Sri Lanka: Cleaning up the mess requires a superman
India has turned out to be the real friend in need for Sri Lanka, giving away some US$ 3.8 billion in the last six months in emergency shipments of food, fuel and medicines to the island nation
It is not very often that the world wakes up to a movement that too, a spontaneous People’s Struggle – Janatha Aragalaya-- to shake up a system that has been quietly seeing a clan running riot for about two decades.
Still the uprising in Sri Lanka this month saw not just the flight of one Rajapaksa but a country of some 22 million left wondering of what is in store for them, literally without food, medicines, cooking gas, fuel and you name it.
The pathetic situation can be seen in the swearing in of a new President supposedly interrupted on account of a power outage, something that rarely takes place on an important occasion, even in a developing country.
When thousands of people stormed into the streets it reminded many of the movement that ousted longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines some forty years ago; it also brought to mind images of the Arab Spring Movement of 2010-11 that put a few leaders—or the so-called amongst them-- in that part of the world on notice.
But the end of the clan era—or should one be circumspect and say “hopefully” the end-- in Sri Lanka signaled a determination of the masses to finally say “no” to nepotism, cronyism, and rampant corruption of a small group of brothers, their sons and nephews holding the nation to ransom.
In more than one way it was indeed a spontaneous movement that cannot be pinned down to a particular group, religion or political affiliation. The storming of the Presidential Palace and ordinary folks helping themselves to whatever there was in the pantry, innocently strolling through the luxury rooms or taking a dip in the swimming pool in the images shown to the outside world only reflected the mood of the times and the total lack of essentials available to the common person.
Of course, there were those small handful who had resorted to violence and arson, like for instance in the torching of the Prime Minister’s residence. Just what happened to that country which was generally seen as a “Pearl”—more than just reflective of the shape the island nation resembles-- a model of democracy and a matter of envy to those in the region and beyond?
When Gotabaya Rajapakse first fled to the Maldives and later to Singapore, he not only left a country in economic tatters but of a system that is in urgent need of reforms. Or as Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka with the International crisis Group has been quoted, “The racism and militarism and visions of a return to pre-colonial glories that won Gotabaya – and his brother Mahinda before him – so much support from Sinhala voters have proven unable to rescue the millions now struggling to find fuel and medicine or afford their next meal.”
It would appear that the new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, may be no stranger to Sri Lankan politics after having been Prime Minister six times; but he is certainly new to the kind of challenges before him that requires not only patience but also an ability to convince the doubters domestically and internationally.
Political chauvinism had taken its toll long before the Rajapaksas strode into the political arena; but the clan only made it worse. Drunk with political and military victory in the aftermath of the 2009 decimation of the Tamil rebels, the Rajapakse brothers—Mahinda and Gotabaya—refused to have any truck with reconciliation with the Tamils; and made matters worse by absolving the military of any wrong doing.
The Muslim community had always been a suspect; and eventually things only got worse especially in the aftermath of the Easter Bombings of 2019. Hence, bringing together the various communities would be the first order of the day. If the People’s Struggle is anything to go by, the new President has seen the coming to the fore of the Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims.
The second biggest task is to put together a political governance team that calms, not further aggravates, the current environment. Wickremesinghe starts off with the handicap of being seen as a close ally of the Rajapaksas; and his efforts to draw in a Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers who are seen as cronies of the Rajapaksas will only make matters worse. Frayed tempers in the streets will only delay a return to political normality which is critical if the international community is going to take a serious look at the economic needs of Sri Lanka.
And finally, the biggest challenge is to take steps to pull the country out of the absolute mess that the Rajapaksas have left behind. The coffers are empty; inflation at 50 per cent or more; and the country owes some US$ 51 billion to foreign lenders. To meet the bare essentials on a daily basis the country needs US$ 1 billion; and only a handful of millions are left as reserves, if any at all.
And, President Wickremesinghe knows that repeating the story line that the Rajapaksas wasted money on useless infrastructure projects; blindly believed the Chinese on their soft loan ideas, on the clan’s fanciful notions of promoting indigenous agricultural methods will work wonders, indulgence in international sovereign bonds, printing money without understanding inflation or blaming everything on Covid- 19 is not going to get him anywhere.
The International Monetary Fund is unlikely to open its vault even if for an interim US$ 4 billion unless it sees a semblance of normality in Colombo and in the ability of a new dispensation putting together a team of governance to make its case. And if individual donors—Beijing has said a lot of nice things except writing a cheque—are hesitant and are waiting for the IMF, it is not without good reasons.
A lot will also depend on the ground situation—that is if the leadership of the protest movement is willing to give Wickremesinghe and Company the benefit of the doubt for the short term. Abandoning everything and calling for elections does not seem to be a viable option at this point of time when the government would not have money to run the process.
In spite of the regular taunts of the Rajapaksas by way of their short sighted foreign policy leanings with China and Pakistan or in a refusal to come to genuine national reconciliation process with Tamils, India has turned out to be the real friend in need giving away some US$ 3.8 billion in the last six months in emergency shipments of food, fuel and medicines and has made it known that it is indeed willing to sit down and talk about the genuine needs of the island nation, bilaterally or as a group by way of a donor meet. As a major global power, India has undoubtedly got to keep the larger picture over and beyond the immediate security and strategic considerations in the Indian Ocean.
***The author is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations; views expressed are personal