Image: Sri Lanka protestors storming presidential palace. Source: Hurriyet Daily News - Photo: 2022

Lessons to be Learnt from Sri Lankan Crisis

Viewpoint by Dr Ram Puniyani

This article is the 22nd in a series of joint productions of South Asian Outlook and IDN-InDepthNews, the flagship of the International Press Syndicate. The writer is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (now Mumbai) and, meanwhile, a social activist and commentator.

NEW DELHI (IDN) — The crisis in Sri Lanka has shaken the citizens of Sri Lanka, its neighbours, and the world as a whole. At one level, there is a humanitarian crisis at another; we can see the impact of autocratic discriminatory policies on the citizens, particularly workers, Tamil and Muslim minorities and average people.

The sight of thousands of people surrounding and occupying the house of the President and putting the private house of Prime Minister Ranilsinghe on fire is very frightening. The shortage of food, petrol, and medicines leads to immense miseries among the island nation’s population.

The political tendency in Sri Lanka has been to bestow more powers to the President; autocracy has been the overall direction of the regime. Its autocratic nature has been complete for the last few decades. The dictatorial autocrats have taken economic steps that have ruined the economy’s foundations.

Liberal imports, particularly luxury items and reckless privatisation, have been two significant factors apart from whimsical mega projects like Mattala Rajapaksa Airport, which is hardly helpful and has emptied the treasury to a large extent.

The food crisis, apart from other things, has gone for a free fall due to a senseless ban on the import of fertilisers and total emphasis on organic agriculture, which has brought down food production in a drastic way. Such economic misadventures have a lot to do with the dictatorial nature of the regime, where one person (or family combo) decides as per their whims and fancies. The rise of such an autocracy has a lot to do with the parallel policies which have oppressed and marginalised the minorities, Tamil (Hindu), Muslims and Christians.

This nation had close links with India, and it was here where Emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghmitra to propagate the values put forward by Tathagat Gautam Buddha. It was here that many Tamils (mostly Hindus) migrated either as plantation labours or for trade relations. While the native Sinhala are mostly Buddhists, Tamil Hindus (12.9%) are in substantial number and are followed by Muslims (9.7%) and Christians (1.3%) in the population.

Being a post-colonial state, it also had ethnic identity highlighted due to the British policy, which divides the population on the ground of religion in particular. The Sinhala Buddhists claimed to be the ‘first comers’ and had primacy in rights. Hindus (Tamils) were presented as outsiders, ‘non-natives’ and so deserving of no rights.

Rohini Hensman, a scholar-activist of Sri Lankan origin, gives a very comprehensive account of the roots of ethnic and religious divides on which major political parties harped, and in due course, this gave rise to the anti-people; autocratic regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Gotabaya in particular. (Rohini Hensman, Nightmare’s End, June 13, 2022, New Left Review).

With Independence in 1948, the two major parties agreed to deprive a million Tamils of more recent Indian origin of their franchise and citizenship. She points out, “The exercise was patently discriminatory by demanding that these poverty-stricken and super-exploited workers provide documentary proof of Sri Lankan ancestry which the vast majority of Sinhalese citizens would not have been able to provide.”

She recalls a childhood experience of her own. In 1958, she had to leave her place near Colombo, as anti-Tamil squads were out to target Tamils. Her father was a Tamil.

In 1956, S W R D Bandaranaike came to power by promising to have Sinhala as the only national language. Tamils felt discriminated against and launched an agitation against it. An extremist Buddhist monk from the right-wing Sinhala organization murdered him for not going far enough in suppressing Tamils. Bandaranaike’s widow Srimao Bandaranaike succeeded her husband and negotiated a pact with India’s Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to repatriate 5 Lakh Tamils to India.  

In 1972, a new Constitution was enacted. This brought in Sinhala as the only official language. This Constitution also gave special status to Buddhism. Protection of rights of minorities was done away with.

Later in 1972 and 1975, in the name of the nationalisation of plantations, the Tamils were deprived of their livelihood and left to starve. The administration gradually turned more right-wing, and freedom of expression and democratic rights were crushed. With Mahinda Rajapaksa coming to power in 2005, the attacks against Tamils increased, and death squads targeted the critics of the Government.

In response, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) called for the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam. Militant groups, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), were formed to fight for this goal. As Tamils’ dissatisfaction peaked, LTTE resorted to acts of terror. This worsened the situation.

A sort of war was launched against Tamils, in which, as per UN estimates, 40000 civilians lost their lives. There were two reasons for this, LTTE used civilians as life shields and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then Defence Secretary asked for the bombing of civilian targets, including Hospitals and safe zones. Hensman writes, “…the Rajapaksas also funded Islamist militants to fight against the LTTE—who remained on the government payroll as informants despite credible intelligence that they had been radicalised… The final blow to its credibility was the Easter Sunday terrorist attack in 2019, which killed 269 people across the country. As it turned out, the bombings were perpetrated by the same Islamists that the Rajapaksas had been bankrolling.”

Right-wing Buddhist groups like Budu Bala Sena were the foot soldiers, and Sinhala masses were firmly behind Rajapaksas. With the elimination of LTTE, a new enemy was found in the Muslims. State-sponsored Buddhist monk groups came up targeting the Muslim minority. With the economic downslide of the regime, without democratic safeguards, it became unresponsive to the economic suffering of the masses. The high-handed policymaking proved to be the undoing of this nation. The rising dissatisfaction of most sections of society led to the present horrific incidents.

What can we learn from this disastrous style of ruling, the intensification of sectarian divides, propagation of ‘majority religion in danger (in this case Buddhism), the marginalisation of minorities and power being concentrated in a couple of autocrats is there for all to see. Autocrats (individual or a coterie) think they know all and take decisions that ruin the nation and intensify the ethnic divides. [IDN-InDepthNews — 15 July 2022]

Image: Sri Lanka protestors storming presidential palace. Source: Hurriyet Daily News

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