The Hope and Fear of the Sri Lankan Protest Movement
Last week, protesters in Colombo stormed the residence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, who had fled the country and later resigned over e-mail. After months of rising prices and dwindling supplies of food and medicine, discontent in Sri Lanka has reached a fever pitch. (Rajapaksa’s brother, the Prime Minister, also resigned.) The country now faces a period of uncertainty, but also opportunity. It must navigate out of the current economic and political crises just a dozen years after the end of its brutal civil war, when, in 2009, the government, led by the Rajapaksa brothers, defeated a decades-long insurgency by the Tamil Tigers. (On Wednesday, Sri Lankan lawmakers voted to replace Rajapaksa with Ranil Wickremesinghe, an establishment figure whose house had already been set on fire by protesters. Two days later, security forces raided the main protest camp. Wickremesinghe said the uprising had been infiltrated by fascists.)
I recently spoke about the situation, by phone, with Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist at the University of Jaffna. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the causes of the current crisis, the legacy of the Sri Lankan civil war, and where the protests might go from here.
What are we seeing in Sri Lanka? How would you characterize it? Is this a revolution?
This is by far the most formidable protest in the history of the country over the past two centuries. It has completely shaken up state and society. I characterize it as a revolt and not yet a revolution, because it doesn’t want to change fundamental social relations. It’s only looking for regime change. That has been the demand, and it has succeeded. They have chased away the President, but they are not thinking in terms of, say, changing social relations, or property relations. It hasn’t gone that far, but there’s this huge politicization of people that is also coming along with these protests. It’s not as if there’s some ideological vanguard that is pushing this protest forward. It’s through the practice of protest and larger waves of people coming out on the streets that it has become so powerful.
Four decades ago, the President at that time, J. R. Jayewardene, created an executive Presidency to be able to consolidate power for himself. And, since then, we’ve had this Presidency kind of similar to the French model, but with overwhelming powers, which the movement put the blame squarely on—especially the last President, who was just dislodged. And now there are also tremors to abolish the executive Presidency. They hope to bring stability to address the underlying causes of this political crisis, which is the economic crisis that has been unfolding. So, again, I would characterize it as a tremendous revolt, but not quite a revolution yet.
What were the causes of the economic crisis?
If you had to trace this economic crisis backward, the real aggravation was caused by the war in Ukraine, where global oil, commodity, and fertilizer prices have doubled or more. And in Sri Lanka it led to a foreign-exchange crisis, where we were unable to import many of the commodities necessary to run the economy. That’s why we are seeing so many shortages and tremendous price hikes. Compared with six months ago, the price of bread has tripled, the price of rice has tripled, the prices of petrol and diesel have more or less tripled.
The cost of living has gone through the roof. And the war in Ukraine has some part to play in it, but it goes further back. This is really a crisis of the external sector, or what we are calling here a “dollar crisis”—the lack of dollars for imports and to be able to repay our debt. With the pandemic, in March, 2020, it was obvious to us that we were very quickly heading toward this kind of a crisis, because a large amount of our earnings come from tourism. That was completely disrupted. And then foreign remittances—that is, from going to the Middle East and Southeast Asia as blue-collar or domestic workers—also started to decline, because of the disruptions in those countries with the pandemic.
It was also the gross mismanagement by the [Gotabaya] Rajapaksa regime, which came to power in 2019. They could have prioritized imports, they could have saved some of our foreign reserves to be able to wade through a crisis. It’s the gross management that led to such a severe situation.
But I would argue the crisis actually goes even further back. Sri Lanka went through a civil war for twenty-six years, from 1983 to 2009. The end of the civil war coincided with the global financial crisis of 2008. When Sri Lanka’s war ended, in May, 2009, there was a lot of global capital flowing into emerging markets. But Sri Lanka was actually seen as not only an emerging market but a postwar economy. So global-capital investors were euphoric about Sri Lanka to the point that, between 2009 and 2010, Sri Lanka had the best-performing stock market in the world—the Colombo Stock Exchange more or less quadrupled in eighteen months.
And, with that, the government borrowed extensively and invested in infrastructure. Because of the inflow of capital and the construction, they could show fairly high levels of growth for the first three years, on the order of eight per cent of the G.D.P., but there were no returns on it. And so, in my view, the crisis really started a decade ago with that kind of bubble investment, which was also cheered on by the Bretton Woods institutions and global financiers.
Aside from the economic impact, how did the civil war lay the ground for what’s going on now?
