Neil DeVotta is professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. His article “Sri Lanka’s Agony” was published in this July’s issue of Journal of Democracy.
As long as people are able to cast their ballot, irrespective of the illiberalism, irrespective of all these other shortcomings, democracy, at least from a voting standpoint, has the capacity to surprise.
- Introduction – 0:38
- Overview of the Protests – 3:15
- Protests After the Rajapaksas – 15:16
- Background on the Rajapaksas – 24:58
- Sri Lanka and Democracy – 30:31
- Future of Sri Lanka – 34:11
The protests in Sri Lanka caught almost everyone by surprise. It’s a country with complex politics that are woefully underreported. So, a lot of the initial reports oversimplified the protests as simple frustration with a severe economic crisis. But this view overlooked genuine frustration with ongoing corruption and poor governance. And as months went by the protests began to have enormous political ramifications. And now in the past few weeks both the President and Prime Minister have resigned.
I feel an event like this deserves a real expert. Somebody who knows Sri Lanka and its politics. And there is nobody who I respect more as an expert on the politics of Sri Lanka than Neil DeVotta. Neil is a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. He is the author of the article, “Sri Lanka’s Agony” in the recent issue of the Journal of Democracy. But I’ve been reading articles on Sri Lanka from Neil for years. He is widely respected for his knowledge and expertise on Sri Lankan politics and its history.
Now, if you like today’s conversation and want to help the podcast grow, here’s a few things to consider: give the show a 5 star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify; become a supporter at Patreon; or share the show with a friend or colleague. Like always you can find a full transcript at democracyparadox.com. Here is my conversation with Neil DeVotta…
Neil DeVotta, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Good to be here.
So, Neil, obviously Sri Lanka has undergone a lot of conflict with the recent protests. Can we kind of get started by just talking about who is protesting and what exactly they wanted from the government?
So, there’s a bit of a backstory to this, but it begins around April last year. In April 2021 when the government decides that it’s going to ban chemical fertilizer. Now President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he ran for office, his election manifesto proclaimed that his government would look to shift from chemical fertilizer to organic agriculture over a period of 10 years. Then we had Covid which the government dealt with fairly well, actually. It did better than almost any other country in the region. You know, maybe one or two may have out done it, but only about 15,000 people died. They also carried out a very successful vaccination programs with the military playing a leading role in that endeavor.
But it also impacted the country in terms of its balance of payments, because tourists had stopped coming. Sri Lanka was very dependent on the foreign currency generated via tourism. Remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad who were sending in money in huge amounts was also helping to tidy up what otherwise would’ve been a balance of payments crisis. So, in this context then they decided that one way to save about $400 million that was being spent to subsidize the fertilizer distribution was to ban chemical fertilizer. They went ahead and did that. But when that happened, the farmers knew ahead of everybody else what this meant, because they knew how dependent they were on herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer.
So, the protests started around May or June and they were very small protests, but they were fairly spread out. Then they started picking up steam. You had teachers who started to protest, because of the rising cost of living. You had unions, first unions associated with the farming community, but then unions in general who also started to protest in their respective constituencies. You had middle class folks silently protesting by standing on sidewalks holding candles or placards. Then around March you had women belonging to the main opposition mount a protest in front of the president’s private presidents and then the following month a major protest site was set up outside the presidential secretariat. The presidential secretariat is basically where the offices associated with the presidency are located.
There was a site that was created outside the prime minister’s official residence. At the time, of course, the president was Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother was Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister who had been president twice before that. You had kind of similar sites set up throughout the country. They were associated with this chant of ‘Gota Go Home’ and Mahinda, the brother, the prime minister, also go home.
The protests themselves became very popular and were mounted throughout the country because of the cost of living skyrocketing and the scarcity of essential commodities. People were standing in lines to get milk powder, sugar, flour and the lines were longest when it came to cooking gas and petrol. People are continuing to stand in line for these two commodities. Moreover, until they can solve this issue the government has every right to kind of be on tenterhooks, because even now there are people engaging in fisticuffs as they wait in line for not hours, but sometimes days for cooking gas or for gasoline.
Let’s take a step back to the original cause that ignited the farmers. You said that that was over a ban of chemical fertilizers as well as some other products that affect farming itself as well as a move towards organic farming. Was this really just about rectifying balance of payments by not subsidizing the chemical fertilizers or was there a genuine push towards organic farming? Because it seems odd that you would have this kind of ideological push towards something like organic farming at such a critical moment like this. And then finally, why was it an outright ban rather than just eliminating the subsidies on those products? Why did they approach it by completely banning the products within Sri Lanka?
