Sri Lanka’s economic turbulence has pushed the country into complete political turmoil and precipitated a humanitarian emergency. The tipping point was accelerated by the pandemic, which severely impacted an already vulnerable Sri Lankan economy and brought to light the dirty underbelly of the government’s inconsistent economic management. As the downslide has only become more apparent with the government default on its debt payments this year, we might question just how the situation became so dire. As Devana Senanayake writes in Foreign Policy:
“The economic crisis is an immediate consequence of Sri Lanka’s long-run trade deficit and the country’s failure to diversify its exports which are still limited to colonial commodities of tea, coconut, and rubber”.
As a combination of structural vulnerabilities and economic mismanagement plunged the nation into a profound socio-political and economic crisis, there is one issue that needs to be discussed further: the differential impact of the crisis on the country’s most marginalized populations -the Tamils, already struggling to weave a society torn by the civil war.
The Heritage of the Conflict and Build-up to an Economic Collapse
The war between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – a militant organisation with the aim of an autonomous Tamil nation – resulted in Tamil communities experiencing critical vulnerabilities that they endure even today. Sri Lankan Tamils experience severe societal inequalities, only further exposed in times of economic stress, which leave displaced, marginalised and unprotected community members at risk. The economic collapse in Sri Lanka has thus served to exacerbate struggles across class, religion and culture that stem from a plethora of consistent failures.
Sri Lanka had been experiencing an external debt problem for a while now – presently set at over $60 billion. If one were to summate the reasons for the ongoing economic situation in Sri Lanka, it would come down to a combination of corruption, economic mismanagement, the pandemic, ethnonationalism and denialism. The tremors of the economic crisis were significantly felt during Mahinda Rajapaksha’s presidency. During his administration, between 2005-2015, foreign direct investment from global capital markets flowed into the country. Since this was also the time of the global financial crisis, Mahinda’s government took advantage of relaxed global monetary policies, making it easier for Sri Lanka to borrow international funds. This, in turn, led to a build-up of foreign debt.
Presently, the bulk of Sri Lanka’s external debts are dominated by the dollar, including Sri Lanka’s loans from China. While large-scale borrowing did lead to fantastic growth levels, it was growth of a peculiar fashion. That is, large-scale investment in building infrastructure projects (like highways, airports, and roads), served to shadow the corruption underneath. The returns from such projects were low and mostly lined the pockets of the political and business elite.
Under the coalition government elected in 2015, serious efforts were made to generate government revenues that saw improvements and potential recovery. However, the success of these efforts was disrupted when Mahinda Rajapaksa proclaimed prime ministership through a constitutional coup in 2018. This stalled any reforms for economic recovery, with an entirely negative impact. By the time Gotabaya came to power in 2019, through divisive ethnographic-religious nationalism and curbing dissent, there was little scope for improvement. Indeed, faulty government measures by the Gotabaya administration in 2021 further burdened an already structurally weak and disrupted economy.
Firstly, the government introduced tax cuts to increase market interaction, which resulted in heavy government spending. This was followed by country losses to overseas markets, which then obligated the government to use its foreign exchange reserves to pay off the debt impacting fuel and other essentials, resulting in soaring prices. Furthermore, attempts of banning chemical fertilizers to make Sri Lankan farming “organic” severely restricted the Sri Lankan tea industry. The consequences of the tax cut incentives and the ban on fertilizers, paired with the global grain shortage due to the war in Ukraine, accelerated the rise of stark food insecurity in the country. Rather than serve to alleviate the issues, Gotabaya’s tragic economic plans gravelly contributed to the progressive collapse of the Sri Lankan economy – and now, the burden of this crisis involuntarily rests entirely on the Sri Lankan population.
The Impacts of the Crisis: Popular Mobilization
The dangers of the economic crisis can be understood through its impact on virtually every institution in the country. Particularly, health care and education services have been struggling with doctors appealing overseas for donations due to drug and infrastructure shortages and schools having moved online, backed by limited infrastructure due to fuel shortages. The immediate trigger, however, was when the Rajapaksa government stopped the sale of fuel to ordinary citizens. The impact of fuel shortages exposed the stressed economy. Now we are witnessing large-scale unemployment for people in the transport industry, hospitality and tourism. More importantly, people are struggling to meet the basic chores of household cooking and a daily commute.
In response, Sri Lanka citizens staged large-scale protests, disobeying government curfews, police and military presence, and chanting #GoHomeGota as they demanded the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Eventually, the President would cave to public pressure and resign after fleeing the country. It is important to recognize that people’s desperation to occupy the streets does not merely stem from the absolute scarcity that the country is facing, but more so from a desire to end systematic and consistent corruption under the powerful Rajapaksa family and foster political accountability.
