By Kalinga Seneviratne *
The civil unrest that has spread across Sri Lanka in recent weeks resembles the beginnings of the Arab Spring uprising by young people frustrated with corrupt political systems that have left the Middle East in utter chaos, and young people in the mercy of human traffickers and European governments.
Sri Lanka’s former human rights commissioner and law professor Deepika Udugama, speaking on Sirasa TV earlier this week, said young people were protesting because they were worried about their future and were not doing Trust no politician. She said youth groups would not tolerate any politicians joining their protests. She argues that political reforms must start with the democratization of political parties so that young people have the choice to vote for honest people in parliament, and even to run for office themselves.
But the protests have been cleverly 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) MP after his party was decimated in the 2020 elections – told parliament this week that he had spoken to the head of the IMF and she agreed to help Sri Lanka. But who asked him to do this? No one asks this question.
IMF “bailouts” have never helped the poor, instead they impose austerity to balance budgets, which will hurt the very people protesting in the streets today. In 1995, after Sri Lanka signed an IMF structural adjustment program and cut all agricultural subsidies, 11 rice farmers committed suicide because they had been thrown into the lair of loan sharks.
To understand the nature of the movement to oust the Rajapaksa from power, it is important to go back a bit in history.
Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa refused to listen to Western dictates and declare a ceasefire in early 2009, to allow the ruthless terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to eventually escape in Norway to fight another day, Sri Lanka is haunted by accusations of “war crimes”, where Western powers have used the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in this campaign to strangle Sri Lanka , while ignoring the much more serious and documented war crimes committed by the United States and NATO in the Middle East and Afghanistan. They have been aided by the Tamil Diaspora in Western countries who have mastered the art of propaganda and misinformation about war crimes and genocide.
The Rajapaksa and their Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist supporters have been a thorn in the flesh of the West, which would want to control the strategically placed island in the Indian Ocean, which a US diplomat described as “valuable real estate”. in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States. After defeating the LTTE, Chinese aid was crucial in rebuilding the country and so Sri Lanka became part of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) with the Chinese-built Port of Hambantota as its hub. crucial.
The West got a reprieve between 2015 and 2019 when it was able to install a pro-Western government led by President Maitripala Sirisena (a defector from Rajapaksa’s party) but virtually led by its elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose career four-decade politics has been earmarked for submission to the West.
West successfully implemented the regime change campaign using them-funded NGOs that portrayed the Rajapaksa as corrupt, which appealed to young urban voters who voted for Sirisena, even though the economy was doing well. . After the elections, many members of Western-funded NGOs were drafted into government agencies and committees.
In September 2015, then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who had close NGO connections, co-sponsored the infamous HRC resolution that committed Sri Lanka to appoint foreign judges to serve in local courts to ” war crimes” to charge Sri Lankan soldiers who most people in the country regard as “war heroes”.
In 2017, Wickremasinghe was instrumental in brokering a deal (likely on the advice of the Americans) to lease the port of Hambantota for 99 years from the Chinese in exchange for the cancellation of $2 billion in debts owed to China for its construction and an adjoining airport. .
Obama administration officials and Western media were quick to seize the opportunity to cast him as a classic example of Chinese “debt trap” diplomacy, ignoring what the Bretton Woods institutions like the IMF and World Bank have done for more than three decades from the 1970s. across the third world. They also ignored the fact that the Australian port of Darwin had been leased to a company linked to the Chinese government for 99 years under a similar deal in return for $550million two years earlier to help the Northern Territory Australian to join the BRI. Indian media have also promoted this “debt trap” myth.
West’s ‘yahapalanaya’ regime change plan was quashed when Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, hand-picked by Wickremasinghe, was embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals in Sri Lanka’s history. Lanka – a treasury bill scam – in 2016. Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government, whose faith was sealed by the March 2019 Easter Sunday bombings which were blamed for the government’s weakening of the security apparatus under the dictates of the UNHRC.
This facilitated the rise to power of Mahinda’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary when the LTTE was defeated in 2009. He won the presidency landslide thanks to 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 elections with an overwhelming two-thirds majority, mainly due to the fact that the Gotabaya regime succeeded in control the first wave of COVID-19 with the help of the military while maintaining economic stability.
Months after President Gotabaya’s regime took office, he implemented election promises to reject the US Millennium Challenge Corporations (MCC) pact that held back a $500 million carrot to establish a cadastre that would facilitate the sale of agricultural land to foreigners. , and the government also refused to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have facilitated the stationing of US troops on the island, and also withdrew its co-sponsorship of the 2015 resolution at the HRC.
Since then, an economic war has been waged against Sri Lanka by the Euro-American financial system made up of rating agencies, sovereign bond traders and the Washington Consensus which includes the IMF.
The government’s cause was not helped by the fact that President Gotabaya forced his reluctant nationalist coalition deputies to vote for a constitutional amendment allowing dual citizens to enter parliament to bring his brother Basil into parliament and take the finance portfolio. Gotabaya and Basil were both US citizens and the former denounced him to run for president while Basil did not.
Basil Rajapaksa has been tainted with corruption allegations under the previous Rajapaksa government of which he was Minister of Economic Development and known as “Mr. Ten Percent”. Many suspended corruption cases are pending against him in Sri Lankan courts. As protests mounted against the government, the president sacked him from his post on the eve of his departure to negotiate a “bailout” deal with the IMF last week, but it was too late and protesters, including including his former nationalist allies, are now demanding Gotabaya’s resignation.
Last week, 40 MPs who are part of the government said they would act as independents, knocking the figures of the ruling SLPP government precariously close to losing a majority. Among those now opposing the government are fiery nationalist orators Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gamanpila, who helped resurrect the fortunes of the Rajapaksa after they ended up in the dumps after the 2015 defeat.
An ill-planned announcement of an organic farming policy in April 2021 alienated the main political base of Sinhalese Rajapaksa rice farmers. At the end of last year, they were mobilized to march against the government when their crops failed. AlJazeera aired a story in October of one such farmers’ protest where the protesters sang from a written text given to each of them – the reporter did not ask who gave it to them.
Sri Lanka’s economy has fallen to its knees because the main sources of foreign currency – tourism and remittances from overseas workers – have fallen dramatically due to the pandemic. In addition, the downgrading of the rating by the rating agencies has deprived Sri Lanka from raising funds on the international money markets.
The international (Western) media meanwhile spread a lie that Sri Lanka’s economic ills are due to the inability to repay Chinese loans. The fact is that Sri Lanka’s exposure to Chinese loans is just over 10%, and most of them are concessional loans.
India and China have provided generous multi-billion dollar aid in recent weeks, with India offering $1 billion and China an additional $1.5 billion in import credits to overcome the shortages in the country. Bangladesh has just said that it would consider lending 250 million dollars at the request of Sri Lanka.
If those behind the Sri Lankan chaos are successful, next in line would be Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. We are also witnessing a similar regime change taking place in Pakistan. All of these are crucial to China’s BRI and Asia’s economic independence.
An alternative narrative must be offered to Asian youth. Yes, we need political reforms and honest politicians, but that cannot be achieved by running to the West, whose youth also face similar problems of corruption and economic fallout.
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), Sri Lankan youth will be put to death. This could be a tragedy for generations to come and it could generate an exodus of refugees from Sri Lanka who would be mainly young Sinhalese, not Tamils.
* The author is a Sri Lankan-born journalist and international communications specialist. He is the editor of IDN’s ‘Sustainable Development Observer’ and author of ‘Myth of Free Media and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era’ (Sage, 2020).