Sri Lanka: A difficult road to recovery

Ranil Wickremesinghe will have to work overtime to prove that he is an able leader. Unfortunately, a few events in the last few days after his election fail to inspire confidence.
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Enough has been written on Sri Lanka in recent weeks. However, I suspect lots more is going to be written over the next year, and that perception flows from the events over the last few days. Sri Lanka elected a new president on July 22, 2022. In a rapidly deteriorating situation, one thought we could look forward to a sea change. Yet, we got a bit of the same. The legislature being the same old one since it was not dissolved, went ahead and reflected the existing strength of the political parties.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party (SLPP) had its say, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the acting president, former Prime Minister and known Rajapaksa loyalist, was elected on the strength of the party in Parliament although he is not a member of the SLPP but of the United National Party (UNP). This is a paradox in itself. Although it’s not the time for witch-hunting in Sri Lanka, public confidence can hardly be reposed in an individual known to be close to the Rajapaksas, whose inefficiency, greed and corruption are among the prime reasons for the misery Sri Lanka is undergoing.

Resolution of Sri Lanka’s problems very largely lies in the economic domain but connected to that are a host of issues in the political, social and diplomatic sectors. The IMF is a conservative entity and is still the main ‘go-to’ agency to bail out Sri Lanka. It will rightly keep a hawk’s eye on every trend and activity, which will likely prove positive or negative; after all, it is international public money which it will invest in the restorative process. What the IMF will note is that the political leadership could remain under less than desired influence even though it obviously got a fairly large approval from the legislature.

Ranil Wickremesinghe will need to work overtime and display some solid leadership to be seen and read as an able leader. Unfortunately, some of the events in the last few days after his election do not inspire that confidence. I say this because throughout the crisis so far, the sanity and maturity displayed by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) have been of the highest order. In fact, I have time and again mentioned this fact. But the sudden turnaround to target the protest sites and do the same with the threat of use of kinetic power does not augur well.

No doubt Ranil Wickremesinghe had declared a state of emergency even while he was the acting president after the departure of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yet that did not necessitate an immediate action to clear the streets after the election; the street presence of protestors in the city of Galle in particular, is being watched internationally. It is learnt that the protestors had already expressed their resolve to withdraw from the streets, but nevertheless, many got targeted.

The SLA is a key element in the recovery process. The more maturely it behaves, the greater the dividend will be for the nation. However, it must not get buoyed by the recall of its victory against the LTTE in 2009. It was a physical victory which resolved little. Its aftermath could not be exploited for a true cementing of the hearts and minds of the defeated minorities. A truly strategic follow-up should have entailed a package of measures for greater autonomy and building trust. If the SLA attempts to repeat its last strategy, this time against the protestors, it could give rise to something more catastrophic.

In Egypt, that is what was done by the military leadership in 2012 to evict the protestors by force. It did not help Egypt in any way. Disruption of the relative peace with a replacement even by sporadic violence will be a temptation for lots of watchful eyes.

In April 2019, the Islamic State (IS) was on the lookout for a region into which it could move and consolidate after its eviction from Syria and Iraq. It had made an effort to do that in Sri Lanka through some networks in the region. Organisations such as the IS thrive on chaos. That is why one also worries about Sri Lanka’s potential return to ethnic violence. Although there have been no indicators of this and the SLA has firm control, the deteriorating conditions could bring out the worst. When there is a resource crunch, it would be the minorities which would suffer the effect more than others; that provides the spark for tension. Estimates by experts speak of a minimum five-year period for regaining control of the economy to bring it to the level in 2019. That is a long period during which many developments can hamper progress and constantly slip the situation backwards.

Management of the financial situation is contingent upon how the public relations effort goes, and that depends on how the people, the government and the SLA come across to those who matter. Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic location will always draw China’s attention, and India’s interests will remain. So far, there have been no signs of competition since China has expressed an opinion on the current situation only in bits and pieces, with no real commitment. It has a solid asset in the Rajapkasas-led SLPP, which it would rely on.

US interest is unlikely to dwell on the island nation as it probably perceives that India will manage what is necessary, and that will be in alignment with its interests. It is India which just cannot afford to see Sri Lanka go under because it would feel the impact of that to the maximum. India, therefore, needs to prepare for the long haul with the aid of different kinds, including food and fuel assistance, to tide over the current times. How it ensures that this assistance is well recognised and the important stakeholders play along will be the challenge. Minimising the political impact of this at home must form a part of this strategy so that there is relative elbow room for flexibility which may be required from time to time.

The period of the first half of 1987 actually forms an excellent case study of how a situation in the neighbourhood must not be managed. India’s strategic planners only need to reopen some of the reports and analyses of that time, although many of them have probably been destroyed. The Armed Forces need to look at contingencies and the lessons of Operation Pawan, which commenced after the signing of the Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord on July 29, 1987. The 35th anniversary of that event falls just three days from today.

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

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