Those are all good questions. In terms of why was a sudden ban an overnight ban implemented? I think it had to do with just bad advice. You have a president who had absolutely no political experience. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was secretary of defense when his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president for two terms from 2005 to 2015. His family actually called him the Terminator, because he did not care so much for rules and laws. When he wanted something done, he had it done. I guess that’s easy to do in a civil war context when the country is facing an existential threat with this terrorist organization that’s fighting the state, so it could secede from the state. Almost anything gets justified in that context, but that’s different from having to run a country and especially a country like Sri Lanka where all sorts of dealings become necessary.
He was advised by a group of people who were at the forefront in helping him mount his candidacy. So, he was taking advice from them and it appears that some among them were the ones who suggested that Sri Lanka was this granary of the East in historical times. It was famous for its rice cultivation culture. ‘There is no reason as to why you cannot go back to those halcyon days. So, the country itself is very, very connected to this kind of agricultural culture. Just to give you a sense of this, the largest caste group in Sri Lanka is connected to farming among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. In this context, they may have just felt that they could pull this off. But what was contributing to it was a balance of payments crisis stemming from the lack of tourism revenue and a lack of remittances.
Also, I should mention the tax cuts that Gotabaya instituted soon after he became president. These were unsolicited tax cuts. There was no major demand for this from anybody within the country. They decided to go ahead and slash taxes on a variety of things which then also decreased revenue. So, ultimately what they were facing was not just a lack of foreign currency, mainly dollars. They were also facing a lack of rupees which then led them to keep printing money. So, I think in 2021 they printed 3.5 billion worth of rupees. So, billions and billions of rupees that had already been converted to dollars amounted to about 3.5 billion dollars. So, it’s hardly surprising that you have inflation take root.
So, this fertilizer ban is partly due to bad advice given to a president with very little political experience who is also a bit of an autocrat within the context of some of these other economic issues taking place.
So, you mentioned that he’s a bit of an autocrat. It makes sense, because the protests were very much personalized around Gotabaya. It was Gota Go Home. And I would assume he had a lot of control over the legislature, because it was his brother who was the prime minister of the legislature. I would assume that they would rubber stamp a lot of proposals that he would want to accomplish or rather that the Rajapaksas and those allied with him would want to accomplish. In Sri Lanka, how much power does the president have? I mean, do they actually have to be able to work with the legislature, with the parliament, or can the president effectively just govern independently if they choose to?
The president has to work through parliament for legislation to be passed, but the executive presidency that was set up in 1978 shifted power from parliament to the president. And Gotabaya in some ways was the most powerful president, because of an amendment that was passed soon after he became president. This was the 20th amendment to the constitution which basically overturned a previous amendment, the 19th amendment, which had been designed to empower the prime minister and parliament.
What’s happened over decades is that there’s been this political decay that has taken place that has led to parliamentarians or people getting elected to parliament who are hardly the most educated and competent. Sri Lanka is full of educated and competent people. They just don’t end up in parliament. So, you have these ministers who don’t read reports, are less interested in good governance, and more interested in lining their pockets. Just being in power itself is now a way of being in business.
So, in this kind of overarching context, with Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism also being used effectively. The Rajapaksas were very, very good at this. They were able to pass almost anything they wanted. They had a very healthy majority in parliament. Together with their allies following the August 2020 parliamentary election the Rajapaksa’s Party had 145 members in parliament and all you needed was 150 in order to have a super majority and pass whatever you wanted. So, they managed to bribe five people who switched over to their side and voted for the 20th amendment. So, he was very powerful.
That I think was a part of the problem, but it’s also been part of the problem for a while now. As you well know, the more powerful the executive, the less accountability and transparency exists especially in countries that already have governance issues. So, one of the things that Sri Lanka would have to do going forward, if it is going to turn things around is to perhaps get rid of the executive presidency which is a demand that the protesters have made or in the least minimize the powers of the executive.
So, the Rajapaksas are gone. If the goal of the protests was to remove the Rajapaksas, it’s mission accomplished. What has happened to the protests after the resignation of both the prime minister and the president and the elevation of a new president? Did they get what they wanted? Is this still not enough? And is the new president considered legitimate by the protesters and by the people of Sri Lanka?