Before fleeing the country, Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime minister and a member of the opposing United National Party, as the interim president of the country. Wickremesinghe immediately declared a state of emergency and asked the military to take adequate steps to ensure peace. Ironically, the government in Sri Lanka has been more adamant about curtailing protests than stabilizing the economic crisis. Furthermore, with years of spewing ethnonationalism that has actively isolated Tamils, Christian and Muslim minorities, vulnerable minority groups struggle to step onto the streets. As Amit Arudpragasam writes in Foreign Policy
It (Rajapaksa government) appointed individuals implicated in war crimes to the administration and expanded surveillance and militarization in the minority-dominated Northern and Eastern regions. It failed, in other words, to incorporate productive minority citizens into its nation-building projects, and it alienated them instead. It employed the same racially divisive governance style that led to civil war and brain drain – perhaps the two biggest contributors to Sri Lanka’s historic economic decline.Amit Arudpragasam, How the Rajapaksas Destroyed Sri Lanka’s Economy, Foreign Policy, 2022
While the causes behind the economic deficit and the impact of Covid on the Sri Lankan economy have been widely analyzed, not so much attention has been provided to the way in which the Sri Lankan government has used its populist rhetoric of ethno-majoritarian ideology to distract the population from years of troubling economic policies. The civil war in Sri Lanka that lasted more than 20 years paved the way for the economic crisis we see today, anchored in part by the active isolation and loss of demography of minority communities, primarily Tamils.
The Sri Lankan Civil War: Aftermaths and Implications
The Sri Lankan Civil War began in 1983 and was a result of systematic discrimination and structural violence against Sri Lankan Tamils at the hands of the Sri Lankan Sinhalese government. The effort to systematically oppress Tamils was a complete consequence of the majority with a minority complex, in certain respects fueled by British colonialism. Tamils in Ceylon were a minority community, favored considerably under British rule. This favoritism was reflected in advantages like the prevalence of English schools in Tamil-dominated regions and more employment opportunities for Tamils. Such measures incited resentment in the Sinhala population, which was visible in the laws implemented in post-colonial Sri Lanka.
After independence, the Sri Lankan Tamils were left at the mercy of a Sinhalese majority nation, backed by a Sinhalese nationalist government rooting to claim their “power back” from the Tamils. As a response to the discriminating laws first brought under the Sinhala Act of 1956 – which made Sinhala the official and exclusive language of the country, but later extended to special privileged status to the Buddhist religion among other policies – the Tamils demanded regional autonomy. This resulted in the formation of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, demanding a state of Eelam for Sri Lankan Tamils.
The war that started with a desire for regional autonomy soon transformed into the deadliest civil war of the country’s history – lasting for over 26 years, incurring severe human rights violations, and leaving an estimated 70,000 killed by 2007. In 2010 the UN refugee agency estimated that the final stages of the civil war had internally displaced approximately 300,000 Tamils and left at least 40,000 of them dead.
The war was also a dramatic expense and drained government resources. After its end in 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa took out enormous foreign loans to cover the war expenses. Additionally, the government priority post-civil war still failed to constitute rationalizing public expenditure – instead, the government spent on defence, more so during peacetime than during civil war. The escalation in defence spending stems from the threat of a renewed civil war, as well as the ability to control opposition and curb dissent. To fulfill the standards the government set for itself, the cycle of lending became vicious. Instead of focusing on economic reforms, the government continued to rely on divisive ethnonationalism. These steps among others led Sri Lanka to where it stands presently. Ultimately, the crises became national, with the people protesting on the streets largely those from the Sinhala populations.
Impact of the Economic Meltdown on Sri Lankan Tamils
While the economic collapse is affecting every individual in the country, irrespective of their denomination, it has been most dire for the Tamil population – still displaced and mutilated by the trauma of the civil war. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute the country’s largest ethnic minority and account for 15 per cent of the Sri Lankan population, mainly living in regions of northern and eastern provinces. The economic crisis has interrupted vital aid specific to the Tamil population.
Due to the heritage of the conflict and systematic violence against Tamils, the regions with the highest rate of poverty in Sri Lanka are those inhabited by this community, according to a study by the World Bank. This directly translates to their limited capacity to deal with the current economic conditions that plague the region. The province of Mullaitivu, among other regions dominated by Tamil inhabitants, suffers from insufficient health care resources, lengthy power cuts, and negligible sources of employment, limited to farming and fishing. However, due to the fuel shortage boats are of little use, further exacerbating food shortages.
