Sri Lanka Protests: Can the West Justify Its Stony Silence as Colombo Burns?

Over a day after mass protests rocked Sri Lanka and plunged the country into chaos, the West remains silent.

9 min read
Hindi Female

On the evening of 9 July, Saturday, arsonists who were part of a ‘public struggle’, or ‘Aragalaya’, set fire to the private residence of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and cut off electricity to the locality. Yet, a full 24 hours later, the West is yet to comment on the crisis – that is, condemn it, whatever be the social or political identity of the attackers. This is so when Ranil was considered close to them all and was made Prime Minister after the forced exit of incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, mainly because he could fast-track international assistance that the economically-crippled nation very badly needed.

  • A full 24 hours later, the West is yet to comment on the crisis. This is so when Ranil was considered close to them all and was made Prime Minister mainly because he could fast-track international assistance.

  • Even nations such as China and Russia, the traditional ‘friends’ of Sri Lanka – the former especially being a ‘friend’ of the Rajapaksas – are silent

  • Before Saturday’s crisis, the US, the UN, including its Secretary-General, and the UNHRC, all had waxed eloquent on how “all Sri Lankans have the right to freedom of expression".

  • But US ambassador Julie Chung’s meeting with JVP boss Anura Kumara Dissanayake days ahead of Saturday’s protest raised more eyes in the anti-Rajapaksa camp than in the ruling combine.


Where are the 'Friends' of Sri Lanka?

No nation or international organisation has condemned the ‘occupation’ of the President’s Secretariat and official residence, which are a ‘symbol’ of Sri Lankan sovereignty and dignity, unrelated to the temporary tenant therein. That should include nations such as China and Russia, the traditional ‘friends’ of Sri Lanka – the former especially being a ‘friend’ of the Rajapaksas. Russia supplied a consignment of 90,000 tonnes of crude on credit and is said to be considering extending more aid after Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin some time back. However, China has been maintaining a healthy distance from everything Sri Lanka ever since the economic crisis hit the nation.

It is true that New Delhi, too, did not condemn any of these incidents, or those that had preceded them in the previous weeks and months. But then, India also did not tell the Sri Lankan rulers what to do, and what not to do, even in the face of the recent street violence perpetrated by anti-government and anti-Rajapaksa protesters in different parts of the country. India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, has since clarified that India would continue to be of help to Sri Lanka and its people. But he has also indicated that the domestic problems of Sri Lanka are not for New Delhi to comment on, leave alone interfere in.


West's Silence Is Not an exception

The West’s silence on the anti-government, anti-personal violence viz Wickremesinghe is not an exception. Two months back, when arsonists in a retaliatory attack burned down the homes and other properties of a number of ruling SLPP leaders, the West, the United Nations and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) kept quiet. But both on the eve of the mass protest that day, and this time around, they were very, very vocal in telling the government – the armed forces in particular – about the Sri Lankan citizens’ freedom of expression, freedom to protest peacefully, et al.

Even when the police or the security forces intervened as protesters tried to set fire to an oil tanker on a railway track, the West was critical not of the arsonists but only of those who opened fire. The government also unthinkingly ordered the arrest and prosecution of the policemen involved.

This was unlike in the case of a video-graphed incident more recently, where an army officer in uniform took a kick-boxing shot at a civilian. It was an unmitigated incident of human rights violation, as even if the man were guilty and the army was on security duty, their job ended with apprehending the person and handing him over to the police.

It was a national ‘celebration’ of sorts when hundreds of protesters broke the security barricades outside the President’s secretariat and official residence on Saturday and made merry inside. Yet, almost a day later, even as they continued to savour the atmospherics around them, the protest leaders – the real ones behind the scenes – seemed unsure of where they were now headed.


