Sri Lanka’s Troubles Far From Over Despite Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Offer To Quit

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Sri Lanka is unlikely to immediately overcome the chaos as the next government faces an uphill task of addressing shortages of essentials such as food, medicine, and fuel

Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has agreed to resign as the months of discontent in Sri Lanka came to a head with thousands of protesters storming his official residence on Saturday. The country’s opposition parties were due to meet on Sunday to discuss the formation of a new government even as Rajapaksa’s whereabouts were unclear. The parties together have the 113 members required for a majority in Parliament. They are expected to request Rajapaksa to install the new government before resigning.

But Sri Lanka’s troubles remain far from over. The country is unlikely to immediately overcome the chaos as the next government faces an uphill task of addressing shortages of essentials such as food, medicine, and fuel. A peaceful transition of power is among the other immediate challenges the country faces as continuing instability could also frustrate the talks for the restructuring of debt and the raising of funds.

Sri Lanka, which needs $6 billion this year to buy essentials and to stabilize the economy, has a monthly fuel bill alone amounting to about $500 million. Suppliers have been reluctant to provide fuel as Sri Lanka has struggled to pay for it, prompting the suspension of petrol sales. The cascading impact of the economic crisis has also led to the closure of schools, and delays in medical procedures amid a shortage of drugs and equipment. The United Nations has warned of a potential humanitarian crisis against this backdrop.

Food and medicines have not been transported in many cases due to acute fuel shortages. Fresh farm produce has been unable to make it to cities and people have found it difficult to travel. The airlines have been asked to ensure they are carrying adequate fuel for return flights due to a shortage of jet fuel. The inflation is at a record high of 54.6%. The food prices have increased by five times and about two-thirds of Sri Lankans are estimated to be struggling to have enough meals.

Also Read: Sri Lankan Crises Escalates, Protesters Storm Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Residence

A new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion bailout is expected to take months even as the talks with it have suffered because of the continuing upheavals. Sri Lanka has been negotiating with IMF to restructure billions of dollars in debt it has defaulted on. The new government needs to submit a plan on debt sustainability to IMF in August before an agreement could be reached. There have been doubts about whether the new dispensation could do more than what the previous government was doing. The new government has to agree on IMF-backed economic reforms, which some opposition parties expected to be a part of it may find difficult to accept.

The negotiations with the IMF have been complicated because of Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. In April, Colombo announced the suspension of repayment of loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Sri Lanka needs to repay $28 billion of its total foreign debt of $51 billion by the end of 2027. It has struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it ran out of foreign exchange reserves. At least 15 people have succumbed to heatstrokes as they stood in fuel lines while the country repeatedly ran out of petrol.

Rajapaksa remained defiant until Saturday in the face of calls for his removal for mismanaging Sri Lanka’s economy and causing economic ruin. He relented in May and removed his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the prime minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been involved in talks with the IMF and the World Food Program, also failed to inspire much confidence. Wickremesinghe came to be seen as an instrument to perpetuate the Rajapaksas’ hold over power before he too was forced to announce his resignation as the protesters stormed his private residence and set it afire.

The Rajapaksas have dominated politics for close to two decades and held the top positions of president, prime minister, finance minister, and other key cabinet posts on the back of an ultranationalistic agenda. Things came to a head as the prolonged mismanagement of the economy and corruption pushed the country to bankruptcy. Protesters have been calling for the Rajapaksas’ ouster since March as the nation of 22 million grappled with a dire economic situation.

The crisis hit Sri Lanka as it was overcoming a three-decade civil war triggered over the discrimination against the minority Tamils in the 1980s. The war ended in 2009 but the Rajapaksas, who have been accused of running the government as a family business, continued their majoritarian Buddhist Sinhalese policies, which were among the causes of it. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was accused of war crimes when he was the defence secretary under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. The siblings ended the civil war through a brutal military operation, turning a blind eye to widespread rights abuses.

Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father, Don Alwin Rajapaksa, was a lawmaker in the 1950s and 1960s. Mahinda Rajapaksa led the family’s ascent to the highest echelons of power. He first became the prime minister before serving as the president twice from 2005 to 2015. The Rajapaksas lost power in the 2015 elections but returned to helm the country with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president in 2019 thanks to his majoritarian Buddhist Sinhalese agenda and projection as the strongman the country needed. Mahinda Rajapaksa was inducted into the government as prime minister.

