Lessons from Sri Lanka for autocratic regimes

What can we learn from Sri Lanka's disastrous style of ruling, intensification of sectarian divides, marginalization of minorities and power concentrated in autocrats is there for all to see, writes Dr Ram Puniyani for South Asia Monitor

Dr Ram Puniyani Jul 14, 2022
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Protestors demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gather inside the compound of Sri Lanka's Presidential Palace in Colombo (Photo: Twitter)

The crisis in Sri Lanka has shaken not only its citizens but the entire world, the neighbouring countries in South Asia in particular. At one level there is a humanitarian crisis; at another we can see the impact of autocratic and discriminatory policies on citizens, particularly workers, Tamil and Muslim minorities and ordinary people.  

The sight of thousands of people surrounding and occupying the President’s House in Colombo and torching the private house of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is frightening. The shortage of food, petrol and medicines has led to immense misery among the population.

The political tendency in Sri Lanka has been to bestow more powers to the President; autocracy has been the overall direction of the regime. Its autocratic nature has been complete in recent times. The dictatorial autocrats took some economic steps which ruined the foundations of the economy.  

Liberal imports, particularly of luxury items, and reckless privatization have been two major factors apart from whimsical mega projects which were hardly useful but ended up emptying the treasury to a large extent.

The food crisis, apart from other things, has gone for a free fall due to a senseless ban on import of fertilizers and total emphasis on organic agriculture which brought down food production steeply. Such economic misadventures had a lot to do with the dictatorial nature of the regime, where one person (or family) takes decisions on whims and fancies. The rise of such an autocracy has a lot to do with the parallel policies which have oppressed and marginalized the minorities.

Sri Lanka had close links with India. Emperor Ashoka sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka to propagate the values put forward by Gautam Buddha. It was also to Sri Lanka that a large number of Tamils (mostly Hindus) migrated as plantation workers or for trade. While the Sinhalese are mostly Buddhists, Tamil Hindus (12.9 percent) are in substantial numbers followed by Muslims (9.7 percent) and Christians (1.3 percent).

Rohini Hensman, a scholar activist of Sri Lankan origin, gives a very comprehensive account of the roots of ethnic religious divide on which major political parties harped. In due course, this gave rise to the anti-people autocratic regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular. 

With Independence in 1948, the two major political parties deprived a million Tamils of more recent Indian origin of their franchise and citizenship. Hensman points out: “The exercise was carried out in a patently discriminatory manner by demanding that these poverty-stricken and super-exploited workers provide documentary proof of Sri Lankan ancestry which the vast majority of Sinhalese citizens would not have been able to provide.” 

In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike came to power by promising to have Sinhala as the only national language. Tamils felt discriminated against and launched an agitation. After an extremist Buddhist monk murdered him, his widow Srimavo Bandaranaike succeeded him. She negotiated a pact with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to repatriate 500,000 Tamils to India.  

In 1972, a Republican Constitution made Sinhala the official language. The Constitution also gave special status to Buddhism. Protection of the rights of minorities was done away with.

The administration gradually turned more rightwing, and freedom of expression and democratic rights were crushed by and by. With Mahinda Rajapaksa coming to power in 2005, the attacks against Tamils increased and death squads targeted government critics.

In response, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) called for the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam. Militant groups, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fought for this goal. As Tamil dissatisfaction peaked, LTTE resorted to acts of terror. This worsened the situation. A virtual war was launched against the Tamils in which, as per UN estimates, 40,000 civilians lost their lives.  

The LTTE used civilians as life shields, and Gotabaya Rakpaksa, the then Defense Secretary, ordered the bombing of civilian targets, including hospitals and safe zones. Hensman says the Rajapaksas funded Islamist militants to fight the LTTE. The Easter Sunday terror attack in 2019, which killed 269 people, effectively killed tourism. As it turned out, the bombings were perpetrated by the very same Islamists the Rajapaksas had bankrolled.

With the elimination of the LTTE, a new enemy was found in the Muslims. State-sponsored Buddhist monks targeted the Muslim minority. When the economic downslide came, the regime, without democratic safeguards, was unresponsive to the suffering of the masses. This proved to be the undoing of the island nation. The rising dissatisfaction among most sections of the society led to the present situation.

What can we learn from this disastrous style of ruling, intensification of sectarian divides, propagation of “majority religion in danger” (in this case Buddhism), the marginalization of minorities and concentration of power in autocrats is there for all to see. Autocrats think they know all and take decisions which in due course ruin a nation and intensify the ethnic divides.

(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.) 

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