In fact, after the fall of Gotabaya, Sri Lanka had faired better than Lebanon, another country steeped deep in debt crisis, not just in managing the crisis but also garnering international support
Last time, when the world’s richest industrial nations, G-7, met in Japan, the only Asian country in the group, in 2016, then president Maithripala Sirisena was invited for the outreach meeting, alongside regional heavyweights from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
The invitation to Maithripala Sirisena was in recognition of the democratic reforms in the country after two terms of quasi-authoritarian rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost to Sirisena in his bid for a third term in office. He did not grasp the importance of such global recognition. That may be part of the wider question of whether he ever understood the intricacies of power and responsibilities at the highest political office in the country.
But, for one thing, like most of his counterparts in this part of the world, that vacuum was filled by the short-termism of personnel and political interests.
After low-key and manageable skirmishes with his own Yahapalanaya government, on whose back he came to power, Sirisena pulled off a constitutional coup, sacking the government. The catalyst of the power grab was none of the policy differences but the UNP’s plan to field its presidential candidate, most likely Ranil Wickremesinghe. By then, Maithripala had nursed ambitions for a second term despite his promise at his inauguration to limit himself to a one-term presidency.
The constitutional coup was foiled by a Supreme Court ruling, but it unleashed three months of chaos, followed by near-complete dysfunction for the remainder of the term of the government. Maithripala lost his gamble. Today, he is an outlier, a rather unloved one, not to mention court cases he is facing over the Easter Sunday attack, which were probing his role in the multifaceted dysfunction of the state and its security apparatus, leading to the tragedy.
Worst still, he soured the public mood for democratic change. His self-interested mechanizations created the opening for the usual spoilers to hijack the momentum of the reform movement. The rest is history, and its outcome was a monumental tragedy.
This time, there was no such invitation to Hiroshima when Japan hosted G-7 and the likes of India’s Modi and Indonesia’s Jakowi.
However, the inglorious fleeting existence of Sri Lanka at present got a mention in the G-7 dispatch. Referring to challenges in debt sustainability across the developing world, the Hiroshima communique of the G 7 leaders said about Sri Lanka: “Beyond the Common Framework, debt vulnerabilities in middle-income countries (MICs) should be addressed by multilateral coordination. In this respect, we welcome the launch of the creditors’ meeting for Sri Lanka under the three co-chairs, France, India, and Japan, and look forward to a swift resolution as a successful model for future multilateral efforts to address MICs’ debt issues. We also stress the importance of private creditors providing debt treatments on terms at least as favourable to ensure fair burden sharing in line with the comparability of treatment principle.”
The call by the leaders of the world’s richest countries for comparable debt treatment by the private creditors of Sri Lanka is indeed persuasive. It strengthens the hand of the government in its talks with private creditors, some of whom may not be the most scrupulous. On the other hand, major bilateral creditors representing Paris Club and India, but sans China, have not been opposed to a substantial haircut. Still, it remains a question of how the comparability of debt treatment is guaranteed without China, the largest bilateral lender, which owns 20% of total foreign debt.
In the rather truncated picture of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ego-fuelled ideocratic rule that brought the country to its knees in barely two years, Maithripala’s antics pale away.
However, he created the opening for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political entry. He robbed the initiative of economic and political reforms. He empowered the usual culprits and conspiracy theorists who have peddled anti-Western conspiracy theories and racist dog-whistling to grab power.
The result was a high tide of probably the most pervasive in recent times of racist, ethnocentric and authoritarian leaning political opinion, which elected Gotabaya and the newly formed SLPP to power. Rajapaksa’s rule during its short honeymoon was borderline racist, irrational and against any measure of common-sense, partly because, Gotabaya was also guided by his own electorate. The regime’s collapse was anticipated and inevitable, only that it happened faster than anyone had expected. That a nation, a vast majority of whom, who so enthusiastically voted to manifestly racist, irrational and nepotistic familiocracy, now have to scrapple the bottom of the barrel is karmic justice. That we all have to pay for that collective sin is a maze of individual tragedies.
Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan, its largest lender for a long time, until China replaced it, but still the one with the most favourable terms, were strained during the Gotabaya administration, which unilaterally suspended the Colombo monorail project, the largest ever Japanese funded infrastructure project. Rajapaksa also gave short-shrift to the joint development of Trincomalee city and snubbed the Millennium Challenge grant of US$ 480 million, i.e. the size of the current and the next tranche of the IMF extended facility. That Japan did not invite President Wickremesinghe, who has a strong rapport with Tokyo, may suggest that Sri Lanka has much to do to repair bridges.
But, make no mistake, if it were Gotabaya Rajapaksa or any of the Rajapaksa’s extended lineage or cronies holding fort in Sri Lanka right now, there would have been very little global empathy towards our plight. In fact, after the fall of Gotabaya, Sri Lanka had faired better than Lebanon, another country steeped deep in debt crisis, not just in managing the crisis but also garnering international support.
That has more to do with fiscal tightening undertaken by the government leading up to the IMF facility. But there is another unwritten rule in international politics that most liberal theorists have noticed. Just like liberal democracies gravitate towards each other, the political leaders of liberal democracies, who are most likely to have liberal credentials (except a few aberrations like Donald Trump), tend to relate to fellow liberally inclined leaders. That may be Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strength. That is not so much about global statesmanship, which he isn’t, nor hardly any Sri Lankan leader, though some like Sirimavo Bandaranaike had tried to hit beyond the reach. A country’s ability to influence others is limited by its relative power vis others.
But, small details of personnel relationships can come in handy when the leaders of the civilized world can easily relate to their less privileged counterparts.
Perhaps, Ranil Wickremesinghe has this distinctive advantage.
Still, Sri Lankan voters prefer to elect Yakkos, the retrograde, semi-literate real-world nincompoops; probably, they remind them of a mirror image of themselves.