Lanka violence

Published May 11, 2022

THE situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating fast and unless the political class and the pillars of the state show visionary leadership, more violence and instability can be expected. While demonstrators had been protesting peacefully for weeks against the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, specifically against his handling of the debilitating financial crisis that has brought the Sri Lankan economy to its knees, violence broke out in the country on Monday when government supporters and demonstrators clashed at various locations. A number of fatalities have been reported, including a lawmaker who reportedly shot two people before turning the gun on himself. Protesters have also set fire to officials’ homes, as well as a museum dedicated to the Rajapaksa family. Food, fuel and medicine shortages on the island have been widespread, while the state coffers are nearly empty; in fact, tens of billions of dollars of foreign debt await payment. In such a combustible situation, the president does not seem to have a game plan to extricate the nation from the crisis, other than reshuffling his cabinet. Protesters are also livid at the Rajapaksa family’s political dominance, with members of the clan occupying key government posts. Bowing to popular demand, the president’s brother and prime minister, Mahinda Rajpaksa — who had himself served as president earlier — resigned on Monday, but this may be too little too late as demonstrators want the entire system changed.

There are lessons in the Lankan crisis for other states going through similar troubles. For one, if the economy starts to tank and no steps are taken against fiscal mismanagement, political and social instability will be the natural outcome, putting the survival of the state at stake. Moreover, one-family rule, especially in developing democracies, can lead to mass disaffection with the state if there is widespread economic mismanagement and corruption. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa clan has dominated governance, while there have also been accusations of corruption and self-enrichment against the family. When people cannot afford food and fuel, they will rightly ask tough questions and demand accountability of the ruling elite. To stave off further disaster, international financial institutions should provide lifeline funding to Sri Lanka so that the state does not collapse, and people have access to the necessities of life. Moreover, the state needs to handle the situation delicately and assure citizens it is working overtime to address the crisis, and bring back a semblance of normality to the country.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2022

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