Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis deepens as covid ravages the country

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with former US Secretary of State Pompeo, Colombo, October 28, 2020 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Since coming to power in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has gone through a severe crisis. Sri Lanka was once the second most powerful economy in Asia, but now it is falling into the biggest crisis since independence. This crisis was not just because of the Covid 19 pandemic. It had started long before that.

The island-wide lockdown implemented from March 21st to June 1st plunged the GDP into negative growth. According to a recent World Bank report published on April 2021, Sri Lanka’s first quarter of 2020 registered minus 1.8% GDP growth. This figure for the year as a whole was minus 3.6%. It is clear that the economy was already in bad shape even before the first covid 19 pandemic wave started. The health crisis and lockdown merely accelerated the crisis.

The Gotabaya government is incapable of dealing with the crisis. They follow the only ‘solution’ that they know – namely, taking more foreign loans and printing money. The government took its money printing to an unprecedented level by printing 23 billion rupees (115 million USD) in a single week in June. To cover healthcare expenditure, they have obtained a loan from Bangladesh worth 250 million USD, 400 million USD from India, and 800 million USD from the IMF.

The banning of chemical fertilizer has added fuel to the burning economic crisis. Poor farmers in every corner of the country are demanding fertilizer. The ban will reduce food production by at least half from the previous year. With this step, the economy is heading towards a severe crisis where hunger and starvation would reach massive proportions. Organic agriculture is not developed enough to produce adequate food that country requires.

As the seething fury of poor farmers spills over into country roads and sets the country ablaze with the war cries of demanding fertilizer to farm their crops, paddy fields, and vegetable farms. A fertilizer ban would aggravate the country’s finances into a more profound economic crisis.

Basil Rajapaksa drama suppressing the protest

Basil Rajapaksa is the sixth member of the Rajapaksa family to enter parliament. He did not stand in the election and was not elected by any democratic means. He was appointed as an MP and as a minister by the ruling party. There are four other Rajapaksa family members in the parliament (Chamal, Mahinda, Namal, Shashendra, and Nipuna). This is in addition to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. While the police suppressed the protest of students and workers, celebrations for the appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister were allowed to take place all around the country. Those celebrations happened in the presence of the same police who violently dispersed the worker and student protesters.

The police violently suppressed protests initiated by the teachers and university students. They were protesting to protect free education. The students say the new Kothalawala defence university bill is the first step towards militarization and then privatization of free education.

Protesters who resist the police were removed from the picket line and then dragged to the police van by a large group of police. Many are disgusted to see how police dragged the elderly women and monks who attended the protest. Not only protesters, a journalist who went to cover the protest also got attacked by police.

The government’s increasingly authoritarian conduct is trying to hide behind quarantine regulations. Police arrested many activists at several protests that took place in the country. The poor farmers who are demanding fertilizer are also getting arrested. Police say that the protesters violated the directives issued by the director-general of health, banning all public gatherings and protests. Protesters are now granted bail by the court. The court also refused the police’s request to send all the protesters to quarantine camps. However, after they were granted bail by the courts, some of the protesters, including the teachers’ union leader, Joseph Stalin, and student leaders, were re-arrested and sent to quarantine camps.

Chinese grip on Sri Lanka

The Chinese regime had a long-term plan to increase its influence in Sri Lanka for its ‘belt and road’ initiative. In the recent past, two top Chinese bureaucrats visited Sri Lanka on two occasions. China has recently gained complete control over Colombo port city using a puppet commission called, “Port City Economic Commission”, which implanted the Port City Commission Bill.

Sri Lanka’s dependence on China has been increased more under the current government. Sri Lanka seems to have moved away from its previous allies, Japan and India. Chinese lending to the Sri Lankan government has increased from 2% to more than 10%, within the past decade. Chinese influence has now moved from the port city to the mainland. Many tracts of land in Colombo city, including some of the iconic buildings, were sold to Chinese companies.

