For the Government’s supporters, the evidence of “recovery” amounts simply to citing the absence of long queues for fuel and sky-high inflation
According to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Government he leads and his supporters, Sri Lanka has recovered from severe economic crisis. In reality, however, this “recovery” is a deepening of the economic crisis which is embedding extreme, near irreversible levels of deprivation and inequality in Sri Lankan society. This article interrogates Sri Lanka’s elite establishment, which is cheering on the Government, and its responsibility for the unfolding societal catastrophe.
For the Government’s supporters, the evidence of “recovery” amounts simply to citing the absence of long queues for fuel and sky-high inflation, as the country was beset by for long periods during 2022. But pointing to the conditions of 2022 presents a false binary. It suggests that the only options Sri Lankans have are between the state of affairs then and now. But the present is neither inevitable nor preordained but instead deliberately engineered.
The IMF program underway is designed to squeeze every possible rupee from Government coffers towards servicing the debts to Western international bond holders, whilst disciplining the country’s governance to further neoliberal orthodoxy. The IMF’s loan conditionalities the Government enthusiastically agreed to spell out a brutal regime of austerity for ordinary Sri Lankans, comprised of severely reduced public services, slashed welfare and higher taxes.
Its effects are plain to see now with living conditions becoming unbearable for many Sri Lankans. The cost of living has reached astronomical levels (particularly following the new year’s VAT increases); millions have been disconnected from electricity; and public healthcare has been guttered. Multiple social indicators, from measures of multidimensional poverty to food security to school attendance, show little recovery from the devastating depths of 2022.1 The consequences of such social deprivation will be felt decades into the future.
Just as it places the burden for bringing Sri Lanka out of crisis squarely on the shoulders of ordinary Sri Lankans, the Government doggedly sustains the corporates whose corrupt conduct helped create, and sustain, the economic crisis. Corporates continue to benefit from lavish subsidies and concessions while evading taxes on a massive scale, parking their obscene profits offshore and engaging in all manner of illegal invoicing practices. To all this, the Government gives a sly wink and nod without raising a finger to enforce the law on them. Evidently, mass suffering on the part of ordinary Sri Lankans is perfectly justified whilst even a taste of it for the elite cannot be tolerated.
The dance of elites
This dismal state of affairs can only persist with the ready support of the elite establishment, composed of an entire confluence of business leaders, think tanks, journalists, professionals and academics. It is, of course, not a coincidence that these elites are of the same class and social standing as those in charge of the government and the corporates it shelters.
Many among the establishment support the President’s economic agenda as a means of completing what they see as the unfinished business of opening the economy, instigated by his uncle J.R. Jayewardene in 1977. Under this calculus, Sri Lanka’s already incapacitated state machinery, which supposedly provides unnecessary ‘free’ things to its citizens, must be dismantled completely to make way for the free market’s magic.
The establishment is acutely aware that ordinary Sri Lankans would actually never approve of such a transition. As all elected governments since Jayewardene have realised, there is only so much neoliberal reform that the Sri Lankan electorate can tolerate, and the wholesale destruction of public education, healthcare and welfare are an anathema to the many whose lives depend on them. But Wickremesinghe the President is not bound by the electorate, having materialised through constitutional manoeuvring which circumvented a direct mandate. In fact, by relying on the utterly discredited SLPP parliamentary majority to succeed, this ruse went directly against what people had been protesting for in 2022. Wickremesinghe’s subsequent, illegal suspension of Local Government Elections due in February 2023 further solidified him as a unique prospect: the vehicle to fully actualise the open economy experiment without the pesky impediment of voters.
Such is this monstrous setup: a Government and elite minority forcing disastrous, fatal policies onto a population completely without its consent. In this cynical, expedient pursuit to push through as many neoliberal reforms as possible, the establishment performs multiple simultaneous roles. Its members occupy the negotiating teams, advisory bodies and drafting committees on everything from negotiations with the IMF itself, to labour law reforms, State Owned Enterprise privatisation and state sector downsizing. Meanwhile, representatives of citizens adversely impacted by these reforms such as trade unions and grassroots civil organisations are barred from such positions or, at best, included in meaningless ‘consultation’ exercises.