An Invisible Division in Sri Lankan Society

In a way, there is an invisible yet undeniable division between the urban moderates and the rural ideological citizens. The former, centrist-liberals, traditionally could not accept socialists, especially with a rural background. That’s where the Rajapaksas fit in. To the ideologicals from the deep south, the Rajapaksas or their parent or present political outfits were not ‘socialist’ enough. They spearheaded the employees and university unions, and at least the leaders would not settle for anything short of a ‘total revolution’, as had happened elsewhere in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The nation is negotiating it all, post facto. The Gotabaya-Ranil duo, sitting as lame ducks at the helm, have asked the rest to come up with an alternate political model before they quit. In ways, it is a repeat of the forgotten tale, where an old lady asks three of the four robbers who had deposited their loot with her to come with the missing man after the latter had walked away with it all by lying to her.

Thankfully, ending the weekend speculation despite Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s declaration that Gotabaya would quit on 13 July, Prime Minister Ranil has since endorsed the view, quoting the President. The Rajapaksas’ SLPP still commands the support of a majority 115 MPs in a House of 225.

There are three distinct groups of ‘rebel SLPP’ parliamentarians, of whom two with a total of 26 MPs may not be disinclined to return to the fold in some form, depending on the choice of a new president and other offers on hand.

Under the Constitution’s 20th amendment, introduced by the Gotabaya regime, a new President can order fresh parliamentary elections halfway past the five-year term. That could mean that a new President could order fresh elections or the Parliament would have to vote two-thirds majority for clearing such a proposal. Given the mood of the people, the former is as much likely as the latter. It means that until past the middle of next year, the nation would have an unsure political leadership, at least till the elections are over.


Sri Lanka Can't Afford to 'Experiment'

It is not going to be easy for the anti-Rajapaksa groups to come up with names, especially if the SLPP remains united and fields a presidential candidate of its own. The one to be chosen for replacing Gotabaya – if and when he quits – as promised on 13 July will be elected by a simple majority in Parliament. At the last count, which was also after the promised exit of the duo, the Rajapaksas still have those numbers.

Either the Rajapaksas have to yield or their party, the SLPP, has to split, for the anti-Rajapaksa groups to command that majority, which, to say the least, would be amoral. Still, whoever becomes President, whether as a new, national government or otherwise, would require a two-thirds majority for ordering early polls, as promised by the anti-Rajapaksa camp.

Both abolishing the Executive Presidency and holding fresh elections may require a two-thirds vote and a popular referendum. The world would laugh at Sri Lanka even more if they were to experiment with such processes in the midst of the ever-crippling economic crisis. They will stop thinking of even ongoing aid and assistance.

Against all this and after the unqualified success of Saturday’s protests on the ground, the US, the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have all woken up to ask Sri Lankans to ‘work quickly’ to address the ‘disconnect’.

On the eve of the protests, US Ambassador Julie Chung went as far as to claim that it was ‘inaccurate that some countries are waiting for a change of government to offer aid or assistance to Sri Lanka’.

The EU has since called for a ‘democratic and orderly transition’ in Sri Lanka, as if they were anticipating otherwise. The EU had wooed Colombo – before the Ukraine War and sanctions, but in the early months of the economic crisis – to make it join their brand of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, possibly competing with the one floated by the US, and of which the Indian neighbour is a member.


West's Perfunctory Response

Once western Europe joined hands with the US in ordering fresh sanctions on Russia and thus closed the emerging gap in their geopolitical and geo-economic perceptions, the EU stopped talking about Sri Lanka in any specific terms. After the weekend drama, they have come up with further perfunctory observations of the American kind.

For his part, Pope Francis, too, mentioned Sri Lanka in his address after the Sunday Mass and called for peace. At the height of the political crisis, which is yet to peak out, the Holy See continued to allow the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka and archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to use the Vatican’s name freely to taunt and threaten the Rajapaksa regime on the inadequacy of investigations and prosecution into the 2019 ‘Easter bomb blasts.

In the process, Cardinal Ranjith went as far as to allege that those who won the elections in the post-blasts past benefited from it, thus seeking to implicate the Rajapaksas. Otherwise, his constant refrain was confined to complaining that the Rajapaksa regime was ‘covering up’ for the guilty, possibly implying the vicarious liability, if any, of the then-President Maithripala Sirisena, for his perceived acts of omission, not commission. The Vatican was silent throughout, even on the economic plight of ordinary Sri Lankans.


Freedom of Expression

However, before Saturday’s crisis, the US, the UN, including its Secretary-General, and the UNHRC, all had waxed eloquent on how “all Sri Lankans have the right to freedom of expression”. Separately, of course, they urged Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint in the policing of assemblies and ensure every necessary effort to prevent violence.

Yet, with reports from the ground indicating other possibilities, US envoy Julie Chung had called for ‘peaceful protests’ and tweeted her reminder for the “military & police to grant peaceful protesters the space and security to do so”. She had said, “Chaos & force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now”, as if addressing all stakeholders and holding them responsible if things were to go wrong on 9 July and the world were unable to rush to the nation’s aid.

The Possibility of a Pyrrhic Win

Post-protests, the IMF has “hope for a resolution of the current situation that will allow for the resumption of our dialogue on an IMF-supported programme”. This was unlike anything that the funding agency had said in public while negotiating with the Gotabaya-Ranil regime.

Of course, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had an explanation for the delay when he made a detailed statement in Parliament days ago.

As he readily conceded, though Sri Lanka had negotiated past credits from the IMF and World Bank, this was the first time they were doing so as a ‘bankrupt’ nation.

It is unclear whether Sri Lanka’s international partners, barring India and a few others but including financial institutions, would be satisfied with a government sans Rajapaksas, or whether they are looking for ‘political stability’ in every sense of the term. The latter will be hard to achieve and could at best be pyrrhic if the government were to include the centre-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or ethnic Tamil parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).


Changing the System, Not Just Leadership

After Saturday’s protests, to which the JVP’s contribution, though unacknowledged, was the largest, the party has reiterated its all-time demand for a ‘system change’ instead of a leadership change. It not only calls for a new ‘political culture’ but aims at having the kind of governments and policies that some nations witnessed in the second half of the previous century, following ‘left/communist revolutions’.

That could be problematic for future rulers, as also for international aid-givers. The US has since said that the IMF was the key to global aid. But the IMF’s conditionalities in Sri Lanka and elsewhere have been seen as ‘pro-rich, anti-poor’. The poor have been the worst hit through the past months of economic crisis, preceded by two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The political belief is that they are returning to the JVP and the breakaway FSP (Frontline Socialist Party), whose trade unions and university students’ unions were at the vanguard of the public protests of the past weeks.

As much as they want the Rajapaksas out, the non-JVP-FSP opposition doesn’t want the latter ‘stealing’ either their votes or that of the ruling SLPP, a substantial portion of which had been with the JVP before the ‘Mahinda storm’ swept it away after 2005.


Good Speakers, But Not-So-Good Listeners

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and other centre-right/centrist political parties are equally concerned about early parliamentary elections before the inevitable internal squabbles to turn the voter back to the Rajapaksa camp, or more so towards the left-radical JVP-FSP combo, start. Julie Chung’s meeting with JVP boss Anura Kumara Dissanayake days ahead of Saturday’s protest thus raised more eyes in the anti-Rajapaksa camp than in the ruling combine, which had no time, energy or inclination to worry about anything. Chung had arrived in Colombo recently and her meeting with every political party leader and civil society organisers would have been dismissed as a ‘routine affair’ if it were not for the prevailing circumstances and the timing.

The JVP has only three seats in the 225-member Parliament, down from double that figure in the previous regime. But their potential for rocking the boat from within or outside – in the prevailing circumstances – could be exponentially high. Having fed their ranks of protesters, which may also be the single-largest pool with fellow FSP, the JVP has to fulfil its undefined promises and also the not-so-clear aspirations of their constituencies. After a point, they are just good speakers, not good listeners – to even the US or Russia and China.

(N Sathiya Moorthy, a veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. 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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Topics:  Sri Lanka   sri lanka protests 

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