Sri Lanka shows it takes little time to turn heroes to zeroes

The cumulative effect of all the wrong choices, poor decisions, myopic governance and autocratic rule has pushed Lanka to the brink, with no way of knowing which way the tide will turn

Rajapaksas
Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were earlier considered heroes in Sri Lanka; today, the brothers are literally running for dear life. File photo

Thirteen years ago,  the Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda and Gotabaya – were considered heroes in Sinhalese-dominated South Sri Lanka.  Today, the brothers – one, the just-resigned prime minister and the other, the president – are literally running for dear life.  The wheel has turned 180 degrees and how, much of it due to the brazen subversion of power and dilution of democracy in the beleaguered nation.

In 2009,  as the leadership of the Tamil separatist group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was all but wiped out by the Sri Lankan army,  Gotabaya, the then defence secretary, and his brother Mahinda, who was president, were serenaded by the Sinhalese majority. The brothers had managed to extinguish the Tamil separatist movement that had fought the federal government in Colombo for nearly four decades. It was not a surprise they were hailed as heroes.

Also read: Rajapaksa brothers: Playing musical chairs in Lankan politics

The excessive adulation, however, had a negative consequence.  Possibly mistaking the admiration of the people for a blank cheque to do anything he pleased,  among other things,  Mahinda as president fundamentally changed the foreign policy orientation of the country – away from India towards China. 

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The 2009 victory over the Tamils had largely been brought about by military aid and related support from Beijing.  Delhi, on the other hand,  had a chequered relationship with Colombo, as it had earlier backed the Tamils,  attempted to enforce peace in the late 1980s as part of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987, and eventually decided not to interfere in the politics of the neighbour after the LTTE-engineered assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Pro-China tilt

The pronounced pro-China tilt fitted into Beijing’s aim to usurp domination of the South Asian neighbourhood from India.  With its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),  China enticed Lanka into an attractive looking economic relationship that Mahinda fell for. The conditions were also tempting:  the country was recovering from a civil war and the government calculated that the fresh infusion of funds would lift up the economy.

Watch: Sri Lankan fishermen in dire straits, as economic crisis deepens

Mahinda was defeated in the 2014 presidential elections in what was seen as an upset loss.  But by then,  the pro-China policy was well entrenched.  Investments from Beijing which had been accepted unreservedly by the Mahinda government came back to bite the Lankan economy. 

For example,  unable to repay the $1.4 billion loan taken to build the seaport at Hambantota, it was given away to Beijing on a 99-year lease.   Many other infrastructural projects undertaken by the Chinese turned out to be white elephants.  A $15.5 million worth conference centre near the port has largely been unused. An international airport, aptly named after Rajapaksa,  in the same area worth $200 million reportedly could not pay electricity bills,  showing the extent of disuse.

Mahinda concentrated all these high-investment projects in and around his hometown Hambantota,  besides others across the country,  sowing the seeds of the current crisis. 

Politically ruthless

Politically, too,  the Mahinda Rajapaksa government proved ruthless, treating democratic norms with disdain.  After the fall of the LTTE,  there was a slew of arrests of Tamils,  almost in retaliation against the separatist war,  even if those targeted did not have anything to do with the fighting.  Many disappeared for good,  leaving families distraught, while Lankan army personnel spread out and planted themselves firmly in the north and the east of the country amidst the Tamils. 

All these actions had the tacit support of the Sinhalese, who perhaps did not realise at that point that a free pass to the Rajapaksas would one day come to haunt the entire country. 

Watch: India’s refugee policy and what awaits Sri Lankans who come here

With Mahinda’s defeat in 2014,   some hoped that the incoming government of Maithripala Sirisena would investigate allegations of human rights abuses by the victorious Lankan army backed by the Rajapaksa government.  But that did not happen as popular Sinhalese support proved to be a buffer against any such move.

The dictatorial streak of the Rajapaksa brothers came to the fore after the victory of Gotabaya in the 2019 presidential elections.  He first appointed Mahinda as prime minister and at least four other siblings as ministers besides other family members in an astounding show of nepotism.   The autocratic streak was further accentuated by the passing of a controversial constitutional amendment that reversed a move four years earlier by the Sirisena government that had empowered the legislature over the presidency. 

With Gotabaya’s amendment in October 2020,  the president once again turned supreme with the powers to dissolve the legislature anytime after it completed half of its five-year term.  Again,  this amendment was passed with a two-thirds majority,  an indication of the massive support he enjoyed at the time.  The opposition protested, but without any impact.

New faultlines

Two events exacerbated the already fraught situation brought about by the autocratic moves of the government – the 2019 Easter bombings of three churches and three hotels that left at least 275 dead and scores injured , followed by the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020.

The Easter bombings opened a new faultline,  polarising the Buddhist and Muslim communities, leading to religious riots in parts of the south while the worldwide lockdowns brought about by the coronavirus pandemic severely affected the tourist trade.  As if this were not enough,  Lankan migrant workers in other parts of the world including the Gulf returned home after losing their jobs.  This directly affected foreign remittances into the country.

Ideally,  this should have woken up the Rajapaksa family-dominated government. But no. 

In a controversial decision in April 2021,  again betraying an impulsive autocratic streak,  Gotabaya overnight banned the import of chemical fertilisers to promote organic farming.  Though some see merit in the decision,  the manner in which it was announced and implemented proved self-defeating and disastrous for the agriculture sector.  Crop yields dropped dramatically leading to food shortages and price rise,  among other things.

A year later, when protests intensified after a snowballing economic crisis,  Gotabaya regretted the decision,  but it proved too late to stem the widespread outrage and disappointment against the Rajapaksa government.

The cumulative effect of all the wrong choices,  poor decisions,  myopic governance  and autocratic rule has pushed Sri Lanka to the brink with no way of knowing which way the tide will turn.  If and when calm returns, no surprises if we see radical changes in the way the nation is run.

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