The Rajapaksa regime—President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who just recently resigned, and his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who became President in 2005, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the defense secretary under him and considered a very brutal character, with allegations of grave human-rights abuses—that regime finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, considered one of the most brutal armed organizations. They were considered impossible to defeat, and the Rajapaksas defeated them in May, 2009, which gave them carte blanche to consolidate their regime. They had a landslide victory six months later, and part of it was because Sri Lanka was seen as stable because they had such a strong authoritarian regime. Their authoritarianism, combined with the development push—where they saw development as a solution to all of Sri Lanka’s problems, instead of considering the grievances of the minorities, and so on—was also the thrust of our economic trajectory.
But Sri Lanka also has a very strong democratic sensibility. Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia to get universal suffrage, way back in 1931. The British actually decided to do an experiment in Sri Lanka, because of mounting pressure from the ground at that time. So, well ahead of many European countries, all men and women got the right to vote in 1931. And that democratic sensibility continued, because when Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war many analysts were saying, “Now this regime is going to be there for the next two decades.” In 2015, they were dislodged. They were thrown out of power, but they were waiting in the wings to take it back. And they managed to do that in 2019, when the coalition government failed miserably on the economic front.
To go back to your question—2009, the war, militarization, authoritarian power, the euphoria, and the majoritarian nationalism were all part of consolidating the regime’s power, and the economic trajectory was set by that regime without democratic engagement.
My understanding is that the Rajapaksa regime was interested in developing closer economic ties with China, which was a hotly debated issue within Sri Lanka. The United States and India, which is very connected to Sri Lanka, had strong opinions about this. How big a change was the embrace of China, and did it have a role in the economic collapse we’re seeing now?
Sri Lanka actually has a long relationship obviously with India but also with China. It goes back to the [end] of the Korean War, when we imported rice from China and exported rubber. Then when Sri Lanka was part of the Non-Aligned Movement, from 1956 to 1976, we had a very close relationship with China, and that relationship gained traction again in the middle of the civil war, when Sri Lanka got support from various international actors in its fight against the Tamil Tigers. The United States was backing it, and so was India.
India, who had a former Prime Minister who was killed by the Tigers.
Absolutely. And there were Indian peacekeeping forces. They actually had boots on the ground here between 1987 and 1990. But, in another way, the Indians were the ones who also supported the Tamil militancy, including the Tigers early on, as Sri Lanka shifted away from nonalignment and toward the U.S. in 1977. From 2006 to 2009, China also supported Sri Lanka’s military effort. Sri Lanka went to every actor. They even got close to Qaddafi, in Libya, and with Iran, to get oil. They were playing with everyone during that last phase of the war, which unnerved the West. The grave human-rights abuses, the war crimes that were committed by both the Tamil Tigers and the government, led to the sanctioning of Sri Lanka, particularly by the U.N. Human Rights Council. In the process, the Rajapaksa regime became increasingly alienated from India and the West.
In terms of the economic crisis, as I mentioned, it’s primarily a crisis of the external sector and foreign debt. But only ten per cent of our external debt is owed to China. The real problem is our commercial borrowing in the capital markets, which amounts to fifty-three per cent of our external debt. That’s what really pushed us into this debt trap. There’s geopolitics with China, but I would put the weight of the current crisis, and particularly the debt crisis, on this rampant commercial borrowing by the state.
With the Rajapaksas gone, what do you see as the goals of this movement?
If I can trace the protest movement a bit—throughout the war, the state was asking the population to tighten their belts, saying, “We are fighting a war, and we can’t provide relief. It’s difficult times.” So there were a lot of expectations at the end of the war that now there’s going to be development and prosperity.
In reality, there was no peace dividend to the people. The inequalities continued to rise. There was all this infrastructure development, and certain financial classes in Colombo made a killing during that time. That was one of the reasons why the Rajapaksas were overthrown. Sri Lanka has a very long history of social welfare. To this day, we have universal health care. Anybody can go to hospital, and get admitted, with free health care. All our universities are free. All my students have free education from primary school through university. Until the nineteen-seventies, we even had a food subsidy.
People have this expectation from the state in terms of addressing their economic needs. One of the reasons why the previous government that replaced the Rajapaksas was overthrown was that, in 2016 and 2017, there was a major drought and they really didn’t respond to the agricultural community. We have a history of these kinds of protests coming up on economic issues. When the pandemic hit, Sri Lanka provided the least amount of relief to people in South Asia as a percentage of G.D.P. So there were all these grumblings that you could hear from people becoming disenchanted with this regime—that [the Rajapaksas] have only focussed on consolidating power.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was that they tried to militarize and privatize education. The teachers, the students, university teachers—all of us started to protest. A year ago, their legitimacy was cracking. That’s when they brought about this disastrous fertilizer ban for agriculture. The President said he was going to make Sri Lanka a completely organic country overnight, and ban the import of all [chemical] fertilizers, which pretty much devastated our agricultural sector. The farmers were resentful.
