Author: Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits, Erasmus University Rotterdam
In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic provided further cover for a regressive turn in Sri Lankan politics. The consequences of the economic and political crisis became evident shortly before the end of the year as the grip of the Rajapaksa family on the Sri Lankan state tightened.
From the start of 2021, the dead came to haunt the Rajapaksa regime, as the government – against all medical and scientific advice – continued to impose cremation dead Muslims. It attracted major backlash local civil society groups, the medical community and some members of the international community. When the policy was finally changed, it was not due to a change of mind by the government, but more likely to avoid harsh language during the deliberations of the United Nations Human Rights Council. United in March in Geneva, when a country-specific resolution on Sri Lanka was delivered.
While alleged war criminals continue to enjoy impunity, the regime has cracked down on freedom of expression, harassed and intimidated journalists, and expanded the use of draconian laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act. (ATP). Although such measures have been noted in international forums, the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to silence dissenting voices and suppress protests. These included northern mothers demanding justice for their lost children, young people protesting the privatization and militarization of higher education (Bill KNDU) and farmers protesting chemical fertilizer import bans overnight.
Strong words at the UN human rights council in March and September from the High Commissioner oral report on Sri Lanka added pressure on the government to address persistent injustices with seriousness and urgency. Strong objections have been raised to Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record during discussions related to the extension of EU GSP+ tariff plan to the European Parliament in June. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister in Geneva and the permanent representative to the United Nations in New York both claimed an international conspiracy in response.
There were some glimmers of hope for victims of war crimes in practice. US President Joe Biden’s administration has imposed travel bans on some of the senior members of the Sri Lankan military. The Hague-based People’s Court has indicted the Sri Lankan government after investigating the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge – a vocal journalist who reported on the infamous 2006 MIG offer involving Sri Lankan President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Defense Secretary.
The government has played the victim in the national arena. The newly formed Commission on Political Victimization was commissioned to investigate the “victimization” of civil servants and state agents working in business, the armed forces and the police. The lofty goals of the Commission have not been achieved, and instead it has become a way to ensure that the ruling Rajapaksa family and their friends continue to avoid facing justice. Those who lodged complaints against regime supporters were “persuaded” to remove them.
The continued militarization of the state was evident with the appointment of more military personnel to civilian posts. Partisans, military elites and Buddhist monks were richly rewarded for their support of the regime, while Rajapaksa ensured a ‘Buddhizationof state institutions. Prominent Buddhist monks have obtained high-ranking positions in the Human Rights Commission and one of them has been appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Colombo. the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Task Force) Chief Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara – a convicted felon who incited violence against the minority Muslim community – was ironically named to the president’s new pet political project, “One country, one law‘.
The economic mismanagement of state resources by the Rajapaksa regime through continuous rewards for capitalist cronies and family members further entrenched Colombo’s economic decline. Credit agency Fitch Ratings predicted an impending economic crisis after the downgrade Sri Lanka’s economy to CC status in December 2021. In the last quarter of 2021, the Sri Lankan economy contracted by 1.5% and foreign exchange reserves fell from US$7 billion in 2019 to US$1.5 billion. US dollars in December. Next, government import restrictions led to widespread shortages of food and fertilizer.
Further misery has been added to households struggling with runaway inflation by a series of gas cylinder explosions due to poor quality gas imports. Colombo has also fallen out of favor with the IMF, which has offered COVID-19 relief packages to most countries other than Sri Lanka, citing the government’s reluctance to restructure its struggling economy. Rapid passage from Port City Bill worried some citizens and media, who noted that the bill mainly benefits close friends and relatives of the Rajapaksas — while strengthening close ties with Chinese state-owned enterprises.
While Fitch downgraded Sri Lanka’s economy to CC, discouraged citizens downgraded the president’s status from “Terminator” to “Nandasena”, his first name. The symbolic political move was an attempt to distinguish the decorated, war-winning Secretary of Defense – often identified by his middle name, Gotabaya, or his pet name “Terminator” – from the president charged with overseeing the well-being of all.
It is hard to imagine what positive political and economic developments can reasonably be expected in Sri Lanka in 2022. The pandemic means that global economic growth is likely to be slow or even negative, and the Sri Lankan political elite appears determined aggravate the domestic economic crisis. . Perhaps Prime Minister Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spiritual visit to India at the end of the year – along with the offerings he made to Indian deities – will miraculously cure Sri Lanka’s ills. The $500 million in emergency loans Colombo is requesting from India that could materialize in 2022 are more likely to.
Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is Assistant Professor in Conflict and Peace Studies at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
This article is part of a EAF Special Feature Series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.