By Uditha Devapriya –
The recent visits of India’s External Affairs Minister and a delegation from the Communist Party of China (CPC) reveal Sri Lanka’s geopolitical complexities, as well as its foreign policy failures. Even if Sri Lanka has not appreciated it enough, its two most powerful neighbours still prioritise us in their scheme of things. Anything that happens here is obviously going to be felt there. The issue, to me, isn’t that we haven’t acknowledged this properly: at times it feels as though we haven’t acknowledged anything at all.
I think we need to put these two visits in perspective, and properly. Sri Lanka is at a virtual standstill. Although tourist arrivals have improved considerably from last year, the country is still reeling from shortages. Queues are nowhere to be found, but that is owing to enforced privations and quotas. Sathosa is going through a price reduction spree, but malnutrition is high and the poor are skipping a meal or two a day. A recent World Food Programme (WFP) survey paints a rather grim picture: food insecurity is highest in the most deprived regions, including the Southern, the Uva, and the Sabaragamuwa Provinces.
All these are tell-tale signs. They are indicative of a fermenting mass of rebellion. What is intriguing is that they cut into the very electoral bases that pushed the Rajapaksas in power and kept them there for so long: in particular, the Southern peasantry. Indeed, if one is to locate the aragalaya less at Galle Face than across the entire country, then one would have to trace its origins to the farmers’ protests against the fertiliser ban. In such a context, it is in the interests of the State, whatever the party in power, to ensure that the minimum pain is inflicted on those most likely to strike back and re-enact last year’s events.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the government has failed and is failing to do. From tax hikes to welfare cuts, from tariff increases to quantitative tightening, its target seems to be to curb consumption. To that end it is pursuing a heavily neoliberal agenda, focused almost entirely, as Kusum Wijetilleke puts it, on “selling the family silver.”
The government seems to think that the support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank will be enough to implement these measures. It sincerely believes there is no alternative to them: hence the Energy Minister’s recent confrontations with the Public Utilities Commission Chairman, and his remark, actually bordering on a threat, that if tariffs are not hiked, we will all once again see queues and lengthy power cuts.
The Ranil Wickremesinghe government, in other words, is committing the two mistakes which every UNP administration – barring one, the Ranasinghe Premadasa regime – has committed, namely 1) to conflate legality or constitutionality with political legitimacy and 2) to consider international approbation as the greenlight for everything.
These are strategic errors that no regime has held for long: least of all the JR Jayewardene administration, whose assumptions about Western support cost it everything when India, exercising its hegemony, gave it the proverbial finger and intervened, and when none of the Western powers it had hedged his bets on came to the rescue. Vernon Walters, who was appointed Special Envoy by Ronald Reagan, advised Jayewardene to handle the Tiger issue with India and bluntly implied that the US would not intervene.
The UNP’s short-lived ceasefire proposal with the Tamil Tigers is another case in point. As Chanaka Talpahewa has noted in his book on the peace-talks (Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process, Routledge, 2016), the party side-lined or excluded not just the country’s president, but also Sri Lanka’s most respected post-Cold War Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, in the belief that support from Norway, Japan, the US, and the EU would be enough. In this the UNP suffered from what Rajan Hoole calls the arrogance of power: the assumption that whatever it does can and will be accepted by the people, because it believes it to be right.
This is the same outlook that governs the Wickremesinghe regime’s stance on austerity and liberalisation. Read the UNP’s manifesto for the 2004 election, and you will discern the same sure-footedness and arrogance that has marked the party out so well throughout its history: its proposal to liberalise even strategic sectors, its belief in the private sector as the engine of growth, and its desire to emulate what it sees as international best practices in the realm of economic reform. The 2004 manifesto was more or less thwarted by a populist backlash against the SLFP’s rightward tilt, a backlash organised by the party’s centre-left wing and led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now the Rajapaksas’ own rightward tilt has provoked a return to the UNP and its prescriptions: what the President himself calls “bitter medicine.”
At one level, though what is happening now is somewhat unprecedented. In 2004, the UNP lacked a civil society which was in broad agreement with its policies. It now has this civil society tacitly by its side. “[I]n Sri Lanka,” comments Pasan Jayasinghe (“Vistas of stability: Challenges to President RW’s Govt.”, DailyFT, 9 January 2023), “there is almost dogmatic fervour among the economic establishment for ‘necessary reforms’.”
This is nothing new. Once upon a time, Sri Lankan think-tanks focused on food security, poverty, and industrialisation. Today, that focus has shifted to neoliberal reforms, most discernibly that toxic, odious combination of privatisation, foreignization, and welfare cuts. These institutions castigated the Rajapaksas for what they saw as their “heterodox” and “unorthodox” economic policies; now, with the “correct policies” in place, they flag every other reform authored by the present government as “necessary.” Those who condemn or oppose them are conveniently dismissed as populists, opportunists.
That is not to say that these organisations lack critics. They do have them, mostly if not only from the left and centre-left, and they do have a presence. Yet deprived of funding and agency – one only needs to look at the state of social science think-tanks now and compare them to what they were in their prime, in the 1970s and the early 2000s – many of these progressive institutions have become pale, emaciated replicas of themselves.
As a result, the right and centre-right have gained some dominance within civil society, rendering its critics virtually powerless. Indeed, as Rajiva Wijesinha has pointed out in his excellent book Representing Sri Lanka, think-tanks which used to dwell on social justice and equity have, since the Reaganite and Thatcherite “revolutions”, converted to neoliberalism, promoting free markets and foreign, specifically Western, intervention in the Global South. Dr Wijesinha notes that this has not spared even the Liberal Party.
“… I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which International Liberalism was echoing the ideas of what I thought of as doctrinaire neoliberalism. Gone were the days of John Kenneth Galbraith… His contempt for Reaganomics – ‘the rich do not work because they do not have enough money, they poor do not work because they have too much’ – had been replaced by advocacy of wholesale withdrawal by the state from the social services necessary to develop a level playing field.”
Representing Sri Lanka: Geneva, Rights and Sovereignty, 2021, Godage, page 33
Once upon a time, Sri Lanka’s unusually protean middle-classes used to fall in line with these views. Recent calls for debt moratoriums, from no fewer than 182 economists and former political officials, including an ex-Finance Minister, however, have provoked heated debates within this class. While a considerable section held up boards urging the then government to “go to the IMF”, these sections now are too chastened by the current dispensation’s zeal for austerity to hold on to and advocate those slogans.
Predictably, right-wing think-tanks have been dismissive of the above petition, particularly since their focus has shifted from their support for the aragalaya, which they rationalised in terms of the Rajapaksas’ unorthodox policies, to their thinly veiled support for stability at whatever price: hence the recent tweet from one of their heads, candid as it is, affirming or approving Rishi Sunak’s anti-protest legislation and implicitly calling for similar legislation to put down “disruptive” demonstrations against IMF imposed austerity. Such tweets should not, of course, surprise those who already knew the real intentions and objectives of these organisations. But it will surprise those who thought otherwise.
Where do we go from here? For a while, people will keep debating and disagreeing with these think-tanks and their representatives. When push comes to shove, and when that fermenting mass of rebellion I mentioned earlier reaches boiling point, though, they will associate them with one of the most hated and loathed administrations in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history. When that happens, Pasan Jayasinghe concludes, “the economic establishment… will need to find far better narratives to pin their destructive agenda on.” This obviously includes Colombo’s ubiquitous neoliberal think-tanks.
*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org