The Rajapaksa clan in Sri Lanka never had it this bad in their lifetime. They are on the run. Even as news of their reaching Maldives, where Speaker Muhammad Nasheed is said to have received them, was being circulated on social media, there are reports of some of them reaching Singapore. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned as Sri Lanka’s president after reaching Singapore. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe as the acting President.
The choice of Singapore as a destination for refuge could not be a mere coincidence. There is a perception that China wields a considerable influence in the corridors of power in Singapore. The powerful Rajapaksa brothers had practically integrated the Sri Lankan economy with that of the Chinese “debt for assets” economy. Now, at this juncture of the crisis, the family probably feels safe in Singapore as the new government in Colombo is sure to initiate “economic crimes” proceedings on the lines of “war crimes” commission.
The extradition laws of Singapore are very complicated and involve an elaborate process to be complied with by the country making the demand. Besides, the amendment made in April 2022 allows that fugitives in Singapore wanted by foreign states will be able to consent to their extradition following changes to the Extradition Act. The amendments claimed to modernise Singapore’s extradition regime so as to strike the right balance between international cooperation and individual liberty. In 2019 Sri Lanka had asked Singapore to extradite former central bank governor Arjuna Mahendran in connection with an insider trading investigation, which Singapore did not comply with. Former President Maithripala Sirisena had accused Singapore of not helping to extradite the Sri Lankan-born Mahendran, who had gone to Singapore after a promise that he would return to face trial.
Rajapaksas’ security matters
The crowds thronging the palatial houses of discredited leaders have reportedly demanded that Ranil Wikremesinghe too should quit. The Constitution of Sri Lanka does not allow one person to hold both apex posts in the government. But keeping in view the prevailing state of extreme confusion in Colombo, there is hardly anyone to bother about constitutional propriety. The President’s palatial house has been taken over by an irate mob. The Island nation’s Parliament and the houses of other members of the Rajapaksa clan are either unsafe or already vandalised. Efforts are underway to elect a new President in a week’s time.
The sudden spurt in mob action against the ruling elites was not unexpected. The anger against the ruling party and the first family was brewing for some time now. As the economic woes worsened and shops and grocery stores wore an empty look, it was natural for the mobs to turn their wrath on the seat of power.
A new President under an all-party dispensation in Colombo can at best be an immediate but much-needed band-aid solution to a far too serious and deep-rooted problem. The mobs will have to be told to retreat and allow the democratic and constitutional process to step in. As of now, the protesters appear to be acting on their own. But the new dispensation must act fast so that the mobs are not used by anti-national elements to derail the process of return to normalcy. Needless to say, any new arrangement will have to judiciously keep the Rajapaksa clan out of harm’s way if they wish to earn people’s confidence and trust.
Power of powerful families ends
Powerful families and their progenies in the Island country have always had strong political influence and wielded power for over 70 years now. Democratic traditions and people’s unshakable faith in national unity and integration have been cunningly used by these “political families” to usurp power and perpetuate corrupt and authoritarian fiefdoms.
All over the world there are examples in democracy where strong and powerful leaders have led a nation to victory in the face of grave challenges and later turned authoritarian. After a victorious World War II, Winston Churchill’s popularity rating was a whopping 83 per cent in May 1945. Two months later, his party faced a crushing defeat. War-weary voters wanted a new leader who would ensure peace and prosperity and not go back to the war room and ask the people to tighten their belts. Similarly, after a strategic victory over Pakistan and liberation of Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi was expected to redeem her promise of “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty). She began to put down internal party rebellion and harped on her invincibility, which led to the declaration of internal Emergency, finally leading to her crushing electoral defeat in 1977.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa family’s claim to fame for decimating the dreaded LTTE did not bail them out of massive corruption, authoritarianism and economic mess.
The real issue behind the crisis
Sri Lanka has to service nearly $35 billion of foreign debt, probably the highest debt burden in South Asia. In the last two decades, Colombo has received nearly $12 billion of infrastructural loan from China while all these projects have nil or very low return on investment (ROI). As the repayment schedules went awry, Sri Lanka began to issue international bonds which drew its economy further into the ever-mounting debt burden.
New Delhi should follow up on the earlier efforts of fast tracking infrastructure projects such as Container Terminal, NTPC’s solar power project in Trincomalee and many others irrespective of the current chaotic situation. The RBI has recently liberalised rupee trade mechanism to facilitate ease of foreign exchange outflow. This facility can be extended to Sri Lanka under a special mechanism worked out between the two central banks. Colombo, which is experiencing a high current account deficit, can save import-related foreign exchange outflows by trading in Indian rupees.
The present crisis in Sri Lanka is a major one, which will leave its imprints for a long time to come. It has very little to do with the social strife and/or majority-minority issues as a section of analysts are trying to project. The crisis is the result of profligacy, corruption and greed of Rajapaksa family. The economic nature of the crisis is manageable if strong fiscal measures are taken.
New Delhi should keep the supply of essential items uninterrupted so that the mobs are kept under check and people do not return to the streets. This will help the new political set-up to stabilise and work on putting the Sri Lankan economy back on track.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)