Global lens

‘Pushed towards anarchy’: why Sri Lanka is a nation on the brink

The country is only a few more ‘bad decisions’ away from disaster

Sri Lanka is being “pushed towards anarchy”, said Ceylon Today (Colombo). For months, it has been in the grip of a crippling economic crisis. The price of rice has doubled since last year. There are shortages of basic foods, fuel and medicine, and ten-hour daily power cuts. Inflation, running at 20%, has rendered savings worthless. The country is due to default on $50bn of foreign debt.

“Incensed” Sri Lankans have protested in large numbers over the past month to demand the resignation of their president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In an attempt to stem the fury, the entire cabinet – except the president and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – resigned on 3 April. But that “did not appease the masses”; the protests only gained momentum. Last week, police used live rounds to disperse rioting protesters in the town of Rambukkana, killing one person and injuring 14 more. The nation is only a few more “bad decisions” away from disaster.

Rajapaksa has made plenty of those, said Nihal Jayawickrama in the Colombo Telegraph. A Sinhalese Buddhist, he was elected president in 2019 following the Easter Sunday terror attacks that killed over 200 people. His background as defence secretary during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, which ended in 2009, made him appear a solid choice to restore law and order. Yet on taking office, he ill-advisedly implemented “massive” tax cuts, slashing state revenues. Inflation soared. And when Covid took out its tourism industry, Sri Lanka was left struggling to repay its debts.

Rajapaksa’s biggest single error was to ban the use of synthetic fertiliser and pesticides last year, said Chandre Dharmawardana on Island (Colombo). Some say it was a bid to return Sri Lanka to “traditional” farming, guided by his soothsayer, “Gnanakka”. Others say it was largely to save money on state-subsidised fertilisers. Either way, the results were catastrophic, with a dramatic drop in crop yields.

“Facing such daunting prospects, many leaders would have stepped down by now,” said Sumit Ganguly and Dinsha Mistree on Foreign Policy (Washington). Yet Rajapaksa, whose family has dominated Sri Lankan politics for years – three members of his family were in his cabinet – is unlikely to let go: he has secured $2bn in aid from India, and is seeking a bailout from the IMF. Any such deal, however, would almost certainly have austerity conditions attached, risking yet more social unrest. Whether Rajapaksa could survive that is unclear; what is certain is that “Sri Lanka is headed into even more turbulent waters”.

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