Sri Lanka lost a part of its sovereignty when China took over Hambanthota port. Unable to pay back the loan, Sri Lanka became reliant on greater Chinese control. Due to this situation, the European Union could possibly withdraw the GSP+ tariff concession to Sri Lanka, citing human rights’ violations. The EU wants the Gotabaya government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which is unlikely to happen under this regime. This political situation also allowed China to gain more influence with the Gotabaya government. The Chinese decision to buy marine produce from Sri Lanka adds to this.

Another recent incident highlights the kind of operation that the Chinese regime imposes and the problems that the Sri Lankan government may face. Chinese workers wearing camouflage Chinese military uniforms were spotted at a renovation site at an ancient artificial lake near Hambantota, called Thisawewa. The archaeological department of Sri Lanka later announced that they had not approved to renovate the lake. The images of workers wearing Chinese military uniforms sparked an outcry. Although the government was forced to take some action, they could not halt the Chinese operation.

Another vivid example of the Chinese-leaning of Rajapaksa’s government was revealed when it was announced that the Sri Lankan state would produce Rs1000 memorial coin to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese communist party (CCP). Sri Lanka is the only country to have made this gesture to celebrate the CCP.

The situation in the north

The political situation in the north of Sri Lanka is currently very complex. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is no longer the only main party there. There are several political groups, with different agendas, operating in the northern part of the country. Though we can see they are working together on some occasions, they have been unable to agree on short-term or long-term plans to address the national aspirations of Tamils. Most of the political groups in the north are trying to find a solution to the national question with the help of India and western countries. They are trying to pressure the Gotabaya government through the Indian high commission.

Meanwhile, Gotabaya is acting like there is no nationality problem for Tamils. Some argue that the national question will not arise if the government provides infrastructure facilities and solves basic human needs. In a situation where Gotabaya cannot resolve the economic issues faced by the people in the south, it is very unlikely that the steps will be taken to improve conditions in the North.

Gotabaya adds fuel to the fire by completely ignoring the Tamils’ political parties and by refusing to engage with them. The TNA requested a meeting with the Gotabaya on several occasions. For the last two years, the president has not met with any Tamil parties. What he is trying to do is to cultivate new Tamil allies through ex-paramilitary groups, like Douglas Devananda’s group, which is already in Gotabaya’s camp. Gotabaya has given special privileges to Angajan Ramanathan, another Tamil figure in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to fulfill the same need.

Militarization in the northern part of the country also increased using the Covid19 pandemic as a cover. They have banned the memorial day of those who died in the 1983 to 2009 civil war, by taking a court order against it.  The government also arrested two Tamil activists. At the same time, they have not so far conducted the provincial council election in the north. Though the Indian high commissioner urges the government to call the provincial council election, Gotabaya is in no hurry to do so.

The Tamils parties also lack direction and have no idea of how to build back the struggle. They dwell in parliamentary politics and maintain illusions in Western and Indian capitalism. They have made no effort to link up with left and progressive forces in the south or with Muslims in the east who defend the rights of Tamils.

Gotabaya’s government is now facing massive public anger and much sooner than everyone anticipated. Under the pressure of workers, farmers, fishermen, and youth, the government had to temporally step back from some of the attacks unleashed on the protesters. They continued to face opposition related to many issues, such as teachers’ salaries, Kothalawala University, the fertilizer shortage, the Xpressperl incident, an education crisis caused by the covid pandemic, a fuel price hike, and high inflation.

The trade unions, however, have not come forward to build a fightback. The unions should, at least, start discussions about the harsh situation faced by the working class, with the aim to build a united movement in opposition to the attacks. United working class action is the only way to stop the onslaught of the government. This struggle can create the path to win more democratic rights. A political alternative is needed for the working class – a mass socialist party that fights to remove the system of capitalism to one where we see the planning of the economy for the benefit of all.




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July 2021