The unrest in Sri Lanka has been festering for a number of weeks now, even months. The friendly South Asian neighbour's troubles on the economic front have been public knowledge in Bangladesh since at least the first quarter of 2021 - when the country's now twice ex-prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, utilised his invitation to the Mujib Centenary celebrations to lay the groundwork for a currency swap agreement.
Despite such measures, the failure to deal effectively with the crisis probably came to the fore again on April 12, when a newly-installed governor of the central bank of Sri Lanka announced the country would be 'temporarily suspending' foreign debt payments to avoid what he called a hard default, reasoning that extremely limited foreign exchange reserves would be needed for imports of essentials such as fuel. In March, these reserves had been reported at an abysmal $1.7 billion.
Then again almost a month passed. In the meantime, the Rajapaksa clan's presence in some of the most important offices of the state had dwindled, in the face of continued protests. In almost everyone's personal experience, Sri Lankans are some of the most relaxed, even laidback people you're likely to meet. Not to mention likeable, to a fault. Following independence from the Portuguese, they also invested early and extensively in education, resulting in an adult literacy rate north of 90 percent by the Eighties. Even today, no other country in South Asia comes even close to matching them in that regard.
So all in all, be it for their Buddhist traditions or island surroundings or better education levels, you would hardly associate Sri Lanka with the kind of anarchic violence and overall bedlam that was broadcast around the world this week. With apparently no sign of the government dominated by the Rajapaksas (although three of them, including two more of the brothers and a nephew, Mahinda's son, had to resign last month) being able to engineer a turnaround in the situation affecting millions of ordinary citizens, something must have snapped. And snapped hard.
Earlier, for more than a month, protests spread across the country, drawing people across ethnicities, religions and class. For the first time middle-class Sri Lankans also took to the streets in large numbers, marking a dramatic revolt by many former Rajapaksa supporters, some of whom spent weeks protesting outside the president's office. That of course would be Gotabaya, the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers.
The trigger for this week's events was a violent attack by government supporters on the protesters, in what was styled as something of a counter-protest, but clearly deployed with one overriding intention. Fluster the peace-minded, respectable folk among the protestors by manufacturing a situation approaching chaos on the streets, so that they don't venture out anymore. It ended up escalating to such an extent that the authorities were forced to deploy armed troops in Colombo.
Four people, including a ruling party lawmaker, died in the violence on Monday (May 9), police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa told the Associated Press. President Rajapaksa imposed a countrywide curfew Monday evening lasting until Wednesday morning.
It also proved to be the end of the rope for Mahinda, very much the head honcho of the clan in the political domain, who tweeted out that he had submitted his resignation to the president - now the last of the brothers remaining in office. Although for how long remains to be seen.
Once the mighty have fallen
The entire episode underscored a dramatic fall from favour of the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka's most powerful political dynasty for decades. The brothers were once hailed as heroes by many of the island's Buddhist-Sinhalese majority for ending the country's 30-year civil war, and despite accusations of war atrocities, were firmly entrenched at the top of Sri Lankan politics until now.
The prime minister's resignation comes as the country's economy has swiftly unravelled in recent weeks. Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plunged, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts. People have been forced to stand in lines for hours to buy essentials. Doctors have warned of crippling shortages of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on $7 billion in foreign debt due this year alone.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initially blamed Sri Lanka's economic woes on global factors like the pandemic battering its tourism industry and the Russia-Ukraine conflict pushing up global oil prices. But both he and his brother have since admitted to mistakes that exacerbated the crisis, including conceding they should have sought an International Monetary Fund bailout sooner.
Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the IMF to set up a rescue plan but its progress depends on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors. Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get underway. Sri Lanka was in financial trouble even before the Ukraine war drove up food and oil prices.
The Sri Lankan government has been running big budget deficits after cutting taxes in 2019 and struggling to collect taxes during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also has piled up massive foreign debt - much of it owed to China - and has scant foreign exchange reserves to pay for imports and to defend its embattled currency, the rupee.
