The recent upheavals in Sri Lanka provide an extreme example of the world’s recent problems. Covid disrupted the country’s main industries, particularly tourism, and then leaders failed to adapt, setting off a chain of economic calamities including food and fuel shortages. The crisis sparked protests, which culminated in the president’s resignation and the installation of a new president on Wednesday.
My colleague Emily Schmall has reported on Sri Lanka. I told him about the country’s crisis.
What has brought Sri Lanka to this point?
Over the past six months or so, economic conditions for ordinary Sri Lankans have become increasingly difficult. Things like fuel and cooking gas became increasingly expensive and hard to find, and inflation soared. New government import bans have resulted in the disappearance of overseas products like chocolate and coffee beans.
In Sri Lanka, there is a fairly large middle class. People aren’t used to scarcity, so they immediately noticed things starting to disappear from the shelves. People were upset about that. And the ability to continue has become virtually impossible over the last month or so.
Eventually, protesters took control of the presidential palace. How did it happen?
It started with protesters marching towards the president’s mansion on July 9. Government officials tear gassed them and fired live ammunition around them. This made people furious. A few commandeered a military truck and used it to break down the door. Hundreds of people then streamed in and found this place essentially abandoned – the president had fled and no one was stopping them from entering. Then they did the same at Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence.
But the demonstrators did not ransack the place. They started inviting the public in, but in an orderly fashion. The activists forced people to line up properly. They treated these houses like museums. They were careful not to damage property.
After about 24 hours, a joy took over the place and some people swam in the president’s pool. They had done it: they had forced this extremely powerful president – who was accused of war crimes, who was feared – to leave his own house and even the country. But they did it peacefully, without taking up arms.
So it was an atmosphere of joy and disbelief, with a bit of absurdity and a bit of comedy – a very Sri Lankan kind of revolution, relatively low-key and polite.
I can’t help but compare it to the insurrection at the United States Capitol. It seemed much more peaceful.
Oh yeah. I couldn’t stop thinking about it either.
There were several differences. On the one hand, these people were not armed. It was also a bit spontaneous, and there was no clear leader. They did not do this in association with any politician or political party.
But the big difference was that these protesters had broad support. Ordinary Sri Lankans cheered and even participated. People who otherwise would never be involved in activism or protests were happily walking around the properties, having fun and enjoying the success of this movement.
In the United States, we have recently experienced inflation and supply shortages. But that sounds like a whole different level of issues.
Yes. Thus, in the United States, Americans complained about fuel prices. On the other hand, Sri Lanka ran out of fuel. It’s not just that it was expensive; it was impossible to find.
How did the government react?
Until several months ago, there was really no government acknowledgment of the crisis. Dynast Gotabaya Rajapaksa headed the administration at the time and he appointed his brothers and his nephew to his cabinet. He didn’t take much advice outside of his family.
There was a lot of Holocaust denial among them. They were repeatedly told that the economy was deteriorating. But they were certain that tourism would continue to rise after Covid and that would be enough to shore up finances. But that didn’t happen; tourism was starting to come back, but it was not enough.
I was surprised that so much of the country was run by this one family. Is this unusual in the history of Sri Lanka?
It was strange even for Sri Lanka.
There are several families in politics. Rajapaksa was defense secretary when his brother was president from 2005 to 2015.
But this administration was an extremely brazen example. The Sri Lankan government increasingly resembled a family business. And so it was: lots of secrecy, little transparency, few outsiders. The family tried to take advantage of the policies imposed by the government.
Does the new government have the confidence of the people?
The protesters are not happy with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new president. They believe that his takeover reaffirms the influence of the Rajapaksa because he represents the establishment and because he appointed a friend of the Rajapaksa family as prime minister.
What’s next for Sri Lanka?
In the short term, we will likely see continued turbulence. But people are investing to ensure that Sri Lanka does not fall back into this situation where it teeters towards autocracy, where there is little transparency and where the will of the people is ignored. So it’s mostly a positive story.
Learn more about Emily Schmall: She grew up in DeKalb, Illinois and once held a job trimming corn. She decided to become a journalist in high school. She started her career at the Miami Herald in 2005 and joined the New Delhi bureau at The Times in 2020.
Related: Amid the chaos, Sri Lankans have found refuge in cricket.
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