So, the main demand was for president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave the scene. He did not want to do that. That’s understandable, because he won with a thumping majority in November 2019 and he felt that he had a right to complete his five-year term which would’ve ended in November 2024. But he had lost the legitimacy to rule as a result of people suffering from this unbearable cost of living and scarcity of essential supplies. The protests then also morphed into demanding that the prime minister, his older brother, also leave the scene, because people quite rightly realized that this is a well-endowed country that basically had been reduced to being beggars. They actually had signs saying, ‘Why have you made us beggars?’
The signs were directed at the Rajapaksa family. There’s enormous corruption that’s been associated with the family for the longest time. So, the goal was just to get them out of there. When Mahinda Rajapaksa did flee on May 9th, he was replaced with Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. Now this appointment was considered legal and constitutional, but it was politically considered illegitimate in the sense that Ranil Wickremesinghe who represents a storied party (one of the most important parties in post-independence Sri Lankan history and Wickremesinghe is also related to most of the prominent leaders of the party) did not even win his constituency in the 2020 August parliamentary elections. He was not able to capture even 31,000 votes.
So, not only did he not win his constituency. His party failed to win a single seat. They were allowed one seat as part of the national list. There are 29 parliamentarians that are seated in parliament through what’s called the national list. The number of national list seats that a party gets is dependent on their all-island performance. So, based on the party capturing close to about 250,000 votes in the whole country, the party was allowed one national seat. Wickremesinghe initially said, ‘I will not go to parliament via the national list.’ He dilly dallied for 10 months and then appointed himself, because he’s always wanted to be in the limelight and he thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. And he’s to some extent, quite smart and quite knowledgeable.
So, he got into parliament through the back door and now he’s a party of one. He’s the sole representative of the storied United National Party. He’s also somebody who was prime minister from 2015 to 2019 in the previous government when there were charges leveled against the Rajapaksas for the enormous corruption that they had committed. Wickremesinghe being friends with Mahinda Rajapaksa, stymied those investigations. He prevented the investigations moving forward. So, when he was made prime minister, there was this sense that he’s the only representative of his party in parliament and you’re making him prime minister because you know that he is going to protect the Rajapaksa family.
That alone was seen as kind of unsavory and so no sooner had he been made prime minister, you had the demand for him to go as well. So, there was the Gota Go Home campaign, there was the Manda Go Home campaign, and now you have the Ranil Go Home campaign. So, when Gota did go home on July 9th when he fled, he waited a few days and released this government gazette that basically appointed Wickremesinghe as the acting president. So, when he officially resigned Wickremesinghe, who was considered an illegitimate prime minister, became president on the 20th of July and is now politically, at least, seen as an illegitimate president.
So, constitutionally, procedurally, he is a legitimate president, but politically he is considered an illegitimate president. So, one of the demands of the protestors even now is that he needs to step down. But I can’t see that happening in the near future.
So, how has the new president reacted to the continued protests and the continued discontent with him becoming the new president?
So, this is a bit unfortunate, because I mentioned earlier that Wickremesinghe is a knowledgeable individual. He’s very knowledgeable on world affairs. He has a good rapport with leaders of the west. So, when you think of the countries that Sri Lanka would have to negotiate with in order to get out of this mess, Wickremesinghe has a good rapport with the leaders of many of these Western countries or pro-Western countries as well. He understands the economic situation which one could not say about Gotabaya. So, even though he was politically considered illegitimate, you still have many people in the country who feel like, ‘Let’s give this guy some time and see if he can turn things around.’
So, he was elected president on the 20th of July. He took his oath of office on the 21st. He appointed a cabinet which is likely to be an interim cabinet the next day on the 22nd. Then between the 21st and the 22nd in the wee hours of the morning, the military and the police were sent to the main protestor site and the protestors were beaten brutally. This is unfortunate, because the protestors had already decided that they were going to leave the premises. A lot of the banners that were hanging on the presidential secretariat had been brought down. They had made it very clear that they were going to leave by the next afternoon.
Nevertheless, after these protestors had been there for almost 104 days, Wickremesinghe okays an operation whereby the military and the police go in and force these protesters out in the most brutal fashion. So, there are now reports that there were Rajapaksa party people who were dressed as police who were under the influence of alcohol and under the influence of drugs who were the ones who committed the most violence. So, this was almost like a revenge attack because one of the things I did not mention, Justin, is that when Mahinda Rajapaksa fled on May 9th, there was a violence that ensued between pro-Rajapaksa supporters and the protestors and that in turn then led to a lot of homes belonging to pro-Rajapaksa politicians being torched.
And Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence was also torched. So, there is this sense that some of these folks, and I’m not saying this is the sentiment of Wickremesinghe, but there were people in the government who felt that ‘We cannot let the protesters just leave. We have to teach them a lesson for what they did to us.’ But this has complicated things, because one of the things that Wickremesinghe said he wanted to do was to create an all-party, a cross-party government. Now this complicates things, because parties that are part of the opposition may not want to be part of a government that has attacked these protesters so brutally.
It has also led to other protests now against what happened with student unions and just unions in general and academics calling for an investigation. It led to very bad press globally. There was a BBC reporter who was beaten up and whose camera footage was deleted. The BBC played this up, quite rightly. It led to ambassadors, the Western ambassadors especially, meeting with Wickremesinghe and protesting. So, here was a moment when the narrative should have shifted to focusing on what Sri Lanka ought to be doing, what the international community should be doing to help the country get out of this economic rut. But instead, he has spent the first few days of his presidency dealing with an incident that was absolutely unnecessary and completely avoidable.
So, we’ve been describing the protest as if it’s the people against just the government itself as if they’re completely disconnected. But Sri Lanka did have an election where Gotabaya Rajapaksa won with, just like you said, a thumping majority and the parliament is full of his supporters that were all duly elected. Why is it that the Rajapaksas were so popular just a few years ago? What was it that they liked back in 2019?
The Rajapaksas are Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in a country where 75% is Sinhalese, 70% are Buddhist, and where identities have been kind of hardened over the last 70 plus years especially as a result of the civil war. The civil war itself lasted close to 30 years. It was a grotesque war that easily killed over a hundred thousand people. I personally think the number was far higher because we’re not accommodating for tens of thousands of Tamils who were disappeared. This was a war that many said could not be ended militarily. The top-notch defense officials throughout the world said that you had to have a political settlement, not a military settlement.
And yet the Rajapaksas with Mahinda Rajapaksa as president and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as defense secretary took the lead in wiping out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. Now, in the process they are said to have committed various war crimes which is a controversial issue in Sri Lanka and which has led to demands for the Rajapaksas and others to be held accountable. But this made the Rajapaksas who were pretty popular to begin with because of their Sinhalese Buddhist credentials almost godlike figures. I mean, after the war ended people were worshiping Mahinda Rajapaksa’s posters and photographs and saying that he could be their king if he wanted. Moreover, he actually acted as if he were a king in the way he pardoned people and dispensed favors. But there was also all this corruption associated with the Rajapaksas throughout that was taken to new heights after the war ended.
So, by the time you got to 2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa altered the constitution and ran for a third term, there was a sense of disgust at the extent to which, not just these two brothers, but other family members and extended family members, nephews, cousins, and, I mean, dozens and dozens of people are really running next to everything in Sri Lanka. In fact, almost 75% of the national budget was overseen by members of the Rajapaksa family through the various ministries and departments that they were heading. He ended up losing very narrowly, but even when he lost in January 2015, the vast majority of Sinhalese Buddhists voted for him. But there were enough among the majority community that voted against him that together with the minority vote, his opponent won.
But that particular government that came to power in 2015 with Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister also blundered. There was this one scandal that took place a few months after the government came to power. There were members of the government that were just as corrupt as those in the Rajapaksa governments. Then you had the Easter Sunday bombing that took place in 2018 when almost 239 people were killed. Gotabaya Rajapaksa used the Easter Sunday bombing. Of course, now we know that some of the people close to him may have been implicated in that bombing, even though the bombing itself was carried out by Islamist extremists.
But Gotabaya was able to point to this security breach that led to the bombing and say the country’s sovereignty and security is at risk. ‘I was at the forefront in preventing the country being divided by defeating the LTTE. If I come to power, I would make sure that something like this never happens again.’ So, that combined with the misgovernance associated with the previous regime allowed the Rajapaksas to tell a good story and they were very good at marketing Gotabaya. So, they were swept into office with Gotabaya winning a thumping majority and the party doing very well subsequently when they held the parliamentary elections.
So, what this shows is that the vast majority of people in the country didn’t vote for the Rajapaksas because they were corrupt or voted for the Rajapaksas despite the corruption. Rather they voted for the Rajapaksas mainly along ethno-religious lines. So, that is the best way to explain why this family that had committed so much damage was nevertheless able to return to power in 2019 and then again in 2020.
