The island country of Sri Lanka is almost bankrupt. The treasury holds foreign debt of US $25 billion, with US $7 billion due for repayment this year. Yet the country has endured a catastrophic domino effect of collapsing revenue and cut-off remittances, leading to record inflation and therefore unaffordable fuel, food, and medicines. Livelihoods have been devastated, lives ruined, and futures plunged into uncertainty. Electricity has had to be rationed, often with blackouts lasting for over half a day across the country. Reflecting the scale of the catastrophe, the country defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time in April. (The Conversation)
Things will get worse before they get better, thanks to decades of missteps and bad timing, especially with the Easter terrorist bombings on 21 April 2019, the ongoing Ukraine conflict, perhaps most significantly, COVID-19 wreaking havoc on Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. These unfortunate circumstances cannot mask the fact that the ongoing crisis is largely due to government mismanagement. Much of the blame has fallen on the ruling family dynasty, which is led by two brothers: president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. In a letter dated to 4 April, four influential chapters of the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka appealed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa to establish an interim government, which would effectively require the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Al Jazeera) The four chapters that put their name in the letter, Malwathu, Asgiri, Amarapura, and Ramanya have not received a satisfactory response, according to monastic Ven. Agalakada Sirisumana (Business Standard). The Rajapaksas have not responded to the demand, which prompted Buddhist monks to join protests and organize their own throughout the month of April.
As the Buddhist monastic community—a pillar of Sri Lankan society and a significant electoral force—turns against the ruling government, anti-government rallies continue to rock the country, with people of all backgrounds expressing their fury and despair at the economic collapse. Australian-born Theravada monk Ajahn Brahm has urged that protests remain peaceful so that dialogue can be maintained. So far, his call seems to have been heeded, but worryingly for the government, the discontent seems to be shared by people from all of the country’s ethnicities and religious traditions. (The Conversation) As one Buddhist monk told the BBC, “People are putting aside religious and racial differences to join this struggle. Sri Lanka has become one united nation.” (BBC News)
This is a far cry from 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa boasted that he could win the presidency on Sinhalese votes alone. (BBC News) Unfortunately, it is arguable that the crisis Sri Lanka finds itself in was partially brought about by an overreliance on Sinhalese nationalism. Traditional Buddhist statecraft has pivoted on the ability of a government to provide prosperity and stability. For this reason, Buddhist clergy supported Rajapaksa’s election in 2019, acknowledging his populist, pro-Buddhist policies and refusal to concede to accusations of human rights violation in the decades-long civil war against Tamil secessionism and Islamic extremism from 1983 to 2009. At the conclusion of the war, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was secretary of defense, while Mahinda Rajapaksa was president.
The fact that the Buddhist sangha helped elect the Rajapaksa clan—and keep them in power—based on a Sinhalese nationalist platform, is a matter of somber and humbling reflection. While the country and economy’s mismanagement should be laid squarely on the shoulders of the managers, this troubled period should prompt Buddhist leaders to envisage a new path forward for Buddhist statecraft in Sri Lanka, a country that still looks to the ordained sangha for social guidance.
Broadly shared prosperity and prudently enforced stability are essential for citizens to enjoy wellbeing and, in a somewhat paradoxical way, be comfortable enough to transcend the attachments that such a society inevitably engenders and pursue spiritual liberation. Of course, there is a significant spectrum as to what Buddhism considers a comfortable middle: Buddhism is overwhelmingly practiced in the Global South, where levels of consumption are generally lower than those of the Global North. Buddhists in Asia and the West alike have also extensively critiqued Western-style habits of consumerism and environmental degradation. However, Sri Lanka’s present situation is surely not reflective of a functioning economy. The dramatic way in which Sri Lankans have come together in outrage reflects how this fiscal collapse has negatively affected nearly every level of society.
The turmoil needs to be stabilized and the economy restructured in a more sustainable manner. This will inevitably mean more fiscal spending and deeper debt. Sri Lanka will take out a 17th loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A deflationary fiscal policy will be necessary to stop skyrocketing inflation, which will further hurt the crushed economy. All this is necessary to stop society from imploding and to avoid real potential violence on the streets as the hungry middle and working classes grow ever more desperate.
Yet this is an unsustainable way to run an economy over the long term. A clear-headed, non-partisan restructuring of foreign debt is required. For example, while the Chinese-funded Hambantota port has been cited as one of the factors contributing to the crisis, China holds only 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt, with 30 per cent of it belonging to international sovereign bonds. The 99-year lease of the loss-making Hambantota port to a Chinese company actually pulled in US$1.12 billion for the country’s foreign exchange reserves. (The Conversation) A gradual weaning off loans across the board, including from the IMF, must be on the long-term agenda of every successor to the Rajapaksas. The tax cuts introduced by Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be reversed. It will be a painful, slow, and sometimes humiliating process for those with nationalist instincts. Still, the government managed to reverse its disastrous decision to ban all fertilizer imports—which led to a collapse in agricultural production and led to yet more imports—in November 2021. Be they the Rajapaksas or someone else, the powers-that-be will have to make similarly difficult reversals as the crisis rolls on. If Sri Lanka’s leaders are unable to make the difficult choices needed to save their people’s livelihoods and futures, they are probably not suited to make other choices related to governance.
In lobbying for an interim government, Sinhalese Buddhist leaders are speaking in tune with public sentiments. The Sri Lankan constitution, while guaranteeing freedom of religion, states, “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana [dispensation].” If the Rajapaksa political dynasty still takes Article Nine of Chapter Two in the constitution seriously, it will listen to what Buddhist leaders are calling for and address this national disaster at any cost—even if it means a conclusion to their long reign over Sri Lankan politics.
‘Failed state’: Sri Lanka’s Buddhist leaders want gov’t to resign (Al Jazeera)
What’s happening in Sri Lanka and how did the economic crisis start? (The Conversation)
Sri Lanka’s powerful Buddhist clergy threatens to issue anti-govt decree (Business Standard)
Sri Lanka’s protests show a fragile unity – for now (The Conversation)
Sri Lanka: The divisions behind the country’s united protests (BBC News)
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