nation down.
Mahinda Rajapaksa (the deposed PM) became President in 2005 and in 2009 launched operations to wipe out the LTTE. The war was executed under his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the current President, then the defence secretary. It was a hard-grind campaign with little concern for human rights. After over three decades of acting as the spoiler, the LTTE was finally defeated but as is often the case, the conflict progression was efficient but conflict termination abysmal — a mistake many nations make.
The victory was frittered away at the altar of attempts to ensure that the Tamils never ever rose up in defiance again. That was the intent but the ways were faulty. It was this attitude that brought Lanka to greater grief as the US began leading the international pack seeking a war-crimes probe in Lanka. However, more important than the personal fallout between Gotabaya and Fonseka was the overall approach towards integrating the Tamil minority.
With the clergy’s support, the Rajapaksa family flourished, ignoring neighbouring India and favouring China. Beijing’s policies were clear—nothing was for free. It extracted huge concessions in turn for loans that could not be serviced. The Rajapaksas lost the 2015 election but returned in 2019 with Gotabaya becoming President; a year later they won the parliamentary election, which made Mahinda the PM. But the economy was already tanking.
Costly mistakes — Food crisis, IMF Bailout Refusal, Tourism down
Three things made that worse: The first was the disastrous Easter bombings of April 2019 that had links to networks in Southern India. The resultant insecurity dried up tourism even before the pandemic hit in early 2020. The second was a strange order by the President, forbidding the use of chemical fertilisers for rice production. The reason offered as explanation was public health concern but in reality, it was the inability of the government to pay for import; the rice output declined substantially leading to a food crisis. India has just lifted to Lanka a large consignment of chemical fertilisers to prevent the failure of the monsoon crop, sowing for which starts now. The third was the refusal to accept an IMF bailout fearing hard conditions. The vanishing of tourism, increase in energy prices due to the Ukraine war and a populist reduction of taxes, all combined to bring the mobs on to the streets.
China has hardly been supportive, which is surprising. It was an opportunity in which it could have upped India but we have been quick and decisive with two Lines of Credit of $1.5 billion each and over two billion USD worth of deferrals in what was owed. In fact, China’s insensitivity to the people’s sufferings is a point that should be subtly exploited by India’s strategic managers for cultivating better Indian influence in the neighbourhood.
Rebuilding ties & nation
Although Ranil Wickremesinghe has been appointed PM to replace Mahinda Rajapaksa, the architect of Lanka’s current misery, it is President Gotabaya who will need to go to allow a fresh approach to rebuilding the shattered nation. While the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and several diplomats are being consulted, India will need to be prepared to do even more than what it has already done.
Sagacity demands that this moment be seized to send home a clear message that Lanka cannot be governed according to the whims of the clergy or self-seeking political dynasties. It’s the people’s interest that has to be supreme.
If handled deftly this time, India and the international community have the opportunity to ensure that the current turbulence is not allowed to result in anything that will adversely affect regional security. Sri Lanka has suffered enough of that and it is up to us to help it become the shining star it deserves to be.
TEJASWINI PAGADALA is an independent communications consultant. She has previously worked with the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office as the Communications Officer where she has written English speeches for the CM, managed English media communication from the CMO and handled social media accounts of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and the Government.