Sri Lanka is at the top of a list compiled by Liliana Rojas-Suarez of the Centre for Global Development that ranks the countries most exposed to financial shocks. Those most vulnerable rely on commodity imports and have low foreign exchange reserves compared to what they owe other countries.
On Monday, the move to try and wrestle control of the streets away from the protestors backfired badly, triggering widespread anger, with people singling out Rajapaksa supporters and attacking them in many parts of the country.
Ruling party lawmaker Amarakeerthi Athukorale and his bodyguard were killed in Nittambuwa, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of Colombo after the car they were travelling in was intercepted by an angry crowd, the police spokesman said.
Athukorale or his bodyguard had fired gunshots at the protesters, who chased them and trapped them inside a building where their badly beaten bodies were recovered by police several hours later, the spokesman said. Three people were hospitalised with gunshot wounds from the shots fired from the lawmaker's vehicle, he said.
Separately, in the Rajapaksas' hometown of Weeraketiya, a crowd that tried to set fire to a local politician's home was fired upon, killing two protesters, he said.
Protesters tried several times to break into the prime minister's official residence Monday night forcing police to fire tear gas. Homes of government ministers and politicians supporting the Rajapaksas were also attacked and some set on fire. The memorial for the brothers' parents was vandalised.
Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political scientist in Colombo, said the prime minister's resignation marked a new chapter in the country's political crisis. "The prime minister had to resign in disgrace after his supporters unleashed such violence," he said. He added that it would be difficult for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to maintain credibility after Monday's violence.
But the president has so far refused to resign and Parliament must go through a difficult process if it attempts to oust him. The resignation of the prime minister meant the entire Cabinet was dissolved.
The U.S. condemned the violence while also expressing concern about the emergency declaration, which it said can be used to curb dissent.
"We urge the government to work quickly to identify and implement solutions to achieve long-term economic stability and address the Sri Lankan people's discontent over the worsening economic conditions including power, food and medicine shortages as well," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
Hundreds of armed soldiers were deployed in the capital, as the protesters accused police of not preventing the attack, despite using tear gas and water cannons on protesters on Friday.
"Police did not protect us, therefore we have taken it into our own hands," said Druvi Jinasena, who was helping block roads to protect the protest site.
An official at the main hospital in Colombo said 173 people were treated, most for minor injuries, though 15 were seriously injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to the media.
According to the latest figures, the country's foreign reserves have plummeted below $50 million in May, and it owes nearly $25 billion of the $51 billion foreign debt mentioned earlier by 2026. "There has been sustained pressure for the last several weeks for the president to resign but he hasn't paid much attention to that," said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives. "People are furious - and that anger is not going away anytime soon."
By the time some sense of normalcy returned to country's streets, nine people including the ruling party lawmaker and two police officers were killed and 219 were injured in the violence, the defence ministry said. In addition, 104 buildings and 60 vehicles were burned. Pro-government mobs were chased, beaten and stripped. Homes of government supporters were attacked, and some businesses were set on fire. And yet no one can say they had anyone but themselves to blame. Their vile tactics to dissuade the peaceful protest movement, the seeming lack of empathy with the suffering of ordinary folks, and the arrogance coupled with the incompetence of their leaders, are what set them up for this almightiest of falls.
But hang on - did they really fall?
Gota gonna go?
It is plain to see what the Rajapaksas are playing at - a temporary retreat, that too with Gotabaya still in charge of the most powerful office in the country, wait till everything simmers down, and then strike again when the time is right. Even as the chants of 'Gota Go Gama' (Gota go home/village) continued to ring out at the Galle Face, by the end of the week Gotabaya was still president, and even appointed a new prime minister.
Or rather, brought back an old prime minister. Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73, is certainly no stranger to the office. This was his sixth time being sworn in as PM. He will likely present a Cabinet list to the president for appointment, a power vested in him by the constitution.
If there are objections to the prime minister or the new Cabinet, lawmakers can submit a no-confidence motion to the house speaker when the body reconvenes on Tuesday, May 17. That would seem to be the next key date. The motion would then be debated and voted on. But can they afford to ignore the voices of the youth outside, who have shown themselves to be determined as well as tenacious?
