Political regression in Sri Lanka

Readers may recall some of my earlier posts about the dramatic developments this year in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy went into a deep dive, with essential supplies such as fuel for vehicles and cooking and medicines becoming unavailable, the prices of food skyrocketing, and inflation soaring. This caused massive hardships for almost everyone in the country, except of course for the very wealthy, with people waiting in long lines, sometimes for days, in order to get even the smallest amount of essential supplies.

The proximate causes of all this were two major decisions taken by the government: one to suddenly ban the import of chemical fertilizer, which devastated agricultural yields, and the other was the decision to pass a massive tax cut accompanied by printing money to cover the resulting deficit, leading to high inflation. The ultimate causes, though, were the long standing corruption and nepotism and incompetence that had been going on for decades but became most pronounced in the last government in which the president and prime minister and two cabinet members were all brothers of the same Rajapaksa family and another cabinet member was the son of the prime minister. Other members of the family were also given government positions, making the government essentially a family fiefdom.

The widespread hardship led to massive protests from all sectors of the population, cutting across traditional divisions and animosities, with people joining the demonstrations from all the different ethnic groups, religions, classes, and geographic locations. Over a period of three months, tens of thousands of people marched and occupied public spaces, ultimately taking over the president’s office and official residence and the prime minister’s office. This resulted in the president fleeing the country in the dead of night and resigning while abroad. The prime minister also resigned and hid in a navy base while the other two brothers and the nephew also resigned their cabinet posts. For a very short while it seemed like there would be a clean sweep of the old corrupt system and, exhausted by the months of protests but exhilarated by what they had achieved, the protests died down.

But what we are seeing now is the return of the old guard. It began with the outgoing president Gotabaya R. appointing as acting president a discredited politician Ranil Wickremesinghe whose party (including him) had lost every single seat it contested in the 2019 election. He is widely seen as a stooge of the Rajapaksa family. The 225 members of the parliament had to vote on who should serve the remaining term of the ousted president. 150 of those members belonged to the party of the Rajapaksa family and although a majority of the 225 publicly said that they would vote for the candidate from one of the opposition parties, when the secret ballot was over and the votes counted, 134 voted for Wickremesinghe. It was clear that the fix was in and the speculation is that a large number of members had been bribed to vote for him.

Wickremsinghe, although he has no mandate whatsoever, is now acting like he has been popularly elected, even having the gall to tell an Australian reporter in a testy interview that he had the support of the majority of the country. He has cracked down on protestors, arresting many of its leaders under the provisions of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that was passed during the time of the civil wars in Sri Lanka. He has also appointed around 50 members of parliament as ministers in the government, a ridiculously high number for a country of that size. These ministerial positions are highly sought after because they come with many lucrative perks and also put the occupants in a position to gain from corruption. It seems likely that these were rewards to these politicians for their vote for Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe is clearly the front man for the Rajapaksa family, so much so that he is routinely and derisively referred to as Ranil Rajapaksa. He has not taken any action on the allegations of corruption against them. The former president Gotabaya R. quietly returned to the country and is now residing somewhere. The prime minister Mahinda R. is back in parliament. The brother who had been finance minister Basil R. and was the supposed mastermind of the family and the person believed to be at the center of all the corruption, has left the country and returned to the US. The nephew Namal R. is rumored to be in line for another cabinet post.

Leaders of the protest movement have been harassed by the police who have clearly been ordered to take tough action against them to discourage further protests. Protestors have been arrested under various provisions of the PTA and some released only after posting large sums as bail. The harassment and violations of the rights of protestors and journalists has been protested by humans rights groups and has also been taken up by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in which delegates called upon the Sri Lankan government to respect the rights of protestors and to end the use of the PTA.

It seems clear that Wickremesinghe, with the typical arrogance of a politician who is hopelessly out of touch, thinks that he is ascendent and that he can quell the protests by force. The members of the Rajapaksa family party are still the majority in parliament and with Ranil Rajappaksa as president, we are seeing a restoration of the status quo.

But after a quiet spell, the protests are starting up again and people are challenging them. What worries me is that if the protests start to approach the size and levels of militancy of the ones that began in April, then Ranil Rajapaksa might order the security forces to attack them with maximum force leading to bloodshed, since he has seen what large public protests did to bring down the Rajapaksa family. Now that he has attained the presidency by the back door after a long and futile effort to do so through elections where he was repeatedly repudiated, the temptation must be strong to cling to power at all costs so that he too is not ousted like the Rajapaksas were.

The outlook is very grim for Sri Lanka.


  1. txpiper says

    This article is somewhat out of date, but the principle is not. When the Chinese loan you money, the interest is not what they are interested in. They want to own you.
    “Earlier this month, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, a member of Parliament in the ruling party, wrote a six-page letter addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping accusing Beijing of pushing Sri Lanka into a debt trap to expand China’s sphere of political influence.

    It is manifestly visible that your friendship with us is no more genuine and candid, instead you use our relations to achieve your ambition of becoming the world power at the stake of lives of our innocent people,” Mr. Rajapakshe wrote in his letter.”

  2. John Morales says

    Nothing peculiarly rapacious about China’s debt arrangements; I have no idea why you single them out, txpiper.
    BTW: https://www.voanews.com/a/china-cancels-23-loans-to-africa-amid-debt-trap-debate-/6716397.html

    More relevantly, Sri Lanka did have those two major factors (the fertiliser ban and the tax cuts), but also COVID did a job on their previously-lucrative tourism industry. More to the point, SL is a net importer and basically imports all its fuel and a lot of its food, so the price hikes in those after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine really hit it hard.

  3. tuatara says

    The collapse of the Sri Lankan economy had nothing to do with the fertilizer ban or the tax cuts for the rich, not the Covid-19 pandemic nor the ongoing chaos coming out of Mordor (Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent soaring international food, fuel and gas prices), and certainly could never be caused by decades of corruption and nepotism by the Sri Lankan government. That is absurd nonsense John Morales!
    No, none of that is relevant because China! As txpiper’s comment shows, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe even wrote a letter complaining about Chinese usury to ensure that his own culpability is deflected.
    Blaming China! just helps txpiper’s tribe justify the billions they want the US Congress to spend on “defence” every year instead of doing something moral like fixing poverty or improving healthcare or education in the USA (or event, heaven forbid, talking to the Chinese and working with them for the betterment of the entire world).
    How can the USA pillage these countries full of brown people of their meagre resources if China has already done so? And so many non-xians! Although most of the xians in Sri Lanka are catholic (80% of 7.4% of the population who are xian are catholic)…so obviously unsaved heathens too.
    Isn’t that right, txpiper?

  4. birgerjohansson says

    I remember a bloke named Ceaucescu. He had an even greater security apparatus, but in the end it did not help him.

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