Divisive Tactics Failed, the President Forced to Abdicate
By Syyed Mansoor Agha
Sri Lanka is passing through deep socio-economic and political crises. The unprecedented public anger forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) to flee the country in the dark of night and finally abdicate the coveted post of Executive President which he had won only two years back in November 2019 with an impressive vote share of 52.4%. He fled from his mansion on July 9 after protesters had broken down the police barricade and entered his sprawling residence full of luxurious facilities. Remaining hidden at military facilities, he ultimately flew out on an Air Force plane with his wife and two assistants to Male in the night of July 13. After remaining reluctant to resign, soon he realised all hopes drowning. Ultimately he mailed his resignation to the Speaker of the Parliament from Singapore on June 14. Singapore authorities have allowed him to stay in the country maximum for 14 days.
The then President Nasheed of the Maldives, who facilitated his escape from the country, underlined on Twitter that his life was at risk in his own country. Consider the irony, the person who was treated as a national hero and a ‘strong man’ became the target of his own men. Had he not fled from his place in time, people may have harmed him to any extent.
A non-political aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa had served the Sri Lankan Armed Force and also as Defence Secretary and Intelligence Officer. His popularity catapulted him to the top executive post of the President just in November 2019. He defeated a seasoned politician S. Premadasa who was the candidate of the ruling UNP.
A younger brother of former Sri Lankan President, Mahindra Rajapaksa, was at the top of fame in 2009, when under his command Sri Lankan Armed Forces decimated the Tamil insurgency and liquidated hundreds of cadres of LTTE along with supremo V Prabhakaran. Local Tamils, mostly Hindus had been in bloody conflict under the LTTE banner for over two decades and a half for an autonomous Tamil State for a tiny Tamil minority of 2 million. They were aggrieved of ethnic bias and ill-treatment.
The visuals of scores of dead Tamil men and women, including V. Prabhakaran elated the majority community. Rajapaksa instantly became a hero of Sinhalese Buddhists (around 75% of the total 22 million national population).
As Kat Lonsdorf of npr.org indicated, “G. Rajapaksa’s win (in presidential elections) signals the return to power for the controversial family, hailed by many for ending the civil war, but also remembered for brutal acts against minorities and dissidents.” Different members of the family have ruled the country for around 20 years with many complaints.
GR, a non-political person, did not revert the policies of majoritarianism followed by his predecessors to divert people’s attention from main issues like economic crisis since 2015. The fleeing GR is also blamed for promoting a sense of otherness against tiny Muslims (9.7%) and the Christians (9.4), pushing their lives in danger and attacks on their places of worship and personal properties.
On the occasion of Easter Sunday, on 21 April 2019, three churches, three luxury hotels, and some residential places in Colombo were targeted in a series of bombings to interrupt the annual festival and dampen festivities. A foreign terror outfit was blamed for the crime and Muslims were tormented for no fault of theirs. The activity adversely affected the tourists’ inflow, a substantial activity to earn foreign exchange.
In February-March 2018 the country saw widespread attacks on Muslim entities. Mobs of Sinhalese Buddhists, some wearing robes of monks, targeted four mosques and over 45 other commercial or residential properties owned by Muslims. Two people were killed and 81 arrested.
Even women were not spared. Their social attire of Abaya was targeted. Tormenting Muslims did not stop even after that. On April 27, 2021, the cabinet under fugitive President Gotabaya cleared a resolution to shut down some 1000 Madrasas and Maktabs, where children learn the basics of Islam and reading of the Holy Qur’ān. A resolution to declare Abaya/ Burqa as unlawful was also pushed, merely to appease the majority.
