Dr. Thamil Ananthavinayagan discusses the recent uprising in Sri Lanka, and its potential to have a meaningful impact on social, racial and moral justice in the country.
What is Happening in Sri Lanka?
The dynasty has fallen. After protesters stormed the presidential palace and the private residences of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former announced his resignation while the latter offered to follow suit.
For some, the anger burgeoned as Sri Lanka‘s economy spiraled into a rapid downfall in the face of crushing debt owed to such regional powers as India, China and Japan, as well as to Western-based international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Rajapaksa regime’s extravagant tax breaks and increasing debt ruined the government’s finances. As oil prices increased, foreign currency reserves were swiftly drained. Long lines have become commonplace in front of stores selling cooking gas since the nation hardly has enough money left to import the heavily rationed fuel. The 22 million-person nation’s headline inflation rate was 54.6 percent last month, and the Central Bank has issued a warning that it may increase to 70 percent in coming months.
People’s Justice, or Majoritarian Justice?
Against this backdrop, pressure had been mounting on the Third World Elite, which had governed and shaped recent decades of Sri Lankan history. Anger about the socio-economic collapse, long queues for fuel, skipping meals to make ends meet: what started with waves of frustration had grown into a tsunami crashing down on the shores of the elites’ palaces. Scenes of people entering the buildings of their leaders went around the world: sleeping on their beds, swimming in their pools, using their gym equipment and eating in their kitchens. These scenes were reminiscent of the Libyan people entering the palaces of Muammar Gaddafi or of the Iraqi people in Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
The protests were led predominantly by the Sinhala people, members of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority. While they were loud and clear in their demands for social justice in various capacities, they fell silent on key issues of racial justice on the island. And this silence isn’t new; the large majority of the Sinhala people were silent when it came to post-colonial string of racial, religious, cultural discriminatory policies; the large majority remained silent when Tamils were attacked during the infamous Black July of 1983; they were silent when Muslims were attacked in the streets after the Easter Bombings of 2019. Pogroms and attacks against Tamils and Muslims were forms of exercising biopower. As it is written elsewhere, “as a result of the state’s role in preserving life that is productive and necessary for the social body, war becomes an organising rationale for and truth-effect of the arrangement of bodies within a population, stimulated by ‘the theme of racism.’” The war played out in a variety of fashions and modes; but ultimately it was meant to give an identity and self-serving providence of the Sinhala people. It was that identity politics that divided the Third World peoples, a smokescreen for the Third World elites to distract, obstruct and enrich themselves while the ethnic feud assisted in the corruption of solidarity in the post-colonial era. The phenomenon of state capture has not only occurred in Sri Lanka; other Third World countries are carbon copies of Sri Lanka’s governance.
However, it was only when injustice hit home, when a lack of food and the empty stomachs could not take it anymore, that the realization kicked in: “they” have also betrayed “us.” Will the current upheaval lead to a process of critical reflection and discussion? The future is murky, as the keys to the palaces are in the hands of the Sinhala people. Even if talks remain ongoing and there is general agreement to form an all-party interim government, the formation and governance thereof will be heavily influenced, on the one hand by the Sinhala monks who want to influence and shape the future of Sri Lanka, and on the other, by the ambitions of the Army. The manipulation of the post-colonial architecture is real: divisions between communities along racial lines have led to wealth disparities: the richest 20 percent of Sri Lankan households receive more than half of the nation’s total household income, while the bottom decile (the poorest 20 percent) receives only 5 percent, with the proportion of household income for the poorest 10 percent amounts to just 1.6 percent.
What Does the Future Hold?
The looming intervention of the IMF will not solve the woes of the country. To the contrary, it will exacerbate the situation: the IMF, in the past, had intervened with further loans to support the participating international banks and financiers, placing the burden of repayment on the taxpayers of the damaged economies. Uncollectible private loans were frequently turned into public debt at the IMF’s urging. The IMF and the World Bank imposed structural adjustment plans (SAP) on around 90 developing nations, ranging from Guyana to Ghana, over the past 20 years. The goal of these SAPs was to eliminate protectionism and enable neoliberal intrusion. As Brian-Vincent Ikejiaku writes: “The international economic liberalism is one of the major powerful tools of international economic law agenda pursued by the Westerners through the auspices of the international financial institutions, in order to continue maintaining the subjugation and control of the third-world countries. (…) Thus, the growing importance of international organisations such as the G7, IMF and World Bank is indicative of the influence of liberal economic internationalism in the post-Cold War period. Hence, the granting of aid and loan to the poorer communities, as a means for the elimination of hunger and disease in the Third World become the primary aim which these institutions based their activities.”
The fight Sri Lanka’s protestors started must trigger a larger indigenous moment of solidarity: native and foreign elites have sold off the country, using identity politics to intoxicate, manipulate and divide, while enabling them to maintain the upper hand over the country. German scientist, writer and revolutionary Georg Büchner proclaimed once under the title “Peace to the huts! War on the Palaces!“ — explaining that peasants and workers should revolt against oppression and excessively high taxation.
And, in fact, it is moment to revolt against injustice in all its forms: social, racial and moral.
Dr. Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, LL.M. (Maastricht University), PhD (NUI Galway) is a lecturer for international law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law at Griffith College Dublin since September 2017. Prior to this lectureship at GCD, he worked as a Fellow and research assistant to the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway, Ireland. His doctoral research focused on the engagement of Sri Lanka with the United Nations human rights machinery.
Suggested citation: Thamil Ananthavinayagan, ‘Peace to the huts! War on the palaces!’ Is Sri Lanka experiencing people’s justice or a coup d’état?, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 12, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/07/peace-to-the-hut…-or-a-coup-detat/
This article was prepared for publication by Ingrid Burke-Friedman, JURIST Features & Commentary Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to [her] at email@example.com
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