Sri Lanka's revolution looks doomed

13 July 2022

3:00 PM

13 July 2022

3:00 PM

Reporting from Sri Lanka over the years has left me with mixed memories. On the one hand, there’s the horror and trauma of the Easter Bombings of 2019, which claimed 269 lives. The traumatic scenes at the hospital and morgue have been hard to forget, as have the eeriness of the tourist spots after all its foreign visitors had fled.

On the other hand, there is the country itself. It is relatively poor, of course, and beset by endemic corruption and nepotism, particularly at the top of government, along with its fair share of ethnic tension. But it has an incredibly warm-hearted and hospitable culture, filled with Buddhist gentleness and good humour, and that charming, slightly stuffy anachronistic Englishness that you find in certain postcolonial societies.

So it was unnerving to see the scenes of chaos and downright chutzpah emerging from the president’s residence in recent days. Crowds of ordinary people, suffering under the precipitous collapse in living standards that have led to severe fuel and food shortages, swam in the president’s swimming pool, jogged on his personal treadmill and took turns taking selfies in his bed.

The good behaviour and smiling faces of the insurgents, partying as the police looked bewilderedly on, contrasted with similar episodes around the world, such as the violent storming of Capitol Hill in 2021, which has been replayed in alarming detail the media spotlight in recent weeks. (And nobody was wearing horns and a furry hat, which is another point in favour.) The rioters – if that is what they are – have even reclaimed parliament to set up a public library.

The frustration of the people is entirely understandable. Since Covid, things in the teardrop of India have gone dramatically downhill. Economic growth, which had been slowing between 2017 and 2019, slid into negative figures in 2020, contracting by 3.6 per cent. The World Bank now places the country 99th out of 190 for ease of doing business, and the IMF ranks its GDP at 64th out of 192. To put this in regional context, in terms of economic freedom, the Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index scores it 28th of the 39 countries in the Asia-Pacific, in the lower half of the ‘mostly unfree’ category.

Little wonder that the Galle Face area in Colombo has become the focus of protests. It is home to Sri Lanka’s most lavish hotels, including those that were blown up three years ago. From the white-suited doorman to the kilted bagpiper who lowers the ceremonial flag on the seafront every evening, this is a colonial throwback that has come to symbolise the corruption, indulgence, ethnic rivalry and ineptitude that has crept over the highest echelons of the country since British withdrawal in 1948.

The heart of this political upheaval lies in economics. The country, which has already defaulted on $51 billon (£42 billion) of foreign debt, has entirely run out of foreign reserves, meaning it can no longer import fuel, food and medicine, causing a looming ‘humanitarian crisis’, according to the UN. To make matters worse, negotiations with the IMF for an emergency $4 billon bailout (£3.4 billion) have been disrupted since president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe went into hiding and the government effectively collapsed. The president spectacularly failed in his attempt to flee the country to Dubai on Monday night, after airport staff stood in his way and forced him to beat a humiliating retreat; his brother, former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, was also blocked from leaving, and was even refused service at the VIP departure lounge of the Colombo airport.

On the whole, international observers have reacted by rooting for the people. And for good reason. Opposition parties have been busy trying to form a unity government to get the country back on track, and will doubtless be presenting themselves as the epitome of integrity to contrast with the outgoing leaders.

They will have an uphill struggle. As has been seen in many countries around the world, when the problems are structural, revolutions often herald a moment of hope, followed by more of the same. I saw this myself when I reported on the coup in Zimbabwe, in which Robert Mugabe was replaced by Emmerson ‘the crocodile’ Mnangagwa; suffice to say that chapter hasn’t ended particularly well.

Nonetheless, we must hope that Sri Lanka’s new rulers, whoever they turn out to be, succeed in their mission to reform the country, and bring to an end this era of disastrous mismanagement and widespread suffering. The international community must do whatever it can to help.

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