The Rajapaksas to blame for Sri Lanka’s disastrous 2021
Posted on January 19th, 2022

Author: Neil DeVotta, Wake Forest University Courtesy East Asia Forum

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 election manifesto promised ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’. Professionals for a Better Future (Viyathmaga) were to implement his programs, which would achieve successive years of economic fortune. But Rajapaksa will instead be remembered for presiding over Sri Lanka’s worst-ever year post-independence.

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the General Debate of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, 22 September 2021 (Photo: Justin Lane/Reuters)

2021 was a year that millions will associate with lengthy queues to purchase sugar, milk powder, kerosene and cooking gas. This is because prices skyrocketed to hitherto unseen levels, thanks mainly to a severely indebted island lacking dollars to pay for essential imports. The year ended with around 1500 shipping containers comprising essential items stuck at port because the government had not released dollars to pay for them.

Inflation in December was 12.1 per cent, having risen from 9.9 per cent in November, with food prices having more than doubled in the past year. The government exacerbated inflation by printing money willy-nilly — as much as Rs 69,100 crore (US$3.4 billion) in 2021. With the focus on the dollar crisis, inflation, and food queues, what is not sufficiently covered concerns those going hungry.

The regime was also linked to various scams that worsened conditions. One such scam centred on the propane and butane ratio in cooking gas cylinders, which caused numerous household explosions and killed and injured individuals. Another centred on contaminated fertiliser from China, which the government was forced to return yet pay US$6.7 million for, apparently due to corrupt procurement. In a country now infamous for impunity, no one was held responsible for corruption or incompetence.

Sri Lanka’s foreign currency inflow has long depended on remittances, tourism and specific exports like garments and tea. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has now killed over 15,000 people, was bound to trouble these sectors. While the government oversaw a relatively successful vaccination program, unsustainable debts plus arrogant and fatuous decision making landed the country where it is.

The nearly three decades-long civil war contributed to these debts, but so did ‘blingfrastructure’ projects former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Chinese partners initiated. Consequently, Sri Lanka must cough up around US$7 billion in 2022 to various creditors to service its debts, which between now and 2026 will amount to around US$26 billion. The possibility that Sri Lanka may, for the very first time, default on its obligations is the reason Fitch Ratings downgraded it in December. The move raised predictable government hackles, but it reflects the balance of payments crisis facing the island. While COVID-19 exacerbated the balance of payments crisis, debt financing was a pre-COVID-19 predicament.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision in April to ban chemical fertiliser was related to this dilemma. Doing so would eliminate US$400 million per year of government fertiliser subsidies. Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor promised an organic agricultural sector within ten years, but this hastily imposed policy negatively impacted farmers. They have since protested unceasingly against the government, joining teachers and others who are also demanding higher wages given the runaway cost of living. It now seems the rice shortage caused by the addle-brained decision to abruptly ban chemical fertiliser, weedicides, and herbicides will likely cost the government US$450 million in rice imports over the next few months.

Rajapaksa’s authoritarian reputation and Sinhalese Buddhist credentials made Tamils and Muslims fear for their future. The continued militarisation of the predominantly Tamil northeast and the ban against burials for those who died from COVID-19 — a policy that especially traumatised Muslims — confirmed their fears. Rajapaksa’s unwillingness to fully investigate the 2019 Easter Sunday Islamist bombings that killed around 270 people, allegedly because forces close to him helped orchestrate the event to promote his election prospects, has also estranged the Christians who voted for him in large numbers.

This and his attentiveness to Buddhist interests aside, the country has thus far not experienced anti-minority violence. Indeed, the difficulties stemming from COVID-19 may have tamed the regime’s rabid majoritarianism. But this was not enough for Sri Lanka to be invited to US President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy. Some think cosying up to China, especially under presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was the reason why. In any case, the pro-China tilt took place amid rampant corruption, increased authoritarianism and an unwillingness to account for human rights violations — major themes undergirding the democracy summit.

The Rajapaksa government is slated to announce a new constitution, which will further strengthen the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist character and presidential powers. The government and its allies command a two-thirds parliamentary majority, but today even cabinet ministers excoriate the regime while allies threaten to desert it. At the same time, Rajapaksa effigies are hit during protests and family members are booed in public.