What comes next for the protest movement?
We should go back to a parliamentary style of government. Even in Parliament, where we have two hundred and twenty-five members, the overwhelming majority belong to the President’s party, and they’re all discredited. They’re the ones who’ve been governing. It’s very hard to have elections now; there would need to be some kind of an interim government, possibly a minority government of the opposition, to bring about political and economic stability.
An idea that has been emerging out of the protests is an idea of a people’s council. A people’s council would have representation from the protesters, various professional organizations, the bar association, trade unions—all of them coming together to be a consultative body to the Parliament, and also to keep a check on it, because people have really lost confidence in Parliament. If you don’t have that kind of a mechanism, every time the Parliament goes off track the only option is to go out on the streets and protest.
What about the makeup of this protest movement? The country is about seventy per cent Buddhist, but there’s a large Hindu minority and a Muslim minority, as well. How multiethnic and multi-faith has the protest movement been?
That’s been the positive, encouraging thing. In the protest, all three ethnic communities have been coming together. Keep in mind that there was a huge anti-Muslim wave that was mobilized by the Rajapaksas over the past decade. So people are coming together.
Just to be clear, for people who don’t know—the Tamil Tigers were not a Muslim group.
In terms of the ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, about seventy-three per cent belong to the Sinhala community, mainly Buddhist. A small percentage of them converted [to Christianity] because Sri Lankans went through five centuries of colonialism, with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.
Then there are the Lankan Tamils, who have lived in Sri Lanka for a couple millenia. The Tamil Tigers wanted a separate state for this ethnic community. The Tamil Tigers are not Hindu. I would say they were secular—they had Christian and Hindu members—but they were virulent nationalists, and almost fascist in terms of one leader, one nation, one people. They ethnically cleansed the Muslims out of the north, in 1990. There’s also the up-country Tamils who were indentured labor brought over from South India by the British, to work in the first coffee and tea plantations. And there are Muslims who are Tamil-speaking, who have their own ethnic identity.
All of them have been part of this protest movement. That’s been really encouraging. The protests have been spreading all over the country. They’ve been protesting in my home town, Jaffna, as well, but it has not been as powerful, for a couple reasons. One, the north has been much more militarized than the rest of the country. The Rajapaksas militarized the north, so not as many spontaneous protests have happened, because people have also gone through a civil war and they’re much more cautious.
Two, many Tamil nationalists have also been discouraging people from participating because they want to keep this exclusive Tamil nationalism, and they’re also concerned about the Tamils joining with the Sinhalese. But, for the most part, if you look at the protests, all communities have been participating. As the protests mount, people come in waves, like the big protests on July 9th, where you had hundreds of thousands of people. And this despite all kinds of fuel shortages. They were jumping on trucks and lorries, and people were giving them lifts. They forced the trains to run.
What are your biggest concerns about where things might be headed?
I would compare the crisis we are facing economically to the time of the Great Depression in the nineteen-thirties. It’s a very similar moment to 1934 and 1935, when the Depression was affecting the entire world. Sri Lanka also went through a malaria epidemic, and almost two per cent of our population died. That was huge. It had an even bigger impact than the pandemic. That crisis left a huge legacy. The thirties—that’s when our democratic sense emerged, that’s when we pushed for free education. We’ve had free education since 1944, and universal health care since 1951.
It led to certain progressive changes, which made Sri Lanka a model development state in the seventies, because even though our per-capita income was low we had very high human-development indicators in terms of literacy, in terms of life expectancy, and so on. The seventies brought another global conjunction, with the price of oil going up, very similar to the situation now. We went into a severe crisis and that led to an authoritarian regime emerging with J. R. Jayewardene, who took us in the direction of liberalization, undermining social welfare. He instituted the Prevention of Terrorism Act, created a state of emergency, and crushed organized labor, which led to the civil war, as well, by 1983, under his rule.
Now we are at a similar moment of crisis, and that’s where I have my hope, but also my fears. It could go in a progressive direction, of addressing the concerns of the people, further democratization, equality, and freedom in terms of inter-ethnic relations, and all of that. Or it could lead to a very worrying, polarized, authoritarian, almost fascist rule, if the military or various actors get together and decide to completely repress this movement.
By Isaac Chotiner