Photo courtesy of CNN

In December 2021 we published an extended essay in Focaal on the worsening state crisis in Sri Lanka and Thailand. In this earlier piece we argued that the religio-politics of national (civic) Buddhism and state relations in both countries could be best theorised as a genealogical problem which anticipates the inexorable logic of the future foretold: namely, “new right”/ultra-nationalist forms of governance; influenced by the encompassing political and economic hegemony of the Peoples Republic of China and its venture capital. In both Sri Lanka and Thailand, the increasing reliance on Chinese concessional loans to fund infrastructural developments; new predatory economic practices of the PRC wielded through trade, and financial Sino-ventures such as (sometimes discrete) corporate national buy-ins, etc., all constitute an overriding negative cultural influence in the two countries (see for instance Thailand, Preechapak Tekasuk 2019). Also, these factors contribute to the overall indebtedness and economic dependence that both countries face (for Thailand see Chartchai Parasuk 2021). Disconcertingly, what characterises the indebtedness to the PRC is the peculiar cultural and political project that it underwrites; namely, disdain for civil liberties, contempt for democratic space, and an outward quite proudly displayed disregard for civil society and the rights of ethnic minorities. This is precisely what makes debt to China appealing to the military-royalist dominant alliance in Thailand and the ultra-Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka (who have coalesced around the Rajapaksa clan, at least since the last two decades).

In the Focaal piece, we focused on PRC imperialist ties to Sinhalese nationalism in Sri Lanka suggesting that Sri Lanka showed no discernible coup dynamics for the very reason that the Rajapaksas and the senior officer cadre of the armed forces who control the civil administration of the country are at one. The current crisis unfolding is two-headed; firstly, it confirms that the Sinhalese military leadership was wholly incapable of morphing into civilian public servants who in the traditions of the old Ceylon Civil Service, put into effect the policy decisions of their political masters. Even the highly politicised Sri Lankan Administrative Service that evolved in the aftermath of becoming a republic was relatively efficient at delivering a policy agenda – the neo-liberalism of the Jayewardene years is testament to that efficiency. Secondly, the patrimonial development model that the Rajapaksas have pursued has intensified the island’s debt burden to China. The debt burden in and of itself (which is only 10% of the total debt burden) would not be a problem, but for the manner of its execution and the policy agenda that Beijing has brought to the table.

From the Colombo Port City Project to the leasing of the port at Hambantota to Beijing (Dinesha Samararatne 2021), Chinese concessional loans have come with strings attached that would be un-countenanced even in a contemporary WB/IMF restructuring loan program. The increased debt burden to China has been a price worth paying for the functional coalition that the Rajapaksas have put together – the military, the senior Sangha and a significant element of the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate who voted for both Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. It may be noted that a significant proportion of Sinhalese Christians, Tamils and Muslims also voted for them but this was more a negative vote against the failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, as well as a positive affirmation of what the Rajapaksas were offering: namely, efficient technocracy that was initially framed in terms that were not ostensibly ethno-religious. Beneath this veneer lurked the potency of Sinhalese nationalism and the fledgling projects of cultural Constitutionalism and the desire to pursue spatial reorganisation in the pluralist Eastern Province.

What the Sinhalese ultra-nationalists envisioned was a constitutional order that enshrined the ideological values of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism (Welikala and de Silva-Wijeyeratne). That is, a Sinhalese Buddhist cultural identity and the identity of the Sri Lankan state intertwined – while the ethnic religious minorities reduced to a somewhat liminal presence. The manner in which the dominant Han Chinese and Chinese Communist Party have resurrected Confucian thought and harnessed it to the State became an exemplary model for the Rajapaksas. With regard to the spatial reorganisation of the Eastern Province President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed an all-male and all Sinhalese Buddhist Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province with one purpose in mind – altering the demography of the Eastern Province. As to where the project of Sinhalese Buddhist cultural constitutionalism will end up, this remains uncertain in the current context of economic and political crisis. It is the latter (and the possible pauperisation of significant sections of the Sinhalese populace) that may well undo the conditions of possibility of the former.

Incompetent economic decision making (the disastrous decision to plunge into organic farming last year is exemplary of this) has the potential to grind to a halt the project of Sinhalese cultural constitutionalism. However, in the absence of the ability to fund public health and the basic means of sustenance, the Rajapaksas may seek to mitigate their crisis in economic and political legitimacy by falling back on the ideological and symbolic capital that the poorly thought out talk of Sinhalese cultural constitutionalism offers. Indeed, the fact that it remains relatively inchoate could enable this imploding regime to make gestures that are loosely defined and left to the Sinhalese populace to fill out with meaning, which in this task Buddhist activists could play a vital role. Overall, this is unlikely to happen, but a much darker possibility remains – that of a soft or hard coup by the Sinhalese armed forces sans the Rajapaksas. That is whatever the Rajapaksas decide to do, coup dynamics may come into play if the senior military (note Kamal Gunaratne’s observation that the military are monitoring the protests) decide that their interests are not those of the people; after all the military in other Theravada majority countries like Myanmar and Thailand came to similar conclusions. In this context protestors must not provide the military with a pretext for intervention – the consequences will be even worse as far as stifling the democratic will of the people is concerned.

