Sri Lanka: On the edge of catastrophe

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meets former US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on October 28, 2020 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the beginning of last year, the whole world suffered from the Covid-19 crisis. Though developed capitalist countries seem to ‘manage’ the situation – yet by no means all of them – and are able to carry on with their essential functions, ‘third world’ countries like Sri Lanka are experiencing the worst conditions in decades.

Looking at the numbers, it seems as if Sri Lanka managed to handle the Covid crisis relatively well. But when you look at the government’s behaviour you can see that they do not have a clue on how to face this issue. They look at this as a military operation rather than a medical problem.

The government’s first approach was promoting unproven indigenous medicines and ‘white magic’ rituals to cure the patients. They carried out religious ceremonies everywhere to protect the country from the pandemic.

After that, the government-supporting media, together with ministers and some doctors, publicly promoted several indigenous medicines, saying they can cure you and make you immune to Covid19 within days.

People were so desperate that tens of thousands of people gathered in a rural town called Kegalle, believing they could obtain a “miracle cure.” This was supposed to have been given to a witch doctor by the goddess, Kali. Even the minister of health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, consumed this “miracle cure” of the bogus doctor who has no education or knowledge of local or indigenous medicine. Several days ago, the health minister and a few other MPs who had consumed the medication tested positive for Covid-19 despite claiming it can cure the virus.

There are up to forty indigenous practitioners, witchdoctors, and fraudsters promoting various treatments claiming that they can cure Covid-19. Some of them are getting the support of government officials and politicians, as well. The pro-government media is using them to increase their viewership.

While officials who are supposed to be handling the pandemic are on wild goose chases, Covid patients occupy about 10% of the hospital beds in government hospitals. This puts enormous pressure on the health care sector that is already under-equipped. To date, there are no measures to increase the number of beds or increase the facilities and no real plans to get Covid vaccines.

India and China stepped forward to donate their Covid vaccines to use in Sri Lanka. The ‘Morning’ newspaper reported that the government managed to secure two million doses of Pfizer vaccines. The government started their vaccination programme with the Indian vaccine on the 28 January, but the idea of getting most of the population vaccinated immediately is far-fetched.

It looks as if this crisis will be here for at least another year or one and a half years.

Economic crisis

Sri Lanka was in massive debt even before this Covid-related economic crisis started. It slowly flowed into the ‘Chinese debt trap’ during the earlier Rajapaksha regime. For China, Sri Lanka is a crucial location in its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. Given the rivalry they have with India, it is vital to secure this grip on Sri Lanka to extend their new Silk Road. For India, this is a threat to their supremacy in the region.

Like most of the other strategic locations in their plan, the Chinese strategy was to lend money to Sri Lanka for projects that are not financially profitable and convert that debt with a long term lease. They have successfully managed to do that with the harbour in Hambantota.

With the Covid-19 crisis, the world economy has shrunk. It has affected most of the industries that were bringing foreign revenue to Sri Lanka. The garment sector, tourism, and overseas employment have suffered catastrophically.

During the break between the first and second waves of Covid, the government held a general election that consumed a vast heap of governmental funds just to carry it out. That is not including the money that the candidates spent for promotional purposes. The election gave the ruling party almost the two-thirds majority in the parliament. But it consumed government funds that could have been used to increase medical facilities much needed during a pandemic situation.

Economy

Just as Britain and the US have done during the Covid economic crisis, the Sri Lankan government is currently bragging about how well the stock market has been performing. But what they do not say to the general public is that they have decreased the interest rates and are encouraging banks to lend money and create excess money in the hands of the middle and upper-middle-class that they can use to invest. That was the real reason behind the growth in the stock market. But it would not last long. It will create a stock bubble that will eventually burst, and large investors will sweep up the small investors who tried to take advantage of the situation.

Bloomberg declared on 27 January, “The World’s Best Stock Rally Is in Sri Lanka!” They also said that it grew by over 30% from the beginning of the month. On 2 February, it faced its biggest single-day loss of the All Share Price Index in history. It dropped by 7.7% compared with the previous day. It is too early to say whether it will lead to a full crash or not.

At the same time, the Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) has depreciated further. Currently, the US dollar is worth almost 200 Sri Lankan rupees. Less than a month ago, the exchange rate was just above LKR185. The government banned commercial banks from buying or selling Forex (foreign exchange) for six months to keep the rupee stable.