They have been categorical about their view: no appointment of Gotabaya can be acceptable when Gotabaya himself must go. 'Gota go gama'
Wickremesinghe, 73, has been in Parliament for 45 years. His political party split in 2020 amid a leadership crisis and its most senior members left to form a new party, which is currently the country's main opposition. His own reputation was damaged during his previous term as prime minister, when he was in a difficult power- sharing arrangement with then-President Maithripala Sirisena.
Conflict and a communication breakdown between them were blamed for intelligence lapses that led to the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks in 2019 that killed more than 260 people - for many observers of the country, the very genesis of it current woes.
It is little surprise then, that voices from the protest grounds, filling the airwaves no doubt in their own country but also lighting up worldwide on Twitter, have already rejected the entire ploy out of hand. They have their sights firmly set on Gota, and next week will surely prove pivotal. This week's events have filled the protestors with enormous belief, and an even clearer sense of purpose. They know that it is now, or never.
No chance of contagion
This has been a persistent talking point among the chatterati in Bangladesh over the past month. Countless talkshows in television, op-eds in leading newspapers, and sundry politicians from the opposition parties have served outright warnings of impending doom or tried very hard, sometimes too hard, to find similarities that should worry Bangladesh's ruling class.
In our last editorial before we broke for the Eid holidays, Editor-in-Chief Enayetullah Khan set out this magazine's clear position on the issue, likening it to stock market bubbles that owe more to periods of frenzied speculation, with none of the underlying fundamentals to support them.
A debt-to-GDP ratio that is less than a third of Sri Lanka's present level (36 percent against 120 percent), extremely robust forex reserve bolstered by consistent growth momentum in remittances, and a manufacturing sector that has bounced back strongly from Covid, led by RMG's record-breaking export earnings.
We're pleased to report a number of the country's leading economists have since come out and pretty much endorsed the same view.
Answering a question at a finance and economics-focused webinar this week, one of the country's leading voices on the economy, Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, termed it 'irrational' to compare Bangladesh with Sri Lanka.
"I do not see the reason for such a situation as every country develops differently. So, it is not logical to compare one with the other."
He did however warn, almost in the same breath, that it is a matter of concern how Bangladesh's total national debt is increasing at an even faster rate than its much-touted GDP. According to his research, in 2021, Bangladesh's total debt was $131.14 billion. The broader estimate of Bangladesh's current debt is 46% of its total Gross Domestic Product (2005-2006 as a base year), which was 44.1% in FY21.
According to the latest numbers released by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), per capita income in the country will have risen by 9%, year-on-year, to $2,824 by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal. According to Debapriya's research, in FY20-21, Bangladesh's per capita debt was $432 or Tk37,584. As a result of this, the share of debt in GDP will increase in the foreseeable future, and may start posing as a nuisance in around three years or so.
"Although it is still less in the context of other South Asian countries, the amount of domestic and foreign debt is increasing at an unusual rate since 2018. If this situation goes on then this could move Bangladesh beyond the green and into the risk zone in FY2024-25."
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute (PRI), has suggested that there are lessons to be noted for Bangladesh from the Sri Lankan experience, but clearly doesn't foresee anything similar befalling the country in the short-to-medium term. To the extent that Sri Lanka's problems have been severely compounded in the face of high debts, he advocates for Bangladesh to utilise its relatively safe debt-to-GDP ratio to reap more deficit financing.
"We need to create an investment-friendly environment with adequate communication infrastructure for the upcoming graduation to middle-income status by implementing many more big infrastructure projects in the future. As such, we will need more big loans," Dr Mansur maintains. To be fair, he has been consistent with this view since at least the final budget of the late A.M.A. Muhith in 2018, when he urged the then-finance minister to ease his inhibitions on the 5% budget deficit that he maintained throughout his 10 years in office.
As such, Dr Mansur is a strong advocate of building quality infrastructure with foreign loans. In his words, policymakers must strike the right balance between 'taking maximum advantage' of foreign loans and proceeding with the right degree of caution.
Additional reporting from AP
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