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The People vs the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka and why it turned out this way

As Sri Lanka waits for a new government to take charge, the Rajapaksa brothers must not be allowed to flee. As for India, it should continue to be the good neighbour it's been.

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Sri Lanka’s moment of reckoning has been in the offing for the past four months, since people from across the island nation have congregated on Galle Face Green in Colombo and marshalled themselves to piece together a revolution that is still in the making. Over the weekend, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his home, the people marched in and helped themselves to his kitchen, his bed, his swimming pool and his piano — celebrating the end of the Rajapaksa era.

Reports are that brother Basil, former finance minister and widely acknowledged to be the brains behind the rise and rise of the dynasty, was trying to check out of Colombo airport and fly to some unknown destination — but since immigration officials simply absented themselves in the Sri Lankan version of ‘Gandhigiri’, he couldn’t make the flight. Brother Mahinda, former prime minister who was forced by Gotabaya to quit a month ago in order to alleviate some of the anger on the streets, is said to be hiding at a base in Trincomalee in the eastern part of the island nation.

And that’s how the mighty fall, squeezed between the Palk Straits and the Indian Ocean. Lessons on democracy and sharing the spoils of power have been staring the leaders of South Asia for a while.

So as Sri Lanka patiently waits for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign tomorrow, 13 July — the ‘highly superstitious’ Rajapaksa has ostensibly picked this date because the first July full moon, the ‘Esala Poya’ which falls on this day, commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon and the founding of the Sangha – it may be time to reflect how this jewel island nation in the Indian Ocean has come to this pass.

Also read: Sri Lanka faces tough choice between food security and debt repayments

Where Lanka went wrong

For a tiny nation of 22 million, the size of Delhi, Sri Lanka’s pro-Sinhala majoritarian outlook has been particularly mind-boggling. The fact that it sits astride the major sea-routes of the world and has been washed by the ebb and flow of foreigners over the centuries, Ceylon – and later Sri Lanka – retreated to its puritanical frame soon after independence in 1948.

Two examples stand out. In 1956, then-prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike forced through the Sinhala Only Bill, making Sinhala the only official language in the country despite huge opposition by the large Tamil-speaking minority. When Tamil parties led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam protested and demanded that Ceylon be made into a federal country as riots were breaking out, Bandaranaike first refused, then agreed to some half-way measures.

It was only in 1988, one year after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, that Tamil was finally deemed to be equal to Sinhala, with the 16th amendment to the Constitution.

The second example that marks out this unequal nation has been its refusal to fully implement the nature and spirit of the 13th amendment that was an integral part of the 1987 India-Lanka Accord – meaning, India promised Colombo support if all citizens (namely, the Tamil minority) were not just given equal status, but also real power to wield in the spheres of land and police. Even today, the Tamil-dominated north and east provinces have the power to run their affairs, but land-police powers are still controlled by Colombo.

But with the victory over the Tamil militant organisation LTTE in 2009 and the consequent end of the 26-year-long civil war – when Gotabaya was defence minister and Mahinda was president — the Rajapaksas seized upon the majoritarian Sinhala plank, believing it would win them the country. It did, especially since Sri Lanka is 75 per cent Sinhala, but it also ended up polarising the tiny nation.

It didn’t help that in recent years, the Rajapaksas stuffed the government with their own family. Dynasty is a staple vice across South Asia, but the Rajapaksas took it to a new sophisticated level — all the brothers held powerful positions, while their children were given influential ministries despite not having any administrative experience.

Enter China. As the Rajapaksas grew more and more powerful, Chinese companies were courted not only because they were willing to invest in infrastructure projects, but also because they didn’t ask questions of the Rajapaksas or their majoritarian policies or their lack of a human rights record.

Also read: Energy, infra, communication — India has big plans to help Sri Lanka & deepen relationship

India’s continued support

Watching the Chinese spread their influence across the Indian Ocean island, a region it believes belongs to its sphere of influence, New Delhi also began to increasingly hold its tongue.

It became easier to do so once Narendra Modi took power in India in 2014. The two strong men recognised the leadership qualities in each other. And over the last six months, as Sri Lanka began to economically run aground, Delhi reached out to lend more than a sympathetic ear. All told, it has lent Colombo about $3.5 billion in cash and kind, including petrol, medicine and foodstuff, since the latest crisis began.

India has reiterated that it will support the people of Sri Lanka in their hour of need. What has been hugely reassuring about the peoples protest these past few weeks — save horribly violent moments like the burning down of Rajapaksas’ ancestral home in Hambantota, and the torching of PM Ranil Wickeramasinghe’s house over the weekend  – is that Tamil and Sinhala and Moor have come together to agitate against the government.

So far, things are more or less under control. But because the Opposition is hardly facing up to the task of stabilising and channeling the emotions of the people, the crisis in Sri Lanka is unlikely to abate soon. The need of the hour is for a new government to take charge as soon as possible; certainly, the Rajapaksa brothers must not be allowed to flee, but stay home and face the music.

As for India, it must carry on doing what it has been doing so far — respecting the will of the people of Sri Lanka. That’s what democracies and good neighbours are for.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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