None of these measures will help the general public to get along better with their lives. Small and medium-scale businesses are most affected. Ordinary people and the working class who were earning daily wages are finding it difficult to make a living. A large number of people started small businesses during the break between the two waves of Coronavirus. The vast majority of them spent their life savings on opening up those businesses that are now suffering and have not recovered what they have invested.

Even the larger corporations invested in marketing and advertising during that break in the hope of an economic boom but have suffered from not making a return on their investments. Only a handful of business people who have close ties with the government are allowed to make big profits from the pandemic; mainly by importing essentials and medical equipment and running private quarantine facilities.

In the face of an economic meltdown, the government is currently looking at privatization of its remaining assets. These include ports, oil storage facilities at Trincomalee, and other vital properties.

The most recent development regarding this was the government’s plan to sell 49% of Colombo Harbour’s East Terminal to the Adani Group of India. This was one of the main matters discussed when the Indian foreign minister visited Sri Lanka. Under the pressure of mass protests of trade unions (including a pro-government one) related to the port, including strike action, they had to back down from the deal. They strategically managed to calm down that protest in the east terminal, but now they are trying to make a deal with Adani to develop and take over the West Terminal of the Colombo port.

Militarisation

In 2019, Sri Lanka elected Gotabaya Rajapaksha as its new president. He was Defence Minister during the bloody crushing of the Tamil fighters of the LTTE in 2009, and he is the subject of numerous accusations of human rights violations. These include the forced disappearances of journalists, like Lasantha Wickramathunga and Prageeth Eknaligoda, and of activists, like Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan. At the same time, Gotabaya Rajapaksha built up a reputation for being a strong-arm leader who gets things done by whatever means necessary. That was one of the main reasons he got a majority in the election.

Gotabaya Rajapaksha was a military officer and likes the direct line of command the military has. He wants his subordinates to carry out orders without any questions asked. According to the Sri Lankan constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief of the forces. It gives him a direct line to mobilise the military to carry out his command. To make it more efficient, Gotabaya Rajapaksha has appointed several military personnel as secretaries to ministries during his short time as president. On 1 January, he appointed twenty-five military officers to be in charge of each district and answer directly only to him. It appears he is building a separate network outside the civilian administration to carry out day to day tasks.

Although the public sector administrative officers should see this and stand up against it, the civil service in Sri Lanka is exceptionally political and incompetent. Long term political affiliations in the public sector have made them slaves to political parties and individual politicians. The majority of them do not have the spine or the will to stand up against this, though they can clearly see Gotabaya is taking away their own authority. At the same time, most people know they are powerless and that even if they try to stand against this militarisation, it is doubtful they will receive any support from the general public. Gotabaya Rajapaksha is enjoying widespread support from the Sinhala-Buddhist communal forces in the southern parts of the country.

The general public who live in the south of Sri Lanka see the military as their saviours, especially after the Easter bombings of two years ago, and given the sense of insecurity deliberately cultivated by the current government when they were in opposition. At the same time, the government is very keen on using the military as a public relations tool. They try to involve it as much as possible when they do relief work, including Covid control and relief aid distribution. The current top army commander, Shavendra Silva, is behaving like a celebrity – attending public meetings, cultural and religious events, even social gatherings. His recent behaviour is more like that of a politician/public representative than a military commander.

Racism

Gotabaya Rajapaksha’s whole election campaign was driven precisely by cultivating insecurity and discrimination. His campaign managed to make the majority Sinhalese adopt the mentality of a minority and rally together to support him as the ‘saviour’ of their race. He got an unprecedented victory by securing a clear majority of the votes of the majority Sinhalese. At the same time, he was unable to secure support from the minorities. The minority communities rejected him in that election, yet he does not consider the country’s national question. He has pointedly neglected the Tamil and Muslim minorities. He clearly does not believe that to establish a long-lasting solution, he has to build bridges between communities in order to unite them.

This has created a unique environment in the political arena where the ruling party was rejected by many people from minority communities and accepted by the large portion of the majority community. The Gotabaya government has no option but to stay in power by pleasing the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and maintaining the rift he has created between the communities.

Pro-government media have tried to cover up the government’s inability to deal with the Covid pandemic. Their strategy was to create propaganda saying the Muslim community was behaving irresponsibly and that is one of the main reasons for the spread of the disease.

They highlighted the fact there were more Covid patients reported among the Muslim community in urban areas. The main reason for that was that they were living in a very cramped environment and the population density of those areas was extremely high. They highlighted the race and religion of the small number of people who behave irresponsibly as mostly the Muslims.

