Sri Lanka: Part One – History and Background

Mahinda Rajapaksa was President of Sri Lanka during the last stages of the decades-long internal conflict with Tamil Eelam fighters who were fighting oppression and discrimination, and seeking autonomy in the north and east of the island. With the aid of supportive state-owned media, he was regarded by much of the Singhalese population as a hero for defeating the Tamils and “bringing peace” in 2009.

Capitalising on a wave of popularity, Rajapaksa called an early election in 2010 and became President amid reports of violence and intimidation during the polls. His opposition candidate General Fonseka was later arrested and imprisoned, and opposition protests were violently quashed.

The reality of the final stages of the fighting began to emerge, revealing war crimes on both sides, and with the administration implicated in the widespread shelling of civilian areas, sexual assault and rape of women and children and the death and disappearance of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians.

The C4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields provided compelling documentary evidence of the war crimes including ethnic cleansing and repeated bombing of hospitals, committed under the Rajapaksas’ watch. (Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya was Defence Minister during this period.) Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians also spent months in atrocious conditions in government-controlled detention camps for “re-education”.

In response to international criticism, the government conducted an investigation and released its own report at the end of 2011. To widespread condemnation, the report claimed that the Army had “by and large conducted themselves in an exemplary manner” while the Tamil LTTE forces were accused of a litany of human rights abuses. The report also claimed that the footage was all faked with ‘blood effects’ and electronic tampering, and complained that they couldn’t investigate the allegations unless Channel 4 disclose their Tamil sources (putting them at risk of detention and persecution).

Many Tamil families have continued to seek justice to this day, and August 12th this year marked the 2000th day of continuous protest by families of the disappeared.

In 2014 the UN Human Rights Council launched a further investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses. The Sri Lankan government’s response was to engage a legal team to justify its own actions on the basis that Tamil civilians were used as human shields.

During this second term the Rajapaksa dynasty brought in the 18th Amendment to the constitution which took away the two term limit on presidency, and they continued to crack down on opposition activists and journalists while courting the international community and embarking on a series of ambitious infrastructure projects funded by international loans. These included a $1.5 billion Chinese investment in port construction in Mahinda’s home fishing village at Hambantota, part of a series of loans which include financing for a second airport, railway lines and another port at Colombo. As well as huge Chinese loans, the country built up massive international debt through issuing government bonds to investors.

With Mahinda’s brothers in prime ministerial positions, with in-laws, sons, and other family members and friends in almost every ministry, the family controlled the majority of government expenditure and landed the nickname ‘sahodara samaagama’ – “enterprise of brothers”.

The country had to service an enormous debt ($8 billion to China alone), and growing public anger at corruption and authoritarianism finally resulted in Mahinda Rajapaksa being ousted from power after calling an early election in 2015, and his former ally Maithripala Sirisena became President.

During his second term, Rajapaksa had faced continued pressure from UN Human Rights Watch to co-operate with an international probe into the war against the Tamils, or hold a proper domestic investigation. Once Sirisena came to power, Western pressure relaxed as the United States saw an opportunity to pull Sri Lanka back from the Chinese sphere of influence. By October a joint Resolution was signed, which many regarded as a watered-down rather than rigorous and independent investigation.

Maithripala Sirisena rolled back some executive powers with the 19th Amendment to the constitution, limiting the term of presidential office to five years. He also promised more freedom of the press, released a prominent Tamil activist, and even demilitarised the governance of Tamil regions. He cancelled infrastructure projects which he identified as corrupt, and claimed to have uncovered $2 billion of “black money” that Mahindra Rajapaska associates had transferred to Dubai, alleging that around a further $10 billion was missing.

Despite some positives, Sirisena’s grip on power was fragile. By 2018, Rajapaksa was gaining increased popularity in local elections. Sirisena started to have serious disagreements with his new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremansinghe, and used executive powers in October 2018 to suspend him and install…Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A Supreme Court ruling reinstated Wickremansinghe within months, but the total breakdown in trust may have been partly to blame for security failures which were revealed after the country was rocked by the Islamist 2019 Easter suicide bombings leaving 266 people dead and more than 500 injured.  

The country was facing the collapse of its tourist trade, increased sectarian violence and economic instability. Sirisena was forced to call an early election in November which put Mahindra’s brother and ex-Defence Minister Gotabaya Rakapaksa back in the presidential seat, largely because he was regarded by the Singhalese majority as strong on security (in the wake of the bombings).

The new government withdrew from the HRW joint investigation and began appointing senior military and intelligence officials to government posts. A new regime of intimidation against human rights observers and civil society organisations, bolstered by the discriminatory use of Covid restrictions, drew criticism and a call for an International Criminal Court investigation from the UN.

The pandemic response was a mess, with troops deployed on the streets to enforce lockdowns, and publicly donated money left unused. While military spending remained the largest single item of government expenditure in the country, Gotabaya’s central banker Ajith Nirvard Cabraal attempted to stimulate the economy with massive tax cuts, blaming the previous administration for the debt levels.

A Perfect Storm

As the rupee’s value fell against the dollar, and creditors demanded around a billion dollars a year from the country, inter-related factors brought misery to large sections of poorer communities, especially rural communities and marginalised workers.

Global South countries servicing World Bank and IMF loans always face pressure to deregulate, cut social spending and move away from subsistence farming to an export-oriented model, and in Sri Lanka’s case, tea, coffee, spices and the garment industry grew, to the detriment of food sovereignty and security, making the country dependent on food imports as well as seeds and fertiliser.

The pandemic hit the garment industry hard, often leaving non-unionised workers unpaid and destitute. Aggressive promotion of micro-financing schemes under the banner of a UN agenda to end poverty saw rural households plunged into unpayable debt.

Sri Lanka’s credit rating faced near default levels, forcing the government to start using foreign reserves to pay off debt, and as it also reduced foreign imports, prices soared for fuel and other essentials.

In April 2021 under the guise of promoting self-sufficiency and organic farming, the government suddenly banned all chemical pesticide and fertiliser imports. While welcomed in principle by many, the lack of government preparation, support and information meant that some farmers could not plan or adapt, thus abandoning their crops and seeking other work. After several months of chaos, the ban was reversed in November.

The inflation rate in Sri Lanka rocketed over the first few months of this year to beyond 50%. The government, increasingly unable to pay for fuel imports and other essentials, faced massive protests and a general strike. The government responded with a militarised approach, imposing curfews and by April, introducing emergency powers.

This is the history and background leading up to the uprising in Sri Lanka. Next week, Real Media will bring you our analysis, update and interviews on the situation facing protesters.