Message from Sri Lanka
One can see a few instructive lessons from the painful turbulence underway in Sri Lanka. The most crucial of these for neighbours and beyond is the resounding message that there are limits to socially divisive policies any government or state can pursue, particularly to mask the distress brought about by bad economic prescriptions. In other words, sooner or later people catch on.
The jostling is already on between narratives about the crisis. The dominant narrative about an economic collapse as the trigger for mass protests is a tautology. Another perspective, inevitably, is focusing on the ousted Rajapaksa government’s refusal to vote with the US against Russia over Ukraine. The last-minute call to Vladimir Putin for help, chiefly with oil, will be interpreted in myriad ways.
There will be comments also about the need for the IMF to fix things urgently. The problem is this had happened to India when the Gulf War induced economic instability with oil prices nudging a veteran pro-Soviet India into becoming a darling of the West. The prescription the IMF gave Manmohan Singh required secrecy. It had to be kept away from parliamentary scrutiny. The Ayodhya movement of L.K. Advani was activated to occupy the nation’s attention, away from the IMF-induced pain that inevitably comes with its trickle-down economic advisory.
Be that as it may, Ranil Wickremesinghe looks the man of the moment for the US. Never mind that he lost the last election when his party couldn’t win a single seat. He came into parliament through the backdoor, the national list.
Would that work for the purpose of evicting China from its perch in Colombo? If the Western purpose falters, there could be worse awaiting the hapless country. So, here we are. The president who courted China’s economic worldview and refused to vote against Russia has fled. (Remember Kyiv in 2014?) And Wickremesinghe, nephew of Sri Lanka’s first pro-US president J.R. Jayewardene, has taken charge, and is threatening to quell the protests by force if necessary.
There’s always a backup script if things go wrong. The ousted president was a close ally of the Bodu Bala Sena. The Sinhalese chauvinist group has cast itself in the image of India’s RSS, a Muslim and Christian-hating Buddhist clone of the Hindutva order. Other similarities between India and Sri Lanka are eerier. Remember how prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk angered by his quest for a friendly pact with the minority Tamils? The murder bore an uncanny resemblance to Gandhi’s assassination by Hindu supremacists hostile to his alleged appeasement of Muslims.
Certain things about Sri Lanka’s heart-wrenching mess one can do little about, among them being the fact that Covid-19 waylaid the tourism industry, the island nation’s economic backbone. Small-scale entrepreneurs, critically the garment exporters, took a hit. The resultant cap on foreign imports coupled with an outlandish nationwide move to switch to organic farming, (mainly to mask the slashing of fertiliser imports) wrecked the prospects of an early recovery from pandemic-induced setbacks. The horror could strike Sri Lanka whose human development indices are far ahead of its neighbours.
Decades before Gen Musharraf sealed his military support against the Tamil Tigers, India and Sri Lanka bonded as close friends. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga particularly treasures an old picture of Nehru hoisting her in the air. Later Indira Gandhi stopped Sirimavo Bandaranaike from quitting during a Sinhalese communist insurrection in 1971, the year Mrs Gandhi would go to war with Pakistan. “Indu called me to say under no circumstances was I to resign.” The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurrection would have rattled any government. It was the first of two unsuccessful armed revolts conducted by the communist group against the socialist United Front Government of Sri Lanka. The revolt lasted two months before Indian troops helped quell it.
I met Mrs Bandarnaike when she was in the wheelchair with paralysed toes. It was a peep into the India-Sri Lanka backstage. Her son Anura Bandaranaike was a devotee of India’s healer-guru Sai Baba of Pattapurthi. On his advice, the mother flew to Puttaparthi. The Sai Baba promised quick recovery but it was a tall claim. The Buddhist press was up in arms over the leader of their country falling prey to the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of an Indian guru.
It didn’t help that India was firmly in the Soviet camp while its neighbours had cosy ties with China and the US, both allies against Moscow. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka led the movement for Saarc, the South Asian club that met in Dhaka for the first summit in 1985. Gen Ershad, its host, would later tell me that it was a collective effort by India’s neighbours to deal with Delhi jointly. “We were allergic to India,” Ershad told me bluntly in a TV interview. “So we decided to deal with India jointly.”
Sri Lanka is in a serious quandary today and does not have the emotional wherewithal to deal with the IMF’s conditionality that always comes. The protesters represent Sri Lanka’s multicultural bouquet. There’s just no room for dividing them again. Nor is there stomach for more IMF pills.
Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Beijing shared the fears with the Global Times. The patience is running thin.
“In some cases, it’s difficult because the belt is already on the last notch. Sri Lanka has a state-funded healthcare system from birth to death. Some are worried that the IMF might recommend that we tighten the healthcare system. Our education system is also free from grade one to university level. This might be another area that the IMF might recommend pruning. But these may add to the unrest, which is already hampering the recovery of the country and unsettle any government, which takes over in the next few weeks. We have to deal with these issues, and it’s not going to be easy for Sri Lanka.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.