But as Tisaranee Gunasekara (2022) noted, if the armed forces appear as if they are on the side of the people and facilitate the departure of the Rajapaksas the armed forces will be heralded as saviours by the majority community. If they continue to demand a stake in the organising rationale of the state, the agenda of Sinhalese cultural constitutionalism will remain on the table in these circumstances with disastrous consequences. Given the general incompetence of the senior military leadership in civil administration, economic implosion will intensify irrespective of the musical chairs that will characterise the logic of occupying the Finance Minister’s portfolio. The worst-case scenario will be a parody of a Hegelian/Marxist struggle between the ideal (the myriad empty signifiers of Sinhalese Buddhist cultural constitutionalism which will invariably be filled out in increasingly fanciful terms) and the material, the economic crisis which is manifesting in an all-too-real set of facts – the lack of medicine and fuel being the starkest reminders of this crisis for the (diverse) majority of the people.   

This crisis has been in the making for over 60 years, ever since the Official Language Act was passed in 1956 and validated anti-minority discrimination in the ability to advance in the public service. The underlying cause of both the constitutional and material crisis is the intensification of the Sinhalese nationalist project – the more it succeeds (and the Rajapaksas are the apotheosis of the project initiated by SWRD Bandaranaike and his loyal lieutenant, DA Rajapaksa), the more it is destined to fail. In December 2021 such catastrophic failure did seem likely but now an abyss as never before has opened up. This is not just a crisis in personal – the elites in Colombo 3 and 7 seem to imagine that all it takes for a semblance of normality to return is for the Rajapaksas to go from office and for a new government to be sworn in – it is also a crisis of opposition. An interim government (of whatever composition) is unlikely to make much difference, given the extent to which the logic of Sinhalese nationalism is embedded in Sri Lanka’s public institutions. Only a wholesale remaking of these institutions, including of the Constitution itself will provide the basis for reimagining Sri Lanka.

A general election is unlikely given that only the President can dissolve Parliament, notwithstanding that the Cabinet has tendered its resignation, but some ministers have been replaced. Indeed, it matters little that the government has lost its parliamentary majority, as long as the Rajapaksa-military cabal remains in place. The Rajapaksas are simply not the kind of Sinhalese politicians who voluntarily depart the stage. A worsening in the material crisis is precisely what will play into the hands of the military-Rajapaksa cabal. Protest that turns uncontrollably violent will be the pretext for the kind of intervention that Gunaratne, the Defence Secretary threatens. Were this to happen predicting the outcome will be difficult, suffice it to say that the material interests of the middle officer cadre and that of ordinary Sinhalese men in the armed forces, is not the same as the senior officer cadre who are part of the patron-client capitalist network that the Rajapaksas have fashioned.

An unlikely saviour in the figure of the IMF beckons. Any structural adjustment loan must be made conditional on the military retreating from public life, on civilian control of the public service resuming and on the non-negotiable necessity that a political dialogue will recommence on the question of how best to govern a plural Sri Lanka. The current crisis has been made worse by the over centralised state which has little grasp of local factors, unable to respond to local needs. Although wary of conditionalities, here the IMF has a chance to put the issue of governance back on the table.  Meanwhile, China is considering offering a $1.5 billion credit facility to Sri Lanka and already has to repay about $4 billion worth of debt this year to China with talks about rescheduling payments (Uditha Jayasinghe, 21 March 2022, and the Guardian, 10 January 2022). Indeed, murky waters, a worsening material crisis and dubious political economic partnerships lie ahead for Sri Lanka. Amidst this confluence of forces, we may also be witnessing a small opening in the architecture of Sinhalese nationalism, the very same nationalism that has delivered a long running constitutional crisis and now a material crisis, the worst since independence. This crisis has all the characteristics of a denouement, the final act in a Sinhalese nationalist made tragedy, the dominant strands of which (the constitutional and governance issues and the material) have at last been drawn together for the sake of a resolution currently in motion. This is not a crisis that will be resolved by a change in personnel, but rather demands wholesale institutional change. This is then also a moment of opportunity for a coherent joint opposition to capitalise on – it’s just that at present there is no coherent opposition and this will invariably benefit the most reactionary elements in Sinhalese society.