People’s Upsurge Against Neoliberal, Majoritarian Rajapakses’ Authoritarianism
Economic crisis leading to disruption of people’s lives and collapse of their livelihood has resulted in a political crisis in our Southern neighbour, Sri Lanka. Everything is going wrong for the people and they are rising against the ruling family, Rajapakses, who monopolize power in Sri Lanka. Whimsical decisions have played a role in precipitating the crisis, brewed by long duration of neoliberal policies; but then strongmen and women are ‘revered’ for their whims so long as they work. In third world countries these strong leaders have little control over the happenings as they are propped and undermined by imperialist powers. Led on to garden path, flowers turn into thorns and green carpet into scorched earth. Once again a show piece of imperialist capital propelled development lies in shambles.
First, the difficulties of the people. There is lack of food, fuel and medicines. There has been 10 to 12 hours of black out every day and the number of hours of black out have increased to 13-14 hours a day. Long queues are there for food, milk and fuel including kerosene whose prices have sky rocketed. Serpentine queues have already taken a toll of elderly and sick with several having perished in the queues. To keep ‘order’, Army is deployed at state run fuel depots. Economic activities have come down including industries which have had to close down or work for reduced hours for lack of power. Power plants have closed down or reduced output due to lack of diesel. Even students’ examinations have been put off as there is no ink or paper. Most of the newspapers and magazines have closed down and those afloat have reduced number of pages. There are no essential medicines and even emergency surgeries are not being carried out. Some people have also reached Indian shores due to economic hardships. Inflation has reached 25.7%; worse, essential commodities have just disappeared from the shelves.
People are protesting, clashing with police and armed forces. Protests at President’s house have been dispersed by use of force. Govt. proclaimed Emergency and imposed curfew to check protests. But protests continue unbowed. On April 5, Govt. was forced to lift Emergency. Workers, students, lawyers, teachers, all sections of people are protesting and joining protests. Health workers throughout Sri Lanka have called a general strike on April 8. Economic hardships are so widespread that political crisis has engulfed the island. Strongmen of yesterday are appearing sheepish now. All ministers except the Prime Minister have offered their resignation. But the target of people’s anger is Rajapakses who have monopolized power in Sri Lanka and refuse to go. Not only President and Prime Minister but there are seven ministers from the family who control 75% of country’s Budget. To shield himself and his family from people’s anger President Gotabaya Rajapakse invited opposition parties to join a National Unity Govt. Expectedly, main opposition parties have declined the offer refusing to do scavenging for the ruling family. Resignation of President and Prime Minister- Rajapakse brothers, has crystallized as a battle cry of the protesters.
The present crisis presented itself as a serious depletion of foreign exchange reserves to foot the import bill with Sri Lanka unable to buy essential necessities of daily use like food, fuel and medicines. Foreign currency reserves have dwindled down to less than two billion US$ (these were US $2.31 during February 2022). Exports have dwindled and tourism is at a standstill, putting further pressure. But this gross trade imbalance (trade deficit being 9.1 billion $ in 2021) expresses the underlying imbalance of economy brought about the policies pursued by successive govts. The main foreign exchange earners for Sri Lanka have been remittances of Sri Lankan labour working abroad, export of textile garments and tea and tourism. With remittances from abroad and export of textile garments stagnating since 2013 onwards, it was earnings from tourism that has been rising continuously earning revenue of 4.4 billion $ in 2018.
Some commentators are attributing the crisis to foreign debt burden. It is definitely an important factor but not the whole story. Foreign debt of Sri Lanka was estimated to be over $51 billion in 2021 while GDP was estimated to be around $81 billion. Though section of media has insinuated Chinese loans to be the main factor but analysis of Sri Lankan external debt shows it to be only one of them. As of end April 2021, 47% of the foreign debt of Sri Lanka was market borrowings and nearly 13% from Asian Development Bank. Loans from Japan, China and World Bank constituted roughly 10% each of foreign debt, loans from India 2% and rest of the foreign debt of Sri Lanka from other countries. Foreign Debt to GDP ratio sharply worsened over the last three years from roughly around 85% in the beginning of 2019 and 94% of the GDP in end 2019 to 119% of the GDP in 2021.
