Can Sri Lanka return to liberal democracy?

Will the island nation survive the turmoil following the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? | FILE PICTURE

The Sri Lankan imbroglio persists as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, under Article 37(1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, has appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to officiate in his place. This risks delaying the selection of a regular president by parliament, scheduled for July 20. Many issues arise from this scenario. One is the role of the Sri Lankan military, which currently maintains law and order. Some speak of a de facto military regime under the facade of a civilian government. Maybe not quite yet, but if the current standoff between protesters and the Wickremesinghe dispensation continues and the military is forced to use lethal force for deconfliction, it could become the power broker, instead of parliament. The fugitive president’s game plan is unclear. His Sri Lanka Podjana Peramuna (SLPP) party holds 100 of the 255 seats in parliament. Their support or veto would be essential in deciding who heads a multi-party government. Wickremesinghe may want to take up his new or old position. But the protesters want him out.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa may still be hoping to position someone he trusts. President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is a Rajapaksa clan loyalist. However, reports are circulating that the son of former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent president’s elder brother, is positioning himself to lay all the blame on the ousted president. He was quoted as saying Gotabaya did not listen to his older brother over two crucial policy changes believed to have caused the economic collapse. These are the ban on the import of chemical fertilizers in April 2021 and the increase in taxes this year. The former led to food shortages and the latter to public anger.

Then comes the question of the relative roles of India and China. India quietly gave Sri Lanka $3.8 billion in aid consisting of fuel, food and medicine. China has been reluctant to face its debt created by infrastructure development which has not produced adequate returns. Of Sri Lanka’s $35 billion external debt, the Chinese component is $11.7 billion, plus an additional $3 billion transferred to avoid default. But the popular perception is that China is primarily responsible for Sri Lanka’s financial crisis. This emphasizes Chinese lending practices under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Similar financial strains are visible in Pakistan, Zambia, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Laos, etc. China is a stumbling block in the way of debt restructuring under Paris Club rules that allow debt cancellation after calculating the debtor nation’s revenue potential. All lenders take an appropriate haircut.

The Paris Club is a combination of 22 major creditor countries, including some from Asia such as Japan and the Republic of Korea. Since its creation in 1956, it has restructured the national debts of 90 nations 433 times. China is not a member of the Paris Club but is a major creditor country, having lent without distinction for BRI projects. China is not known for canceling its debts. In the case of Sri Lanka, in 2017 a Chinese state-owned company converted its debt into a 99-year control over the port of Hambantota and related facilities. It reversed what colonial powers had done to China in the 19th century, beginning what China calls a century of humiliation. Sri Lanka’s default is the first in Asia after Pakistan’s in 1999.

Thus, the way forward offers India and the Paris Club nations the opportunity to beat China at its game and win back a crucial island nation on the side of the liberal order. There is also a lesson for India. The Rajapaksa clan’s takeover began after the military elimination of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. They chose the easy path of chauvinism and majoritarian politics, mixed with religious support and radicalized Buddhist clergy. Their return to power in 2019 was aided by the Easter bombings and a frightened nation buying back old Rajapaksa fanaticism, now targeting Muslims. During the Covid outbreak, Muslims were even banned from burying their dead for questionable medical reasons. Bad policy was compounded by bad decisions like overnight conversion to organic farming, crippling a state of food self-sufficiency. Covid has worsened the external environment, causing tourism and worker remittances to plummet.

The lesson is that illiberal politics can work to the point where a nation’s economy collapses. Then the streets will rise in protest and destabilize even a clan-controlled government with a strong grip on the military. General Shavendra Silva, Chief of the Defense Staff, was appointed despite serious allegations of human rights abuses against him. Sri Lanka has an open path to return to liberal democracy with balanced power between the executive and the legislature. Alternatively, power may pass to a uniformed junta.

The author is a former secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs