Sri Lanka’s Civil Unrest Should Trigger Alarm Bells Across Asia

Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne *

SYDNEY (IDN) — Civil unrest spreading across Sri Lanka in the past few weeks resembles the beginnings of the Arab Spring uprising by youth frustrated with corrupt political systems which left the Middle East in utter chaos, and the youth at the mercy of human traffickers and European governments.

Former Sri Lankan Human Rights Commissioner and Law Professor Deepika Udugama speaking on Sirasa TV earlier this week said that young people are protesting because they are worried of their future and don’t trust any politicians. She said the youth groups would not tolerate any politicians joining their protests. She argues that political reforms need to start from democratizing political parties so that young people would have a choice to vote honest people into parliament, and even stand for office themselves.

But the protests have been smartly manipulated to promote a narrative that an IMF bailout is the only solution. Sri Lanka’s most pro-western politician and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe—who is the only United National Party (UNP) member of parliament after his party was decimated in the 2020 elections—told parliament this week that he has spoken to the head of IMF and she has agreed to help Sri Lanka. But who asked him to do that? No one is asking that question.

IMF “bail outs” have never helped the poor, instead they impose austerity to balance budgets that will hurt the very people who are protesting in the streets today. In 1995, after Sri Lanka signed into an IMF Structural Adjustment Program and cut all farming subsidies, 11 rice farmers committed suicide, because they have been thrown into the den of loan sharks.

To understand the nature of the movement to oust the Rajapaksa’s from power, it is important to go back in history a little bit.

Ever since President Mahinda Rajapaksa refused to listen to western dictates and declare a ceasefire in early 2009, to allow the ruthless terrorist outfit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to escape possibly to Norway to fight another day, Sri Lanka has been haunted by concocted charges of “war crimes”, where western powers have used the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in this campaign to strangle Sri Lanka, while ignoring far more serious and documented war crimes by the US and NATO in the Middle East and Afghanistan. They have been assisted by the Tamil diaspora in western countries who are masters of the art of propaganda and fake news on war crimes and genocide

The Rajapaksa’s and their Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist supporters have been a thorn in the flesh for the West, who would like to control the strategically placed island in the Indian Ocean, which an American diplomat has described as “valuable piece of real estate” in the US’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. After defeating the LTTE, Chinese aid was crucial in rebuilding the country and hence Sri Lanka became a part of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) with the Chinese-built Hambantota port a crucial lynchpin.

The West had a reprieve between 2015 and 2019 when they were able to install a pro-western government led by President Maitripala Sirisena (a defector from Rajapaksa’s party) but practically led by his prime minister elect Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose four decades long political career has been earmarked with subservience to the West.

West successfully implemented the regime change campaign using NGOs funded by them that painted the Rajapaksa’s as corrupt which appealed to urban young voters that voted for Sirisena, even though the economy was doing well. Following the elections many of the western-funded NGO operatives were drafted into government agencies and committees.

In September 2015, then foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera— who was closely aligned with the NGOs—co-sponsored the infamous resolution at the UNHRC which committed Sri Lanka to appoint foreign judges to sit in local “war crimes” courts to charge Sri Lankan soldiers whom most people in the country see as “war heroes”.

In 2017, Wickremasinghe was instrumental in negotiating a deal (probably taking advice from the Americans) to lease the Hambantota port for 99-years to the Chinese in return for writing off $2 billion of debts owed to China incurred in building it and an adjoining airport.

The Obama administration officials and western media were quick to grab the opportunity to tout it as a classic example of Chinese “debt trap” diplomacy, ignoring what the Bretton Woods institutions like the IMF and World Bank have been doing for over three decades from the 1970s across the Third World. They also conveniently ignored the fact that Australia’s Darwin port was leased to a Chinese government linked company for 99 years in a similar deal in return for $550 million just two years earlier to assist Australia’s Northern Territory to access the BRI. Indian media has also played up this “debt trap” myth.

West’s ‘yahapalanaya’ regime change project got undone when Wickremasinghe’s hand-picked governor of the Central Bank Arjuna Mahendran was implicated in one of the biggest financial scandals in Sri Lanka’s history—a treasury bond scam—in 2016. This started the downwards slide of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government, whose faith was sealed with the March 2019 Easter Sunday bomb blasts that were blamed on the government’s undermining of the security apparatus under the dictates of the UNHRC.