How has Sri Lanka reached the present situation? There are several factors which contributed to this situation. While Covid pandemic definitely hit tourism, Russia’s war against Ukraine also contributed to the precipitation of the crisis. Travelers from Russia and Ukraine constituted more than one fourth of all tourists. Nearly 45% of the wheat imports of the island came from these two countries. More than half of the imports of soya, sunflower oil and pulses also come from Ukraine while Russia and Ukraine are also reportedly important suppliers of semi-finished products of iron and steel, asbestos, copper (cathodes) and potassium chloride for fertilizers. Besides, these two countries bought 18% of the black tea produced in Sri Lanka. But these are only some factors in what has been a crisis of imperialist backed corporate majoritarian authoritarianism.
Rajapakse Govt. symbolizes unity of corporate friendly neoliberal economic policies and majoritarian, in this case Sinhala Buddhist authoritarianism. Rajapakse Govt. stands on the heap of the military-cleric regime. Military officers are appointed to head the public sector undertakings and hard line clerics from Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) are appointed to steer education, culture and laws towards a majoritarian authoritarian rule. People’s upsurge brought about by economic collapse has once again proved that main challenge to corporate especially foreign corporate backed majoritarian rule comes from the people’s movement. Parliamentary opposition parties are paying lip service to the people’s anger doing little to bolster and hoping to ride on the people’s anger much like in India as it was the case during historic farmers’ movement in India. The opposition parties have no alternate policy frame work; hence they are limiting themselves to criticism like not approaching IMF in time, thanking foreign countries for help and the like. In many ways development of crisis in Sri Lanka has parallels with India, Sri Lanka in fact is ahead in some respects in chronological order.
The economic catastrophe was long in the making. Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia to embrace neoliberal agenda. It was the UNP Govt. led by J.R. Jayawardene which adopted what were then called ‘open economy reforms’ in 1977. These were accompanied by attacks on trade union rights with setting up of free trade zones without TU rights and enactment of Prevention of Terrorism Act. With infusion of imperialist capital, a bubble was created which burst a few years later. In the need to divert people’s anger away from economic policies pursued by ruling classes, Jayawardene Govt. stoked majority Sinhala chauvinism. Attacks on Tamils were intensified with 1983 infamous massacre of Tamils. What followed were decades of conflict between Sinhala majority Govt. and Tamils, including war between LTTE and Sri Lankan Govt. It is in the later stages of this war that Rajapakse family consolidated its leadership over ruling class politics of Sri Lanka.
Civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 with total suppression of democratic rights and even cold blooded murders of Tamils in Northeast by the military under Rajapakse brothers’ govt. They inherited and fashioned a majoritarian Administration forged during over two decades of conflict. From 2009 followed a second wave of liberalization with flurry of multilateral and bilateral loans mainly from imperialist countries. China too entered in a big way with funding the infrastructure projects. But what use of world class infrastructure with no improvement in main sectors which provided bulk of the employment to people of Srilanka with agriculture and industry employing nearly 25% and 28% respectively, rest being contributed by services. While GDP figures including per capita GDP improved, people’s hardships were not mitigated. This imperialist sponsored model was waiting to burst in which authoritarian Rajapakse extended no mean helping hand.
Besides suppression of democratic rights and cold blooded killings of Tamils towards the end of civil war, Mahinda Rajapakse’s term was marked by rising contradiction between US and India on the one hand and China on the other. Rajapakse also helped growth of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism especially its organization Bodu Bala Sena which articulated especially anti-Muslim programme in Sri Lanka, like against Halal, Hijab and no freedom of religion to Sri Lankan migrant workers in Islamic countries. BBS also held that “.. democratic and pluralistic values are killing Sinhala race” and the like things we are quite familiar with in India. No wonder RSS forged close relations with BBS and similar chauvinist organization in Myanmar as a part of its anti-Muslim front in the region. Rajapakse was defeated in elections in 2015 January and he had blamed Indian agency RAW for orchestrating his defeat.