Then they started a campaign against carrying out burials for Muslim Covid victims. Both the World Health Organisation and many scholars from the health care sector, within and outside Sri Lanka, said there cannot be a risk in burying Covid victims. These media stations had been using misinformation and getting several pro-government intellectuals to back their theory of Covid19 being spread by dead bodies of victims.

The Sri Lankan president had to take a step back and issue an order to reconstruct the Jaffna university memorial due to mass pressure from Tamil students, people in the north, and a considerable number of people from the southern part of the country. After a while, regardless of race or religion, many people in Sri Lanka considered this was unnecessary and inhumane and stood against it. This is a vital turning point in recent Sri Lankan history.

Mainly in social media, critics and activists who have a strong voice brought this issue to the attention of the world media. That is what created the pressure on Narendra Modi to send his foreign minister to settle this issue.

President Gotabayya received pressure from the Indian government, only because Modi wanted to influence the upcoming Tamil Nadu state election. He still maintains his stance on cremating all Covid victims to please the main Sinhala chauvinist forces that put him in power. This was despite local and international critics.

Indian interventions

India is trying to strengthen its presence in Sri Lanka. Especially with India’s close ties with the US, and at the same time with China, it is trying to increase its influence over Sri Lanka.

Narendra Modi’s Rockefeller, Gautham Adani, is looking for cutting a deal on the Colombo port’s east terminal with Sri Lankan government. The political atmosphere in the predominantly Tamil north of Sri Lanka always plays a massive role in Tamil Nadu politics. Modi’s government faces the farmers’ protest, on the one hand, and they cannot afford to face another issue coming up in the south with the increasing pressure of the approaching Tamil Nadu election. Especially after the destruction of the Tamils’ Millivaikal memorial in Jaffna University, Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Sri Lanka.

Environment and deforestation

The year and three months of Gotabaya Rajapaksha being president has been one of the worst times for problems of the environment. The president does not understand the importance and value of the forest reserves and natural ecosystems. He is looking at it as something that can artificially deal with whenever he wishes.

During his short term, so far, several road constructions have been carried out in forest reserves, including at the Unesco heritage site of Sinharaja forest reserve, with its exceptional biodiversity. Gotabaya Rajapaksha removed the need for permits to transport sand for construction, which gave wings to illegal sand mining on the rivers around the country. His government ministers have interfered and threatened wildlife officers when they have tried to stop illegal activities, including ranching, logging, and sand mining inside the forest reserves. Several parts of the forests have been given to corporations to make profits through cultivating them. Several protected mangrove reserves have been handed over to shrimp cultivation.

During the last year alone, thirteen leopards were killed out of a total population of just over 700. Over four hundred elephants were killed – the highest number of elephant deaths due to animal-human conflicts created by deforestation and increased human activities in the forest reserves.

The government propaganda is peddling the story that environmentalists are against the country’s development. One of the ministers has called environmental activists “environmental terrorists”. The latest results of this provocation happened on 25 July, last year, when an ecological activist, Lakmal Ranbahu, who campaigned against the destruction of the Sinharaja forest reserve, was severely assaulted by a group of thugs.

Opposition and alternatives

It is doubtful, although still too early to predict, that the current government will run for two terms. Its popularity has started to crumble even before one year has passed. People are beginning to understand that the government is unable to deliver what it promised.

Though the government is unsuccessfully trying to use a strategy of bringing up popular topics each week to distract people from the actual issues, growing economic problems will take their toll on the people, and that frustration will be directed towards the government.

The leading capitalist parliamentary opposition – the United Peoples Power/United National Party – is not fighting for a change of the system, as they fully support the neo-liberal economic policy. They are fighting to improve the current capitalist system and simply run it more efficiently. Even amongst them, some subgroups believe they should also be riding the Sinhala-Buddhist communal wave that Gotabaya rode. But it is still too early to predict how it will turn out and whether the class struggle comes forward as a major challenge to the Gotabaya government.

The forces on the Left are fighting among themselves to determine which one is the genuine mass leftist party. Though all of them are chanting that the Left has to unite, none of them seems to mean it in their hearts or want to come into a forum to discuss how they will achieve it. Most importantly, trade union leaders are not prepared to form a joint action committee to fight against the cuts of the living and working standards in Sri Lanka.

The United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka) calls for an assembly of workers to form action committees to fight against privatisation and for better living and working standards.

There is indeed frustration and disappointment among the working class, radical youth and minorities. But there is no substantial movement, at this stage, that can channel that frustration and disappointment into achieving a lasting change for a socialist world. However, working class anger will develop and with it mass action, in which support for Marxist ideas will grow.

 

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