The establishment also takes the guise of a social Police for the government’s economic agenda. Through public marketing campaigns such as the Chamber of Commerce-funded “Godayamu”, it extols neoliberal reforms as the only way out of crisis. Often, this takes the form of castigating public services then sanitising their worse replacements. See, for instance, how neoliberal think tanks such Advocata and LIRNEasia railed against the Samurdhi welfare scheme for its inefficient targeting, then hailed its successor Aswesuma, which wiped thousands from eligibility, as “strengthening” social protection.
The two governments
The establishment’s shepherding of the economy in this way also relies on the breathtaking dissonance of completely separating the Government’s economic policies from its remaining governance agenda. The latter, which is just as destructive, comprises a raft of highly repressive laws, including the already passed Bureau of Rehabilitation Act and Online Safety Act, and the soon to be passed Anti-Terrorism Bill. These all deepen the powers and reach of the security state and criminalise dissent to unprecedented levels.
Compounding this, law and order in the country is teetering on the precipice under the rabid IGP Deshabandhu Tennakoon and Public Security Minister Tiran Alles, whose “Yukthiya” campaign is rounding up thousands extra-judicially and detaining, torturing and even murdering them under the guise of eradicating drugs. Elsewhere, Sinhala nationalism is (re-)accelerating, including through the unabated Sinhala colonisation of the north and east and the routine suppression of memorialisation events held by the Tamil community.
Observing the establishment, it is as if all this is carried out by an entirely different government to the one led by Wickremesinghe. Some, including numerous human rights NGOs, remain virtually silent in response at these flagrant violations of rights, the rule of law and democracy that would have driven them to foam at their mouths if administered by the Rajapaksas. Instead, their silence now rests on the absurdly duplicitous implication that it’s being implemented by, or to appease, the Rajapaksa-led SLPP rump who provide the government’s parliamentary majority.
Other sections of the establishment express token objection, offering mealy-mouthed platitudes about democracy and the rule of law. Yet when the same principles were violated by Wickremesinghe from day one – including its (ongoing) witch hunt of Aragalaya activists and heavy suppression of public protests – the establishment provided active encouragement, for instance by shamelessly peddling government propaganda about the Aragalaya’s intent to violently take over the state. That the same people have now suddenly developed a love for democracy and the rule of law is therefore hard to believe.
The catch to this all this pretence is that the Government’s economic agenda requires the repression it is channelling. This is borne out by Sri Lanka’s own history – Jayewardene instituted the near-despotic 1978 constitution in order to quell the mass public dissent that the transition to the open economy provoked, the immediate quashing of the 1980 general strike being the first blow. It is also borne out internationally where practically every stringent IMF program has been accompanied by an increase in state repression.2
The Government clearly intends to crush the natural dissent from ordinary people against its ruinous economic program, and especially foreclose the possibility of another Aragalaya. On the surface, this is a ploy by the debauched SLPP to entrench its impunity for wrecking economic disaster on people, and to never again feel the fear they did from April to July 2022 before Wickremesinghe rescued them. But for the establishment, it is also to prevent the risk of the government falling prematurely through citizen protest before the ‘necessary reforms’ are carried out.
The establishment’s degeneracy
Ultimately, the Government and the establishment represent a wholly morally bankrupt class that is reviled by many ordinary Sri Lankans. This is the same class whose pernicious power they sought an end to by stepping onto the streets in 2022. The fact that it still holds power is precisely the reason why electoral appeals of moving on from the whole rotten apparatus – as made, for instance, by the JVP – have increasing resonance.
Yet the establishment can neither comprehend nor tolerate this. Any alternative to the present economic program, even the slightest turn away from the IMF, would be painted as a unique, society-destroying danger, and anyone drawn to it will be cast as stupid and selfish. Such is the contempt that the establishment holds ordinary Sri Lankans in that they are required to be grateful for the very policies driving them to ruin.
Those alternatives should certainly not be exempt from critique. In particular, the JVP and its complicity in violent nationalism as well as its deliberately ambiguous economic policies deserve serious scrutiny. But the idea of this interrogation coming from the establishment – so complicit in this crisis, its deliberately destructive “recovery” and the ongoing misery of millions – is a sinister joke. It is one all Sri Lankans would do well to not entertain.
1 As an example, see UNDP, Understanding Multidimensional Vulnerabilities: Impact on People of Sri Lanka, Oct 2023.
2 See, for example, Abouharb, M. Rodwan, and David L. Cingranelli, Structural Adjustment and Human Rights, Cambridge: CUP, 2007.
(The writer is a PhD candidate in political science at University College London.)