How an island nation credited with having the world’s first female prime minister in 1960 and overcoming a more than 30-year civil war in 2009 descended into the current chaos just over a decade later ?
I returned to Sri Lanka in 2018 to take on a role at the United Nations after nearly a decade in the United States, with the aim of “giving back” to my country.
The future looked bright at the time: we had overcome a civil war and efforts to support transitional justice measures needed to be strengthened. Sri Lankans had voted democratically against President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had misappropriated millions of dollars of public funds and embraced nepotism.
I was coming back to a country driven by people power. Change was in the air and I was eager to help. I quickly became disillusioned.
Ministers showed up to meetings and events with an entourage of “yes-men”. Real advisers were few and far between, as most ministers did not want to be corrected or discuss substance. People were surprised by my presence at the meetings given my age, gender and lack of family ties to the political and business hierarchy. Senior government officials, mostly men, rarely looked me in the eye and avoided shaking my hand. My refusal to obey traditional feminine norms was met with contempt.
Sri Lanka currently ranks 179th out of 189 countries in terms of the percentage of women in the national parliament. Women are separated from leadership in all but one aspect of political and economic life: supporting male candidates for office. The few women who dare to run for office or engage in political discourse are actively ashamed by their families and the public for doing so, often by other women.
The sexism that plagues Sri Lanka is often linked to anti-Western propaganda. Equity is defined as a construct of the West, and misogyny is built into the culture: instead of giving women the option to choose, it is said that it is culturally appropriate to “do something at home” .
More generally, sentiment against US and EU initiatives has been on the rise for some time in Sri Lanka. The politicians have been willing to accept loans from China to avoid having to align themselves with the so-called “Western” values of the fight against corruption and the empowerment of women. While xenophobia in general is evident, it is easier for ministers to strike quick deals rather than endure the tedious environmental, social and economic accountability mechanisms that accompany most Western-led initiatives.
The former Rajapaksa government borrowed unsustainably to build infrastructure. The veneer of prosperity that blanketed the country was difficult to dissipate during five years of a fragmented government led by Maithripala Sirisena. The Rajapaksas were very familiar with the power and perception of the media – they banded together and maintained high visibility in the media. Then the April 2019 Easter terrorist attacks reverberated across the country.
In November 2019, “The Father” who ended the war was re-elected – the same strongman and his family who had been eliminated five years earlier. I saw people arriving by bus for the day to show their support – paid for with lunch and dinner packets and a bottle of alcohol. The promise of safety and food for the day were powerful motivators in a country where post-war prosperity is still rarely seen outside of cities and tourist hubs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the effects of human capital flight and years of bad economic policy decisions. Finally, earlier this year, the government was forced to appeal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
A virtual IMF mission to Sri Lanka concluded that a comprehensive reform package should “restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability…[ensure] credibility of monetary policy and exchange rate regimes [and preserve] financial sector stability; and [require] structural reforms to boost growth and strengthen governance”. This is standard IMF stuff, but will it be enough?
To begin with, the IMF should note the rise anti-Western sentiment this prevented the government from approaching him earlier for help, despite public calls to do so. It must clearly communicate the rationale behind and the effects of austerity measures on the economy to avoid misplaced public resentment of Western-led initiatives to rebuild and strengthen the economy.
Strongman politics, anti-Western bluster and pervasive social sexism have contributed to brain drain and drove the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Sri Lanka can only really recover when this trifecta of obstacles is abandoned. Otherwise, it will continue to see its young people leave and half of its population sidelined.
The people have made their voices heard through their ongoing protests, culminating in the recent resignation of President Rajapaksa himself. An inclusive and sustainable recovery can only be based on the values of democracy, meritocracy and participation.
Sri Lanka needs more than economic reform. It needs a structural and social revolution.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not reflect the positions of organizations with which she has been or is currently affiliated.