While Sri Lanka’s current unrest was triggered by economic mismanagement, the government’s unwillingness to oust ethno-nationalist ideology is at the core of the country’s problems, Jeevethan Selvachandran writes.
For months, Sri Lanka has been rocked by political unrest. Ongoing protests have seen tens of thousands of demonstrators hit the streets across the country, especially in the capital of Colombo.
The background for this unrest is an economic crisis which reached a point of no return.
There are external factors and mismanagement at play. The 2019 Easter bombings and COVID-19 pandemic nearly completely halted crucial tourism revenue, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused shortages that have added yet more misery.
Then, when the state became unable to secure essential commodities like food, gas, and medicine due to massive debts and other failures, the people reached breaking point.
A primary demand of the protesters was the resignation of Sri Lanka’s controversial president, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At first, he was in no hurry to resign, and this only escalated agony and unrest, with protesters eventually storming the presidential and prime ministerial residences, along with other state buildings. In the process, assets belonging to the Rajapaksa family and other leading political figures were set ablaze by angry protesters.
Finally, on 15 July, having fled the country, Gotabaya announced his resignation. Ranil Wickremasinghe, who had been sworn in as prime minister under Gotabaya, was elected interim president by Sri Lankan lawmakers.
Six weeks on, the island nation’s situation is still yet to normalise. While media outlets overseas may have grown bored of the story, it has not gone away. Anything is possible in the current scenario, from escalating protests to riots, and even military rule.
But how did this happen, and what comes next?
This crisis was triggered by financial disaster, but economics can’t tell the whole story. Although the economic situation was the rather large straw that broke the camel’s back, the ethno-nationalist ideology held by many of the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority is at the foundation of the island nation’s current politico-economic instability.
This ideology goes all the way back to decolonisation, and past leaders like SWRD Bandaranayake and JR Jayewardene are crucial to that story. The former introduced the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, which officially segregated Tamil Sri Lankans, making them second-rank citizens and reducing their influence in the government and military.
As for Jayewardene, his ministers watched the Jaffna Public Library burn in 1981, having led a mob to the city days prior, and a faction of his party led the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom – a violent riot that saw thousands horrifically killed by ethno-nationalists while the majority Sinhalese police force watched on – in Colombo. These acts set the stage for Sri Lanka’s three-decades long civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers.
Sadly, Sinhalese Buddhist ethno-nationalism is still rife. This ideology is the central barrier to Sri Lanka achieving its enormous potential as a developed and multicultural nation. While it remains dominant, the country will remain on thin-ice and risk a systematic collapse that will have tragic consequences.
Still, this crisis may be Sri Lanka’s tipping point toward a better political situation for one key reason. The participants of the ongoing protests are predominately Sinhalese who live in the south.
Largely unaffected by the civil war and accustomed to a better standard of living, these communities were once the beating heart of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism. It was this support that the Rajapaksa family used to endow themselves with increasingly authoritarian power.
Yet this hasn’t led to unity. As the south trembles, the north is eerily silent.
The mostly Tamil-populated north of the country has been living in continuous protest of land-grabbing, deforestation, and socio-ethnic destabilisation in their traditional homeland for many years.
While they are continuing to demand justice for the heinous crimes committed against them and deep political transformation, many Sinhalese are seeking only a restoration of socio-economic stability.
Also, solidarity can be hard to show when Tamils are subjected to immense discrimination by the Sinhalese-dominated police and armed forces.
One could say the Sinhalese protestors in Colombo have been given a right to demonstrate that Tamils have long been denied.
There is no doubt that Tamil activists are happy to see the end of the Rajapaksa family’s influence, given they spearheaded the civil war’s bloody end in 2009, with final causalities reaching more than 100,000 and numerous allegations of war crimes.
However, they also recognise that complete political transformation is needed in Sri Lanka if the island nation intends to return to normality, not just a solution to the economic situation or a more stable government.
In the end, Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism must be replaced with a more inclusive and pluralistic state ideology. At the very least, it must grant equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens regardless of their ethnicity and religion.
Although the new president has repeatedly reiterated his intentions to revive the economy as well as change the political scenario, he and other leading Sinhala lawmakers are by-products of ethno-nationalism.
Consequently, many can’t, or won’t, distance themselves from, nor challenge the status of, the influential monks and military chiefs who are the cornerstones of ethno-nationalist rhetoric and discriminatory policies.
In all, even if Sri Lanka overcomes this financial crisis, it would only be a short-term solution. The only permanent solution is a structural overhaul that brings Sri Lankans together in opposition to the status quo and banishes ethno-nationalism to the dustbin of history. Unless this happens, the turmoil will continue, and the world will never get to see Sri Lanka unlock its massive potential.