Why Mobs Are Torching Sri Lanka Politicians’ Homes

Sri Lanka is back in the news — for all the wrong reasons. Besieged Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on Monday after weeks of protests, amid a faltering economy and violent clashes between government supporters and anti-government protesters. in the capital, Colombo.

At least eight people died in the violence and about 200 were injured. Angry mobs burned more than 50 homes, including the ancestral home of the Rajapaksa clan, a clan that dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly two decades. Rebels have set up roadblocks on the way to the airport to prevent politicians from fleeing the country.

The army took to the streets with orders to immediately shoot the violent protesters, but it did not stop the unrest. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the former prime minister, could be next to leave. On Thursday, in a bid to form a government of national unity, the president was sworn in as former prime minister and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister.

What happens in Sri Lanka is a matter of beyond its borders. Both China and India vie for influence in the teardrop-shaped island nation of 22 million people, located off India’s southern coast. It is also a bellwether for a greater competition between democracy and authoritarianism in Asia. Under British rule, Ceylon, as it was later known, adopted universal suffrage in 1931, making it Asia’s oldest democracy.

Critics accuse Rajapaksas of undermining Sri Lanka’s democracy by practicing neo-rightism, intimidating critics and setting up a majority Sinhalese Buddhist community – around 70% of the population – against ethnic Tamils ​​as well as Christians and Muslims.

Not so long ago, though, Sri Lanka was still the poster child of South Asia, as a long-standing democracy with decent economic and human development indicators. Three years ago, the World Bank classified Sri Lanka as an upper-middle-income country with a per capita income of $3,850. (It has since reverted to lower-middle-income status.)

Unlike India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka boasts near-universal literacy. Since finally quelling a nearly 26-year Tamil insurgency in 2009, the country has enjoyed peace and the economic benefits that come with it. The Lonely Planet travel guide rated Sri Lanka as the top travel destination in the world in 2019. That year, despite the Islamic State terror attacks on Easter that left 269 people dead, 1.9 million tourists visited the island, earning $3.5 billion.

What is up? In short, it’s a combination of bad luck and bad policy. First, bad luck: Covid has gutted the tourism industry, a hub of the economy and a valuable provider of foreign exchange. Last year, Sri Lanka attracted 200,000 fewer visitors, 9% less than its pre-Covid peak of 2.3 million in 2018. Rising energy costs due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have continued to bury cripple an economy that relies almost entirely on imported crude oil. The state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the largest supplier of petroleum products in the country, has increased prices by more than 100% in the past year. India has provided Sri Lanka with more than $3.5 billion in assistance this year to help pay for fuel, food and medicine.

But not all of the country’s economic woes can be considered misfortune. As president from 2005 to 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa took on loan sharks to finance vanity projects, including a Chinese-built international port and airport near the family’s ancestral village. Sri Lanka’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio, 117% in 2021, is among the highest in the region. Foreign exchange reserves have fallen 70% since 2019 to less than $2 billion. The government does not have the necessary cash to repay the debt, which is estimated at $5 billion a year over the next five years. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan rupee has lost almost half its value against the dollar in the past two years.

To add to these troubles, last year the government forced about two million of the country’s farmers to switch to organic farming. In April 2021, it banned synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Production of rice, the country’s staple grain, fell about 14 percent last year and prices rose about 43 percent.

The shift also affects Sri Lanka’s tea crop, the country’s second-biggest export after textiles. Although the government began to reverse course in November, sizable damage has been done. Tea production in the first three months of 2022 fell 15% year-on-year, hitting its lowest level since 2009. The policy is “a far cry from magic thinking, technocratic arrogance, delusional delusions.” about ideology, self-employment and absolute short-sightedness,” write environmental experts Ted Nordhaus and Saloni Shah.

What lessons can Sri Lanka draw for the rest of the region? First, economic development is not guaranteed. In Sri Lanka, 500,000 people have fallen back into poverty in the past two years. Second, a strong rule often fails to deliver what it promises. The Rajapaksas’ promise to revive the glory of ancient Sinhalese Buddhism alienated the populace. As the prices of fuel, food and medicine skyrocketed and power outages became common, the ruling family found that people were often more concerned with their standard of living than harsh calls for self-esteem. cultural pride.

In the living rooms of Colombo, it is not uncommon to hear Sri Lankans lament that their country can be like Singapore – prosperous and flourishing. Thanks to arrogance and mismanagement, Venezuela is becoming more and more like Venezuela.

Editorial Review: The Week’s Best and Worst from Kim Strassel, Mene Ukueberuwa, Mary O’Grady and Kyle Peterson. Image: President of Ukraine / Zuma Press / Picture Alliance / Getty Images Synthesis: Mark Kelly

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Alley Einstein

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