Beyond this, structural and systematic violence against the community makes it impossible for them to advocate for their rights in the context of a full-blown political crisis. They struggle to protest on the streets, since they fear not only the police but the military. Adding to their vulnerability, the current Interim Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has previously held crucial positions in the United National Party (UNP) – the group that actively spurred ethnic tensions, overseeing numerous attacks against Tamils during the civil war.
There is little hope for government aid, as those in power were active leaders responsible for the large-scale genocide against Tamils. The UNP organized the colonisation of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, mainly constituted as Tamil regions, altering the ethnic composition by forcibly evicting Tamils from their homes. Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister from 1993 to 1996 and supported the government in its endeavor to execute a mass slaughter against Sri Lankan Tamils.
It is important to note the effects these atrocities against Tamils have on the morale of the entire community. The intensity of helplessness cannot be determined, for Tamils in the country have witnessed recurring violence, physical and emotional. Furthermore, the civilian Tamil population continues to deal with the blame of militant activities undertaken by the LTTE. In many cases, while the Sinhala community is able to separate itself from government actions, the Tamils remain tied to the association with the LTTE (due to government propaganda and minority appropriation). A Sri Lankan Tamil told DW, a German Global News outlet:
Tamils were already trained to survive without fuel, gas, and electricity and less. So somehow, they can manage the ongoing issue based on their many years of experience being a Tamil in Sri Lanka. But it is difficult to live and run a day-to-day life for them too.Krithiga Narayanan
Ultimately, the crisis is only a further harm to a population yet to recover from the large-scale abuses suffered during the civil war. Many survivors are disabled or mutilated, this restricts their capacity to be employed. Their access to education and employment opportunities are limited, and the resource redistribution to the Tamil region is seriously inadequate. As such, many are being driven back to the situation they were in right after the war. Accounts documented by Reuters highlight these experiences:
“I have more difficulties than a daily wage laborer,” said Singaram Soosaiyamutthu, who moves around on the palms of his hands after an air strike in 2009 took both his legs and injured his left arm”.Jeevan Ravindran
The economic crisis backed by a government that is responsible for the killing of minorities has made increased the vulnerability of Tamil lives. Price hikes and scarcity of resources, coupled with limited aid, and no forum to account for their grievances have left them helpless. Despite the hardships, Sri Lankan Tamils have shown courage and resilience in the wake of an economic crisis. As the Sri Lankan economy garners international attention and receives support, we must ensure those most vulnerable are not forgotten.
Efforts Undertaken to Assist Sri Lanka’s Population amid the Economic and Political Crisis
Sri Lanka’s efforts to recovery may pave a path for the country’s hopeful future. The International Monetary Fund announced on September 1st 2022 that Sri Lanka would be provided with $2.9 Billion over a span of 4 years to help the country come back from its worst-ever economic crisis. This is significant, since it can allow the country to ensure its basic needs are met through rescue package assistance and loans. There have also been responses in support of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. The United Nations has launched a Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan Appeal in Sri Lanka to support communities most affected by the crisis. Organizations such as the Red Cross, Foundation of Goodness, Give2Asia, UNICEF, and CERF are working on the ground with local communities to help rebuild them.
Although Sri Lankan Tamils haven’t been prioritized in these efforts, there have been other peacebuilding measures post-civil war that continue to work to stabilize and assist Tamilians to a steady livelihood. A prominent being the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR), which has actively brought different religious communities in Sri Lanka to engage in inter-faith and inter-community dialogue and activities to promote community building. Organizations such as the Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) Activity have also initiated strategies to foster inter-ethnic interactions and provide livelihood and business skills in their attempt to strengthen peacebuilding in the region as part of USAID.
Although these efforts might seem limited, they do go a long way. Dialogue between communities torn by war is an essential aspect of recovery – as it allows opposing groups to see beyond the smokescreen and humanize one another. More importantly, such measures allow the space for discussing years of resentment and misjudgment. Another source for some resolution comes from the global Tamil diaspora communities. The Tamil Diaspora has been of great support in India and internationally by providing financial assistance to local Tamil communities affected by the incessant tragedies. Organizations have come forward demanding justice for Sri Lankan Tamils in times of economic crisis, while also acknowledging their historical marginalization responsible for their contemporary economic standing. For any substantial resolution toward Tamils in Sri Lanka, it is important that their social exclusion and subjugation is recognized. Only then can efforts actualize for Tamils to gain back their dignity in a country where the authorities still so often vigorously deny them.