Gotabaya Rajapaksa on state visit meets Narendra Modi, Nov 2019. Gotabaya Rajapaksa on state visit meets Narendra Modi, Nov 2019. Photo: MEAPhotoGallery / Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / license linked below

The mass uprising on the South Asian island could be a portent of similar events around the world this year, writes Sean Ledwith

Earlier this week, virtually the whole cabinet of Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapakse quit in the wake of weeks of massive street protests against corruption and government-imposed austerity. The President’s nationalist Podujana Peramuna Party (SLPP) was plunged into crisis as the ruling coalition promptly disintegrated. The authoritarian Rajapakse is left clinging onto power with now just 114 out of 225 seats in the parliament in Columbo. The new finance minister quit after less than 24 hours in the post!

Web of corruption

Typically, the only member of the cabinet who did not resign is the President’s brother, Mahinda Rajapakse, who is serving as Prime Minister-a cosy arrangement which encapsulates the web of corruption this particular family has spun around the island’s politics in recent decades. Many on the island are making a direct comparison between the rebellion against a corrupt elite and the ones which broke out in the Middle East and North Africa just over a decade ago, collectively known as the Arab Spring.

Last weekend, protestors surrounded and tried to storm the residence of the Prime Minister, chanting Go-Gota-Go. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency and deploying riot police using teargas to disperse the demonstrators. The Rajapakse brothers also imposed a social media blackout and a curfew in an attempt to maintain their rotten grip on power but neither has made any significant dent in the willingness of thousands to resist SLPP attacks on their living and working conditions.

Converging crises

The current crisis on the island is rooted in a combination of global factors that are affecting every country and the local mismanagement of the economy and society by President Rajapakse since he came to power at the end of 2019. The Covid pandemic triggered the near-collapse of Sri Lanka’s tourist industry which has been a major source of foreign currency reserves since independence in 1948. The invasion of Ukraine has caused a spike in food and fuel prices and pushed inflation on the island up to 17%, triggering the type of cost of living crisis that we are depressingly familiar within the UK. Under pressure from foreign banks to tackle the country’s debt of $50 billion (which includes $11 billion alone in interest payments), the Rajapakse regime has taken the familiar neoliberal path of devastating attacks on the public sector and unsustainable tax cuts for the wealthy minority.

Mr 10% and co.

The Rajapakse family themselves are an egregious example of the parasitical elite that is responsible for turning Sri Lanka’s famously beautiful landscapes into the backdrops of horrendous repression and poverty.  The Pandora Papers last year revealed how the brothers, along with another family member, Basil Rajapakse (nicknamed Mr 10%), are responsible for mysteriously squirrelling away huge sums of foreign currency, helping them amass a collective fortune of $160 million. When most of the island’s population is groaning under the weight of virtual starvation, unemployment and spiralling inflation, the way this family has monopolised the island’s economic and political structure is a major source of the rebellion.

Ruthless repression

The President rose to power in 2019 on the back of his reputation as an unashamed promoter of nationalism among the majority Sinhalese population and, conversely, a ruthless repressor of the island’s minority Tamil community. In the run-up to that year’s election, there was an Islamist terrorist attack that killed 270 people (mainly Christians and tourists) and helped Rajapakse to present himself as the safeguarder of law and order. Murky rumours that paramilitary forces close to the President orchestrated the attack for this specific purpose have not been definitively dispelled. The President’s brother, Mahinda, held the national leadership in 2009 when the Tamil Tigers were decisively crushed at the cost of 40,000 lives and amid widespread allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses by government forces.

Common enemy

One of the inspiring aspects of the current uprising is the absence of the sectarian dimension (predictably introduced by the colonial British) that disfigured the island‘s politics for decades in the postwar era. The oppressed from all communities have identified Sri Lanka’s plutocratic elite-along with their international financial backers- as the common enemy and are turning their collective rage against them.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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