Basil Rajapaksa was the finance minister until last year and presided over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since it gained independence from the British over seven decades back in 1948. The inflation hit a record high of 54.6% in June and was feared to mount to 70%. The COVID-19 pandemic also came as a major jolt to the Sri Lankan economy as it hit the remittances from workers overseas and the pivotal tourism sector the country has come to be heavily dependent upon. There separately was a build-up of government debt amid rising oil prices. A ban on chemical fertilisers import in 2021 damaged agriculture before it was rescinded in November.

The downward spiral coincided with high energy prices and food inflation afflicting much of the world. Sri Lanka’s woes increased further as the sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine disrupted global food supply chains and increased energy prices and sparked largely peaceful protests in March. Demonstrators have been traveling to Colombo for protests over the economic ruin despite a grave shortage of fuel. Closure of schools and rationing of fuel for essential services fuelled anger in the cash-strapped country.

Sri Lanka’s options so far have been limited as oil and gas prices have skyrocketed because of the Ukraine war and prompted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to even seek the help of Russian President Vladimir V Putin, a global pariah. In a tweet, Rajapaksa said he phoned Putin to ask him for “credit support” to import fuel three days before protesters stormed his residence and sent him packing.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Imperial Past Drives Russia, China’s Territorial Claims in Ukraine, Taiwan

Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism

Beijing’s rise has given it leverage to isolate Taiwan. Photo courtesy scmp.com

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Beijing has threatened to reunite Taiwan with the Chinese mainland since the nationalists relocated their government to the Pacific Ocean Island after losing to the communists, who established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The spotlight was back on Taiwan when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Parallels have been drawn between Russia and China’s territorial claims amid fears that Beijing could be encouraged to forcibly reunite ‘the rebel region’ of Taiwan it has claimed sovereignty over since the 1950s.

Russian nationalists believe people who speak their language as well as ethnic Russians in Ukraine, which was a part of the USSR and where separatists seek to be part of Russia, are under threat. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sees Ukrainians and Russians as ‘one people’ and Ukraine as an extension of Russia. Imperial Russia considered Ukrainians as Little Russians and Russia as Great Russians. Mainland Chinese similarly consider Taiwan as part of China; their languages overlap, and they are also culturally similar. China ceded Taiwan, which has emerged as a major Asian economy and a top producer of technology worldwide, to Japan after the 1894-95 war. It got the territory back decades later following the Second World War in the 1940s.

ALSO READ Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

Both Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, and Putin have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism. Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, China reiterated its commitment to ‘resolving the Taiwan question.’ According to the New York Times, Xi appeared more concerned about Taiwan’s fate than the war in Ukraine in a call with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, about the Russian invasion.

The US made it clear it has no intentions of intervening militarily in Ukraine. This came as Russia and China appear to have sensed an opportunity to assert themselves amid a void left on the world stage as a result of the West’s pullback after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taiwan, which has faced diplomatic isolation as China opposes its recognition and has regular relations with a handful of countries, has for long counted the US as its most important partner and protector. The US and Taiwan, an island of 24 million inhabitants which allows same-sex marriages, are liberal democracies, unlike authoritarian China. Taiwan may have built a modern economy, but its military of about 88,000 million ground troops is no match that of China— about a million.

Unlike its clear stand on refraining from intervening in Ukraine directly, the US has taken a vague line on Taiwan. It is expected to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Status quo also benefits China, which has made most of relative global peace over the decades. Its position as an economic power in an increasingly integrated world could be at stake in the event of a conflict. This could possibly prevent Chinese aggression against Taiwan as well. A lack of progress in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lessons for China and could help maintain the status quo in the Pacific region.

Beijing’s rise has ensured it has the leverage to isolate Taiwan, which occupied China’s UN seat till the 1970s over two decades after Mao Zedong-led Communists captured power from the nationalists. Generalissimo Chiang Kai‐shek, the President of Nationalist China, fled to Taiwan with his forces and led a government there in exile for 25 years. He was also recognized as China’s legitimate ruler before the communists began to assert themselves globally. Chiang dreamt of recapturing the mainland until he died in 1975. In his political testament published hours after his death, he urged his supporters to fulfill his dream and restore China’s national culture.

ALSO READ Lack Of Ideological Commitment Helped Imran Khan’s Opponents Coalesce To Oust him

Chiang, who received military training in Japan, participated in the uprising that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and led to the formation of the Chinese republic. Chiang would became a Chinese Nationalist Party member and build its army. He spearheaded the reunification of much of China and suppressed the communists. Chaing would become one of the Big Four leaders of the Allies in the Second World War against Germany, Italy, and Japan along with US President Franklin D Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. While his global stature increased, his position weakened at home with communists overthrowing him after the three-year Chinese civil war, which broke out in 1946. He would spend the rest of his life in Taiwan with his dream of reclaiming mainland China unfulfilled.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan