On Wednesday, Ranil Wickremesinghe, present acting President, was voted in as the next President of Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan parliamentarians.
Sri Lankans are not rejoicing this news. The angry protesters have been demanding his removal from office for weeks. Earlier, they had set Wickremesinghe’s private residence on fire and overran the presidential palace making President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flee the country and resign via email to avoid an arrest.
Would Ranil Wickremesinghe — a record six-time Prime Minister, who has been holding important ministerial portfolios from the young age of 28 be able to rescue the island nation, or the musical chair will further descend Sri Lanka into chaos?
Sri Lanka’s present state confirms the famous statement incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” This famous line was part of Rita Mae Brown’s mystery novel, “Sudden Death.” The statement well explains why a repeat of the same faces, same acts, and opportunist partners may not do any good to Sri Lanka.
Capable Leaders Perform, Dynasts Survive
The Rajapaksas are a rural land-owning family from the district of Hambantota. The family’s political journey started with Don Mathew Rajapaksa representing the Hambantota district in the State Council in 1936. The next four decades saw the likes of Don Alwin Rajapaksa, Lakshman Rajapaksa (Don Mathew’s son), George Rajapaksa, and Mahinda Rajapaksa dominate southern Sri Lankan politics.
1977 to 1989 was the political drought for the family. However, parliamentary win for Mahinda and his brother Chamal in 1989 rejuvenated the family’s fortunes. They were later joined by Nirupama, Basil, and Namal Rajapaksa. But the most significant windfall came when in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa got elected as President of Sri Lanka. It opened the floodgates of Rajapaksas in Sri Lankan politics, making them the most prominent dynastic ruling family in Asia.
Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were revered as a war hero by most Sri Lankans. Mahinda achieved legendary status in 2009 when he claimed victory over LTTE in a three-decade-long civil war. He became “appachchi” — the father of the nation.
President Mahinda cashed in on this political capital and consolidated his powers in the next ten years. The Rajapaksa brothers cornered most key ministries, controlling 70 percent of the country’s budget and reaping benefits from their corrupt practices. At one time whopping 40 Rajapaksa family members were in various government and ministerial posts.
However, the legendary status family got from the win over LTTE soon became their biggest undoing. The indiscriminate killing of 40,000 civilians during the civil war had tarnished the country’s image in the international community.
In 2015, Mahinda lost the presidential election and accused the Indian spy agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. However, by 2019 his brother Gotabaya was back as President. The 2020 parliamentary elections saw the return of Mahinda as Prime Minister and other family members in complete control of the country’s economy.
Graphics: Courtesy macrotrends.net
China, The Hyena
In the animal kingdom, Hyenas are known to be the most cunning, sly, and opportunist. If they smell opportunity, they move in big numbers and steal the meal from even the most dreaded lion. China is the Hyena among the comity of nations. They know how to own a nation by owning corrupt politicians. During an interview with Indian journalist R Bhagwan Singh in 2011, President Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s reply to his question on the Indian discomfort at his Chinese courtship was — “Every project I gave the Chinese, I first offered to India. But you guys did not accept. I must develop my country, no?”
It is confirmed that there were unaccounted payments that the Chinese were liberal with during project negotiations with the island nation. They were paid to the Rajapaksa family through the accounts of various Chinese companies operating in Sri Lanka. As per Colombo Gazette — “China provided the Rajapaksa’s election campaign funding in return for fulfilling their needs. China’s needs were simple; all contracts should go to the Chinese companies.” That sums up the Sri Lanka-China hobnobbing and Sri Lanka’s present state of despair.
China had made ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa Lotus Auditorium’ in Colombo in honor of President Mahinda. The 99 years lease of the Hambantota port project to China is already a case study in various business schools. Near the Hambantota port is the Rajapaksa Airport, built with a $200 million loan from China. The airport is so sparingly used that most of the time, it cannot cover its electricity bill.
The pain is not yet over. The next bomb that will explode and destabilize the Sri Lankan economy is the 269-hectare reclaimed land called Colombo Port City, developed by China. Theoretically, Colombo Port City is supposed to be the most liveable financial hub in South Asia. A tropical paradise that would give Dubai and Singapore a run for their money.