It may be genuinely assessed that these anti-minority tirades were aimed at diverting the public attention from rising prices, scarcity of essential items and deepening economic crises since 2015. But nothing shielded the “Hero” when anger grew in the public. He was forced to flee Sri Lanka in the dead hours of July 13, at a military aircraft to the Maldives. After the initial refusal of lending facility in Male, the speaker Mohd Nasheed came to his rescue. Here the President issued his last gazette stating that he is “unable to exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties, and functions of the Office of the President” by reason of his absence from Sri Lanka and that he “appoints the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president during his absence.” After the Speaker’s stern pronouncement that he will take steps to fill the vacuum, GR sent his resignation from Singapore.
The public anger was at peak on July 9 when huge mobs stormed the houses of President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and demanded their resignations. Both instantly agreed but did not act. After receiving Gotabaya’s resignation on the 14th the Speaker of the Parliament initiated a process to elect President on July 20 by the parliament members.
But the question is: can the changing of hands at the top will help to defuse the situation caused by mismanagement of the economy and the paucity of foreign exchange in Government coffers? Nonavailability of cooking gas, medicines, and skyrocketing rates of essential commodities including staples are big hitches which had forced people to come out on roads.
The initial warning of economic crisis had come as early as in 2015. But ignoring multiple warnings, popular decisions were pushed for election benefits such as excessive distribution of freebies and tax cuts.
Even in 2014, the Institute of Policy Studies had alerted against some practices of borrowing money, temporary and superficial quick fixes, and monopoly of foreign direct investment flow into the hospitality sector in its economic report, etc. Under an IMF-supported programme, some reforms were carried out in 2018. Upward revision of VAT rates and base expansion, implementation of automatic fuel pricing formula, etc. helped reduce inflation to some extent. But after the 2019 elections, the new government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reversed many reforms. Several other suggestions were also ignored including freeing Central Bank from political influence.
Early in July 2021, several economists expressed apprehension about the SL economy going Lebanon’s way. But the warnings remained unheard. The apprehension came true within 11 months.
President GR is blamed for implementing changes in economic policies which affected adversely the financial health of the nation. He made large tax cuts, and abolished many taxes. Without considering the impact on fiscal health, he increased tax-free thresholds which resulted in a 33.5% decline in registered taxpayers. The massive decline in the tax revenue resulted in rating agencies downgrading the sovereign credit rating of Sri Lanka, making it difficult to get more loans. Then to cover the government’s spending, the Central Bank began printing Rupee notes in record amounts, ignoring the advice of the IMF against it. Alone on 6 April 2022, the CBSL allegedly printed 119.08 billion rupees.
After adverse conditions did compel, an economic emergency was declared in September 2021. Instead of improving the situation, he let it further deteriorate because of the sharp fall of the Rupee’s exchange rate. Food prices spun with the rise of the inflation rate. The national inflation rate jumped to 17.5% in February 2022.
Foreign debt also increased drastically. From around 42% of the GDP in 2019, it rose to 119% in 2021. By the end of 2022, the country shall have to pay US$ 4 billion to debtors, whereas in March 2022, government reserves have dwindled to US$ 1.9 billion only. Besides other debts, Chinese debts in millions @ 6.3% is another white elephant. Just three months back, on 12 April 2022, Sri Lanka announced that it will be defaulting on its external debt of $51 billion. In last three months the situation has further compounded.
The fall of foreign remittances due to lesser footprints of tourists has further hardened the situation. Generally, these remittances accounted for around 10% of GDP. In the last two years, COVID pandemic vanished the income heads.
The nation also faced setback in food production. The country was self-sufficient in the production of main staple of the masses, rice. To save foreign exchange, President Gotabaya pushed the policy of purely organic farming. The import of inorganic fertilisers was stopped to save foreign exchange. This affected adversely agro-products especially rice for domestic supplies and a big source of foreign exchange earning production of the tea. The fertilizer policy resulted in an estimated $425 million loss in tea exports and a drop of 20% in rice production within the first six months forcing the country to import rice for $450 million.
There are many other factors also – government policies to appease people with freebies and depending upon religio-social contradiction – that can only boomerang.
[The writer is President, Forum for Civil Rights. mail: [email protected]]