Even government officials now warn of impending food shortages. Overall, the country’s multiple crises cannot be addressed unless the economy is restructured and embraces a more pluralist climate. Those with vested interests, including the Rajapaksa family, find this threatening. Hopelessness is why some ask the military to take over.

Sri Lanka’s military enjoys status and resources, with many retired and serving officers currently benefitting from sinecures. It is unlikely these individuals want to undermine their positions by taking on a debilitated state. They are more likely to further militarisation under Rajapaksa rule, which does not bode well for democracy.

The Rajapaksa family wants to stay in power and build a political dynasty. Their corrupt governance is a major reason for the island’s recent democratic backsliding. On the other hand, various anti-government protests highlight the island’s democratic resilience. This simultaneous fortitude and retreat notwithstanding, the year ahead may see Sri Lanka mired in violence and militarised autocracy. If so, it will be another year of disasters.

Neil DeVotta is a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University.

4 Responses to “The Rajapaksas to blame for Sri Lanka’s disastrous 2021”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    We did not see this writer when within 8 weeks of Yahapalana ‘Christian’ regime of Ranil Wickramasinghe came into office and carried out major bank scam in open daylight! This was repeated an year later with disastrous consequences for the econoly. We did not see him making any comments when the Law was openly flouted by a extra legal entity called the FCID and went on to make false charges quite outside the framework of the Law Enforcing Authorities and of the Judiciary. We did not see him complain when the very judges of the Law Courts were compromised into circumventing the Law by the Catholic Ranjan Ramanayake. He did not complain when the nation’s intelligence services were downgraded and compromised – that led to the 21 April 2019 bombings by Islamist Terrorits. The damage done to Sri Lanka over the four and a half years of Sirisena – Ranil Administration can be continued till all ignorant cows come home!

    What was handed down to President Gotabhaya Rajapakse was a governent and a treasury waiting to cave in any time. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic which has continued to haunt the economy adversely. The government’s priority was to save the people first and this they have done in style with over 80% of the over 16 years population double vaccinated and a booster jab being administered as we write.

    The writer seems to have some misgivings about majoriatianism. Yes, we had a country run by minority Christians and their running dogs for well over 70 years. Thus it is justifiable that the writer is really annoyed! It will be better for him to understand at least now that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist Country, just as much as the Western Christian countries are Christian and most Middle Eastern countries are Islamic!

    It was Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith himself who foresaw that there is no separate existence for any minority in Sri Lanka than on the solid bed rock of Buddhist Sri Lanka.

  2. Gunasinghe Says:

    Author is moron. 2021 regim spend full time and money combat the pandemic. As result most successful vaccination program continued. All those thing this idiot author mentioned are planned and sponsored by opposition.

  3. Cerberus Says:

    I agree with Ratnapala and Gunasinghe. When foreigners who write for various lobbies and their interests write drivel this is what you get. Compared to Europe and the USA (which had the highest number of Covid deaths) Sri Lanka controlled the pandemic very well. Even though the economy was down the Rajapaksa Govt did not spare any expenses to save lives. We lost tourism and the money from migrant labor all in one fell swoop. Today in the USA and Europe inflation is running high. President Biden who had turned the Covid around in the USA is unpopular, and Donald Trump who lost the election fairly and squarely goes around saying Biden cheated. This really is the Kali Yuga all right where truth is considered a lie and lies are made out to be truth by social media.

    Unfortunately, during the time from 2015-2019 during the Yahapalanaya Govt, even though we had fairly ideal conditions they were not utilized by the then Govt. We had low prices for crude oil in the world market, and the economy was in good shape thanks to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa handed over the Govt to the Yahapalanaya the debt was only 75% in spite of the war, the SL Rs was trading at 130 to a $, etc. We could have utilized this blip of the good economy to pay off more debt, invest in development, and promote a job-oriented education and technology for our young people. Instead, the Yahapalanaya set about the wrong way by starting with two Central Bank Bond scams, and then they allowed all the ministers to import luxury cars with no tax and sell them at exorbitant profits within the country. Money was spent lavishly by the Ministers during this time. A group of 40 went to Davos in Switzerland for a meeting with the billionaires, etc. Davos is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The hotels charge about $2000 per room per night. Did the leader of the team think that the billionaires would fall his charm and fork our $ to Sri Lanka? 

