Ethnic Conflict, Economic Doom: Sri Lanka’s Horrors Set To Grow Bigger?

With Mahinda Rajapaksa’s exit and the recent violence, the island nation is now a sinking ship with no captain.

5 min read

The unceremonious and unprecedentedly violent exit of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa could not have come at a worse time, which is already reeling under the twin weight of an economic crisis and the political instability caused by it. The irony at the end of the day is that no one is talking about these two complications, focusing instead on the violence that saw many ruling party politicians’ houses and other properties torched, including those of Mahinda in Kurunegala, the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home and parents’ memorials in southern Medamulana, and late father DA Rajapaksa’s statute in Tangalle.

Monday’s violence was triggered by Mahinda’s loyalists, who heard his decision to quit as Prime Minister and launched pre-planned attacks. The attacks were against the public protests for his exit, outside his official residence, ‘Temple Trees’, and later at the Galle Face Green beachfront, also in capital Colombo, where Sri Lanka’s very own ‘Arab Spring’ was being staged for weeks together, though with numbers much less than what the global media had claimed.

If only they had known that behind the mass movement was the lurking danger of protesters who were on the brink of turning violent. In the seemingly coordinated attacks, these groups retaliated in full force, first against the ‘Mahinda camp goons’ standing in front of them, violent and all, and later by setting dozens of homes across the Sinhala South, all identified as belonging to MPs and officials of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), in which President Gotabaya is the only Rajapaksa now left in elected office against at least half a dozen until a month back.


Mahinda: Wrong Man at the Wrong Place?

Mahinda’s cadres’ undeniable role in setting off the nationwide violence aside, he was possibly the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time, and punished for the wrong reasons.

As he was believed to have told his younger brother and President Gotabaya through the past month of political brinkmanship, it was the latter’s cross that he was made to carry – and pay for it with his prime ministerial job and political career after the Monday mayhem.

Apart from the inherited economic crises, pre-COVID issues, including Chinese projects under the Mahinda presidency (2005-15), and the celebrated elimination of the LTTE, the clincher was Gotabaya’s tax cuts and exemptions, which slashed revenue by 25 per cent and the taxpayers’ number by one million. Then, there was the infamous overnight switch to organic farming, again based on imports from China, which did in the government and more so the nation, and that, too, when forex reserves had already dried up.

Mahinda reportedly told some friends at that stage, “My only mistake was to make him President.” Yes, Mahinda commanded the unwavering loyalty of 40 per cent of the voters, and the nation voted Gotabaya based on the former’s word. Today, Gotabaya still has the presidency, but Mahinda’s popularity is zilch.

Now, It's Gotabaya's Word Against All

As it turns out, the nation and the government were unprepared for the much-anticipated and equally denied exit of Mahinda, whose prime ministerial job was insecure compared to the all-powerful Executive Presidency. After Monday’s nationwide violence – which thankfully did not touch the Tamil areas in the North and the East – no one wants to become Prime Minister.

Anyway, the Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) wants Gotabaya out, even more than before – and this is the best time for them to strike politically. Not that Gotabaya now wants the SJB, not certainly party leader Sajith Premadasa, as Prime Minister. After Mahinda’s forced exit, he has all 150 SLPP camp MPs back with him, including the so-called 40 ‘rebels’ in three groups, who are keener to return to government – so what if it’s in the name of an implausible ‘national/interim government’? His choice will be Prime Minister and his word will be law, as has been the case for the past three years.

The government, other than in receiving, storing and distributing food, fuel and medicine assistance sent by India and a few other nations, is non-functional.

Will More Violence Follow?

Only a probe will reveal whether the police and security forces’ inaction when pro-Mahinda goons hit the Colombo streets was because they were demoralised, or because they, too, were feeling the pinch of the economic and forex crises at a personal level (Western diplomats in the capital had earlier blamed the police for opening fire on an anti-Rajapaksa mob intent on setting fire to a petrol tanker/bowser).

Security forces are trying to put down retaliatory violence, where anti-Rajapaksa group(s) are winning the first round. But there is no knowing whether there would be a second round and whether the protesters would now target non-Mahinda and non-Rajapaksa MPs, too.


No One Planned for the Consequences

How this all pans out is too early and too difficult to predict, as is the role of the security forces in putting down organised lawlessness, which seems to be in the making. In between is the unending demand for Gotabaya’s exit and also the constitutional end to the Executive Presidency.

Neither President Gotabaya, the Opposition SJB, nor the street protesters, have any clue as to how to end what they all started – separately but with each one of them singing in at some point. Whoever planned the anti-Rajapaksa protests had obviously not plotted for the ‘day after’. This is where the nation is.

Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. The ceaseless political deadlock and instability, culminating now in the competitive mob violence of Monday, has jeopardised the prospect of even limited economic recovery on tourism, inward remittances and exports sectors. With no government to call ‘stable’, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may feel shy to re-launch the aid negotiations early on, and so would the few other nations who may still risk investing in Sri Lanka. Real recovery would have to wait for years – anything from five to 15 years as per conservative estimates. Even then, it would only be the beginning. Other things being equal, full recovery may take even more time.

Impending Doom?

Sri Lanka is set to sink, politically, economically and in every other way, and all of this may set the nation’s cultural progress back by centuries, and ethnic identities at least by decades, which may lead to incessant tensions, if not violence.

Years ago, before Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005, the common refrain across Sri Lanka was that no force could stop the nation from going the Somalia way – of becoming a ‘failed state’, chaotic and anarchist. Sajith Premadasa got into an embarrassing diplomatic controversy by repeating that line last year.

The common plea for over a decade, cutting across ethnic divides and elitism, was for the larger neighbour, India, to ‘come and save us’. Today, India is there to save Sri Lanka, but there is no Sri Lankan – big or small – who seems to want to save Sri Lanka and fellow Sri Lankans.

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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