This facilitated the rise to power of Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was  the defence secretary when the LTTE was defeated in 2009. He won the presidency on a landslide on the back of an unprecedented nationalist mobilization. In August 2020, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Common Man’s Party (SLPP) in alliance with 11 other nationalist parties won the parliamentary election with a thumping two-thirds majority, mainly due to Gotabaya regime successfully controlling the first wave of COVID-19 with the help of the army while maintaining economic stability.

Within months of President Gotabaya regime taking office it implemented election promises to reject the US’s Millennium Challenge Corporations (MCC) compact which was holding a carrot of $500 million to draw up a land registry that would make it easier for farming land to be sold to foreigners, and the government also refused to sign into a  Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which would have made it easier to station US troops in the island, and also withdrew its co-sponsorship of the 2015 resolution at the UNHRC.

Since then, economic warfare has been conducted against Sri Lanka by the Euro-American financial system comprising the rating agencies, sovereign bond traders, and the Washington Consensus that includes the IMF.

The government’s cause was not helped by President Gotabaya forcing his reluctant nationalist coalition MPs to vote for a constitutional amendment to allow dual citizens to enter parliament to bring his brother Basil into parliament and take over the Finance portfolio. Both Gotabaya and Basil were dual American citizens and the former renounced it to run for president while Basil has not.

Basil Rajapaksa has been tainted with corruption allegation during the previous Rajapaksa government of which he was the Economic Development Minister and known as “Mr Ten Percent”. There are many suspended corruption cases pending against him in Sri Lankan courts. As protests mounted against the government the president sacked him from the post on the eve of his departure to negotiate a “bail out” deal with IMF last week, but that was too late and protestors—including his former nationalist allies—are now asking for Gotabaya’s resignation.

Last week 40 MPs who are part of the government declared they will operate as independents bringing down the ruling SLPP government numbers precariously close to losing the majority. Among those who are now opposing the government are fiery nationalist orators Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gamanpila, who were instrumental in resurrecting the fortunes of the Rajapaksa’s after they were in the dumps following the 2015 defeat.

A badly planned announcement of an organic farming policy in April 2021 has alienated the main political base of the Rajapaksa’s the Sinhalese rice farmers. Late last year they were mobilized to march against the government when their crops failed. Al Jazeera broadcast a report in October on such a farmers’ protest where the protestors were chanting from a written script given to each of them—the reporter did not ask who gave it to them.

Sri Lanka’s economy has fallen on its knees because the major foreign exchange earners—tourism and remittances of workers overseas—have dropped dramatically due to the pandemic. In addition, downgrading by rating agencies has deprived Sri Lanka from raising money from international money markets.

The international (western) media has meanwhile spread a lie that Sri Lanka’s economic ills are due to the inability to service Chinese loans. The fact is that Sri Lanka’s exposure to Chinese loans is just over 10 percent, and most of it are concessionary loans.

In recent weeks, India and China have come up with generous assistance running into billions of dollars with India offering a billion dollars and China another $1.5 billion as import credits to overcome shortages in the country. Bangladesh has just said they would consider lending $250 million on the request of Sri Lanka.

If those who are behind the Sri Lankan chaos succeed, the next in line would be Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. We are also seeing a similar regime change drama unfolding in Pakistan. All these are crucial to China’s BRI and the economic independence of Asia.

An alternative narrative needs to be offered to the youth of Asia. Yes, we need political reforms and honest politicians, but that cannot be achieved by running to the West, whose youth are also facing similar issues with corruption and economic fallouts.

If the required regime change is achieved in Sri Lanka, perhaps with a regime strongly supported by segments of the military (like what happened in Egypt), the youth in Sri Lanka will be hanged out to dry. This could be a tragedy for generations to come and it could generate a refugee outflow from Sri Lanka who would mainly be Sinhalese youth, not Tamils. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 April 2022]

* The writer is a Sri Lanka born journalist and international communications specialist. He is the editor of IDN’s ‘Sustainable Development Observer’ and the author of “Myth of Free Media and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era” (Sage, 2020).

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