22.05.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Riots in Sri Lanka Escalate

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Not only has the state of the all-round crisis in which Sri Lanka found itself in March not “resolved” but, as recent events in the country show, it has become increasingly acute. Apparently, it is no longer an alarmist exaggeration to define the situation as “total chaos” by which this condition is assessed in China, that is one of several very interested “outside observers” of all that is currently happening in Sri Lanka.

Basically, the very fact of such interest on the part not only of the PRC but also of other major players in the current stage of the “Great Game” shows that a (seemingly) purely internal conflict in a “developing country” actually has an important external component. Earlier, the NEO discussed the reasons why the PRC, India and the US have been watching the developments in Sri Lanka continuously and with heightened scrutiny in recent years.

There is no certainty as to whether this attention is limited to simply observing the process of turbulence developing in this country or whether some of the leading players are also taking some measures to influence it. However, there is no clear definition of the category “influence” itself. Is India’s $1 billion loan and forty thousand tonnes of diesel to Sri Lanka an “emergency aid to a friendly country” or an “interference in its naturally occurring internal political processes”? It depends on who and from what perspective evaluates this act by New Delhi.

It should be noted at the outset that if its aims went beyond providing humanitarian assistance to the population of the country, one of the first to be adversely affected by an emerging global crisis, i.e. in case it also included a component of attempts to stabilize the political situation in Sri Lanka, such aims are unlikely to have been fully achieved as yet. Triggered by a “shortage of almost everything” and a multiplication of the price of what “is still available”, the initial acts of civil protest have escalated into large-scale riots, accompanied by outright looting.

It is highly likely that the leadership of the political opposition to the current government has lost control of the street violence. In the May 9 street clashes in the capital Colombo between supporters and opponents of the party coalition ruling since 2019, nine people (including two policemen) were killed at once and over 240 were injured with varying degrees of severity. This apparently only contributed to the violent reaction of the protesters. In an attempt to bring the out-of-control street violence into some kind of framework, the country’s leadership began to bring in paramilitary police units and even the army, which were authorized to use weapons without warning.

The main targets of the street protests were the top officials of the state, which in Sri Lanka were the two Rajapaksa brothers, who had held the two top government posts since November 2019, following the then presidential election, until recently.

It should be noted that a year later, a relatively short time from the current dramatic events, the hitherto ruling party bloc led by Mahinda О. won a convincing victory in the parliamentary elections. Looking at what is happening in the country after only a year and a half, one cannot help but be reminded of platitudes such as “There is only one step from love to hate”. The crowd had just shouted “Hosanna” and almost immediately afterwards demanded “Crucify him”.

However, there must be a good reason for such a metamorphosis in street sentiment. And in the case of Sri Lanka, as noted above, they are there and they are indeed extremely powerful. It is another matter that their scale and nature are unlikely to be influenced by the leadership of some “developing country”.

But this is to stray from the point. So Gotabaya, that is, the younger of the Rajapaksa brothers, a former combat general who distinguished himself in the war against the Tamil minority separatist movement, remains as president of the country to this day. He seems to continue to retain a certain popularity among a not inconsiderable section of the population and, more importantly, in the army. This alone can explain why he dared to give the aforementioned order to the military, being confident that it would be carried out.

The elder Mahinda had, after all, to respond positively to the original generalized slogan of the street protesters “down with both Rajapaksas”. On May 9, the day the situation in Colombo became most tense, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the acceptance of his brother’s resignation as prime minister. It should be noted that the day before, an angry mob had set fire to the Rajapaksa family house and started demanding the handing over of Mahinda, who was allegedly hiding at the military base.

At the time of this writing, the fate of the latter remains unclear and for street protesters it has apparently lost its urgency. Because on May 12, Ranil Wickramasinghe, a highly experienced politician and statesman who had led the Sri Lankan cabinet on more than one occasion, took over as prime minister. Perhaps his description could be limited to those elements, since Ranil Wickramasinghe’s party preferences are unlikely to be informative due to the increasing blurring (not only in Sri Lanka, but in the modern world as a whole) of distinctive features of particular political currents, whose definition in the once traditional categories of “right-center-left” has long since become meaningless.

Much more important is the question of the new prime minister’s ability to at least mitigate those negative effects of the evolving global crisis on the country’s economy. The issue of obtaining external loans becomes paramount. This will be very difficult to achieve in the face of an already gigantic (for a country of 22 million people) public debt accumulating in excess of $50 billion.

It is, of course, too early to talk about any new trends in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. What drew attention was Wickramasinghe’s brief remark that relations with India “will be even better than before”.

So all that remains to be done is to watch developments in this country, which occupies an extremely important strategic position for all the major players in the current stage of the “Great Game”.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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