So, as we’ve been talking about Sri Lanka, there’s aspects that sound democratic. Like, for instance, in 2015 you had a change in power. You had another change in power later where you have different parties taking leadership. So, that seems very democratic. There’s elections and they sound relatively free and fair, although we haven’t discussed specifics on that. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel very democratic because people had to go on the streets and demand the president’s resignation to be able to get the government to be responsive to their needs. How do you think about Sri Lanka’s government? Do you feel like Sri Lanka is a democracy?
It’s a very flawed democracy. It’s what democracy scholars would refer to as an electoral democracy or an illiberal democracy. So, on the positive side, Sri Lankans take the vote very seriously. They vote in very, very high numbers. The turnout is such that it puts Americans to shame. The turnout at the last presidential election, I think, was over 80%. They also take the right to protest very seriously. This is very much part of the country’s DNA. So, in that sense they value democracy. It is Asia’s oldest democracy given that Sri Lankans actually had universal franchise starting in 1931. That was 17 years before the country even got independence from the British. So, Sri Lankans value the right to vote. They value the right to protest. They value democracy, but it is also a democracy that is ethnocentric.
That’s why I refer to it as an ethnocracy. It’s a consolidated illiberal democracy and I think it will stay a consolidated illiberal democracy. So, the fact that it’s consolidated means that we will continue to see elections with parties alternating in power. But because it’s illiberal and ethnocentric, we are also going to see interethnic and interreligious tensions and even conflict. So, the one thing that I think can turn things around is a respect for the rule of law. The country has lost that, because a lot of politicians like the Rajapaksas have been undermining the rule of law and masking their malpractices by appealing to their Sinhalese Buddhist credentials.
So, yes. It is a vibrant democracy. But at the same time, it’s a democracy with serious issues and my personal opinion for the longest time has been that this country would never reach its potential, unless it can embrace pluralism to a greater degree. It’s going to get out of this rut. It’ll take time. Things may get worse before it gets better. It’s going to be painful. We will likely see more protests. We may even see more violence and upheaval. But in the next three to five years, assuming it can deal with its creditors and restructure its economy, put together an IMF package which they’re discussing, it’ll get over this. But it’ll never reach its potential as a democracy or as a country unless it can move away from ethnocracy, unless it can embrace pluralism to a greater degree.
So, just to kind of wrap things up, you wrote in an older article for the Journal of Democracy,“Democracy continues to surprise with its capacity to surprise.” So, as we look forward, as we look to what Sri Lanka can become, do you expect any pleasant surprises from Sri Lanka in the near future?
Sri Lankans are a very resilient people and that’s been evidenced in the past three to four decades with the civil war and with things that have happened since. When I actually wrote that I think it was after Mahinda Rajapaksa had been ousted. He had served two terms. He had altered the constitution and run for office a third time. Everybody expected him to win and he lost. I think he was as stunned as the people who voted against him. So, I can’t predict the future, especially given how tumultuous things are at present. But I think as long as people are able to cast their ballot, irrespective of the illiberalism, irrespective of all these other shortcomings, democracy, at least from a voting standpoint, has the capacity to surprise.
So, sometimes we get very despondent when we see democratic backsliding taking place, not just in Sri Lanka, but in many parts of the world. Still, I think it’s better for a country to be illiberal with people having the right to vote than for a country to become an autocracy. Because an illiberal polity is more likely to surprise us in ways that can end up being positive than for an autocracy to do.
So, ultimately, you get the government you vote for and Sri Lankans have unfortunately been voting for corrupt politicians time after time, because they’ve been voting not so much in terms of who is the best qualified, who is the best capable, but they’ve been voting in terms of narrow interests oftentimes rooted in ethnocentric sentiment. And until the quality as a whole can move away from that and can say, ‘We are only going to vote for people who are going to be accountable, who respect the rule of law and who are going to promote intercommunal harmony, until that happens you’re going to see this country kind of continue along this path where it’s two steps forward, one step back or one step forward, two steps back.
Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Neil, I’ve been reading your work in the Journal of Democracy for years now. So, it was a great opportunity to be able to speak to you about some of the events in Sri Lanka and to be able to touch on some of those issues in Sri Lanka that help us understand democracy, not just there, but in other places as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Well, thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it very much.
Learn more about Neil DeVotta
“Sri Lanka’s Agony” by Neil DeVotta in the Journal of Democracy
“Sri Lanka: The Return to Ethnocracy” by Neil DeVotta in the Journal of Democracy
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