    The Port City project that had been initiated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was scrapped by Yahap and after two years reinitiated at unfavorable terms, the Hambantota Harbor which was built during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency was given on a 99-year lease to a Chinese company by Yahapalanaya. What happened to the money we receive from the Chinese firm?   It has not been properly accounted for. They also imported around 200 containers full of garbage from the West and some of the containers were full of hospital waste. Luckily as soon as the present Govt came in they took steps to return all the containers back to where they came from.As a result of Neo-Liberal policies Sri Lanka went down in the economy and by 2019 the SL Rupee was trading at 199/$. The present Govt came into power in 2020 and started off well but was hit by the surge in Covid-19. President Gota handled the Covid19 very well compared to the USA, U.K, and Europe, by clamping down immediately and taking action to isolate and prevent people from getting infected. Then when the vaccines became available he made sure we got enough to vaccinate everyone. 

    I applaud President Gota’s emphasis on organic fertilizer. Though many do not realize organic fertilizer enriches the soil and promotes earthworms and bacteria which are essential for healthy soil. Excessive use of chemical fertilizers while giving good returns in the short term makes the soil hard and clayey and then you need more and more chemical fertilizer to make anything grow. As the soil becomes hard it does not absorb rain and there is flooding with soil erosion. Same with weedicides. They give good crop yields but in the long term will harm the soil and the people who eat the produce. President Gota is doing all the things you have recommended. However, he is hampered due to the foreign exchange shortage caused by the fall in tourism, and earnings from people going abroad. It is picking up slowly and I hope they will be able to continue their good work which they will start soon. What are our scientists in the RRI, TRI, and CRI doing to advise the Govt on the correct way to use organic fertilizer with the required nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium instead of excess as it is done in the last few years? I believe the private importers of these items were lobbying the Govt and also preventing the truth about organic fertilizers from coming out.

    I wonder what would have happened to Sri Lanka if the Yahapalanaya was in power when Covid -19 struck. We would have probably recorded the highest death rate in the world. 

  4. aloy Says:

    I have known a senior lecturer by the name De Votta from the north who served the engineering faculty Peradeniya in late 60s. Most of these lecturers find their way to western countries after getting scholarships via government institutions and later emigrate even without serving the stipulated period. Some of their children are born in foreign countries but gets brained washed and become anti Sri Lankan.

    This guy may be one such person who has ganged up against the very country that helped them to educate his parents. This is my guess.

    Now the harangues by the three comments above:

    When I see Goebbels theory is being applied in this forum on whatever pretext, one cannot keep silent.
    Why give a Christian tag to people in every sentence while trying to praise the government. Shiranthi herself is a Catholic though she was seen worshipping at a hindu temple in India. And RW was seen carrying some relic on his head at Gangaramaya. Ranjan R’s imprisonment had nothing to do with a religion. He tried to score points from RW on the tapes and got fixed and I think he deserves it.

    Are the above three commenters blind to the suffering of Sri Lankans at home?. People spend many hours each day due to shortages of food items in the market and many have suffered due to gas explosions. And there is a government that is protecting the fellows in thse gas companies instead of taking action against their misdeeds.

    All politicos join together to disposes the national assets that belong to people by selling them to foreigners. They are seen together in various events together with the fellows who robbed central bank. Sajith P. takes pride in announcing that it was his father who gave citizenships and ownerships of plots of land in upcountry tamils who are trying to have a separate identity and make it a Malaya Nadu. The majority Sri lankan Sinhalese will soon have to emigrate or jump to sea in the near future.

    All our major institutions are indirectly under the control of minorities. When you go the places like IRD or the Registrar of Companies it is not Sinhalese language that you hear. Their systems seem to be under the control of some smart minorities. All our documents are under their scrutiny through the systems. The Sinhalese officials who are there apply all the rules to the Sinhalese while Minorities and even foreigners can do things online without any problem. Some times when you call these institutions your call first go to a none Sinhala person. This sort of affairs not only put the majority Sinhala community at a disadvantage but also create security risks.

    At the rate they misuse the systems and selling our assets go on there will be nothing for Sinhalaya before the next election.

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