Rajapakses who had been the main representatives of Sinhala chauvinism utilized the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in April 2019 and consequent anti-Muslim propaganda in Sri Lanka. Younger Rajapakse- Gotabaya who had been defense minister during the civil war was elected President. During their stay outside the govt. Rajapakses had built bridges with US and youngest brother Basil who had been finance minister was a US citizen. They also repaired their relations with India’s ruling RSS-BJP. After the parliamentary elections that followed, Mahinda Rajapakse became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. They interpreted their victory as a license for their majoritarian authoritarianism and unleashed an autocratic and whimsical rule.
After their return to power, with their programme to create “vistas of prosperity and spendour” Rajapakses showered largesse on the very rich. National Building Tax of 2% which was being levied on all businesses was waived off and wealth tax reduced. To help Business, VAT was reduced from 15% to 8%. Total tax exemptions were granted to religious institutions. This greatly reduced the revenues of the Govt. which fell to only 9% of the GDP.
Considering themselves unchecked and not responsible to the people, Rajapakse Govt. in May 2019 banned use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (prohibiting their imports) and announced total switch to organic farming. This sudden switch without any background preparation went with their autocratic way but agriculture declined. Prior to ban, 91% farmers used chemical fertilizers and pesticides. There was sharp decline in agricultural produce. Sri Lanka used to be self-sufficient in rice production which fell by 20%. There was sharp decline in the production of tea leaves which has been the main export of Sri Lanka. The order was withdrawn in November 2021 but damage to main crops was already done. This unprepared, unregulated, whimsical switch forced Sri Lanka to import even rice and reduced its exports.
While trade balance was distorted, payment of foreign debt servicing became a further burden. It will be nigh impossible for Sri Lanka to service its debts. Sri Lanka which used to boast of its transition to middle income country is going around with begging bowl. China has already offered 2.8 billion US $ and is considering giving a further $ 2.5 billion. India has offered US $ 2.4 billion. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh have already given credits of US $ 200 million. IMF too has extended credit.
With economic collapse leading to political crisis, people of Sri Lanka are out in the streets. People’s anger has pushed the ruling Rajapakses and their military chauvinist backers on the backfoot. However, what type of change this anger brings about will be determined by the conscious forces leading the struggle and how much and for what aims they can mobilize the people. Opposition ruling class parties may benefit from this anger but these parties stand for the same policies which have led to the present catastrophe and are discredited among the people.
Another important lesson of the developments in Sri Lanka is that people’s struggles for their basic economic issues are most important struggles for pushing the agenda of chauvinist majoritarianism on the backfoot, while conscious struggle will be required to decisively defeat the forces championing this agenda. Such struggles bring the people together cutting across social divisions. Same lesson was furnished by the historic farmers’ movement in India. Nobody hears of BBS nowadays in Sri Lanka though they will most probably resurface when the movement subsides if the present ruling class politics remains and so does remain their need to divide the people to perpetuate their rule and serve the interests of imperialists and domestic reactionaries.
Sri Lankan crisis has much relevance for India though it is a large country with deeper pockets of economy. However, some aspects are quite alarming. Indian Govt. also heavily relies on borrowings to meet state expenses. With elections out of the way for the time being, Indian Govt. has increased fuel prices 11 times over last 13 days. On the other hand, public sector assets are being sold from banks to railways. Govt. efforts at monetizing public assets is continuing with pace. Besides, interest rates of provident fund have been slashed. Despite admittedly record GST collections, states’ dues of GST have not been given. Indian rulers too are following the policies which are against the interests of Indian people and in favour of foreign and Indian corporate.
Sri Lanka is witnessing a sharp crisis but the factors leading to this crisis are present in a number of countries including India, following imperialist sponsored path of ‘development’. And in this lies the lessons for the people and tasks before the revolutionary forces.
April 8, 2022
New Democracy April 2022