However, in reality, Port City is a costly fantasy. The $14 billion project is likely to be completed by 2041 and generate roughly 20% of Sri Lankan revenue. Opposition parties and various civil society groups have opposed the project right from the beginning. They have questioned the government regarding the project’s effect on Sri Lankan sovereignty. They say — “You say so much about (Tamil) Eelam, but this is Cheelam (Chinese Eelam).”
Experts have been warning about China’s debt trap for years. They worry that though the known Chinese debt stands around 10-11%, there could be much larger hidden debt that people are unaware of.
Chart: Courtesy DW
The Indian Ineptness
In Delhi, in 1974, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gifted strategically important Katchatheevu island to her Lankan counterpart, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, over a cup of tea, as if it was her personal property.
In 1983 to take control of the explosive situation in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi took a bold step of injecting Eelam militancy through the R&AW. However, she did not take advantage of a weak Sri Lankan President, Junius Richard Jayewardene, and a demoralized Sri Lankan Army to resolve the issue permanently. Her support for Tamil Tigers didn’t fix the problem but alienated the majority Sinhala populace.
Her son and Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi did the reverse and mindlessly injected Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) into Sri Lanka in 1987, which resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of soldiers and officers of the Indian Army in the three years of operations. The result was that in a short period, Indian leaders managed to humiliate the Indian armed forces and alienate Sri Lankan Tamilians. Of course, Sinhalese were already against India.
Despite all these debacles, India was still in firm control over the affairs of Sri Lanka but did next to nothing to retain that control. This apathy allowed the situation to slip away from Indian control slowly and let the Sri Lankan Army slaughter Tamilians. When the civil war ended in 2009, India was a nobody in Sri Lanka.
Map: Courtesy insightful.co.in
Hardly any Indian diplomat or politician ever visit northern Sri Lanka. In the meanwhile, China was working overtime and nibbling away at the Indian influence in the island nation. They snatched the 2019 East Container Terminal (ECT) deal from India and Japan. But the bigger worry and security threat to India came when the Sri Lankan cabinet approved a proposal to involve the Chinese Sinosoar-Etechwin Joint Venture in hybrid wind and solar energy projects on the Delft, Nainativu, and Analativu islands in the Palk Bay, off Jaffna peninsula. This was further cemented by Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong’s three days visits to the Northern Province from 15 to 17 December 2021. He rubbed shoulders with local leaders and created bonhomie.
Finally, the Indian government woke up and did some behind-the-curtain activities resulting in the Sri Lankan government canceling the controversial hybrid wind and solar energy projects. This can’t be confirmed if Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s December 2021 visit to India to seek urgent financial help had anything to do with this.
Old Wine, New Bottle
The outcome of Sri Lanka’s corrupt politicians’ over ambition is that it has bankrupted the country. It is unable to import essential goods as well as unable to service existing debts. The country’s 22 million citizens are reeling under the whopping 54.6% inflation rate and looking for a miracle. Food is in short supply, schools and businesses remain shut, and citizens stand in long queues to buy fuel.
Since January 2022, India has been the biggest benefactor of Sri Lanka. The financial help stands at a whopping $3.8 billion. India had disbursed $376.9 million in the first four months of 2022 compared to China’s measly $67.9 million. India leads an aid consortium, closely coordinating with the United States, Japan, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). India also monitors corruption-free disbursement of food and other stuff, ensuring it reaches the neediest. Sri Lanka needs close to $25 billion to help stabilize the economy in the next three years.
Some people are prematurely hailing new President Ranil Wickremasinghe as P V Narasimha Rao of Sri Lanka, who steered India through 1991’s economic crisis towards economic stability.
Only time would tell what miracle six-time Prime Minister Wickremasinghe can do as the newly elected President. He has a big task cut out for him, and Sri Lankans are getting impatient. However, he has been honest about the country’s financial status and ready to look for solutions.
High on liberal Chinese support, Mahinda Rajapaksa once contradicted himself by addressing India — “no outsiders can dictate to us.” Wickremasinghe should realize that India is a dominant partner in the region that is always eager to help. He has a historic opportunity not only to reset his country’s economy but the foreign policy toward India that had become overly pro-China during the Rajapaksa dynasty.
“The miracles happen. Citizens, time and again, want to believe in them earnestly, the government machinery acts with gusto to strengthen that fallacy, and politicians find that belief a handy tool” ~ Insightful Geopolitics
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