How not to be a Sri Lanka

The crisis that is consuming Sri Lanka has sent warning bells ringing in Nepal. While sensational media headlines, some of them in the Indian press, have drawn too close a comparison between the two countries, there are parallels.

Nepal does not have the kind of debt burden that has forced Sri Lanka to default on its loans. Ironically, it is Nepal’s underdevelopment that cushions it from global upheavals. Politics may be in disarray here too, but at least we do not have an executive president, a prime minister and three other brothers who are ministers in government.

Nepal’s disease may not be as severe as Sri Lanka, but the symptoms are the same.

For decades, Sri Lanka was the development model that the rest of South Asia strived to emulate. Its 95% literacy, equitable health care, a proficient bureaucracy were the envy of the developing world.

But even a well-educated public and effective social security system stand no chance against bad leadership, and can wreck a once-vibrant democracy. The rot in Sri Lanka started as far back as 1956, with ultra-nationalist leaders building vote banks with exclusionary ethnic politics.

Read also: Asia’s new Cold War, Dhirendra Nalbo

The grievances of the minority community piled up, erupting in the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, and the inevitable slide to conflict. At one point in the late 1990s, a country half the size of Nepal and with two-thirds of its population had two civil wars raging at the same time: the ethno-separatist conflict in the north, and the ultra-Marxist JVP uprising in the south.

The JVP insurgency was crushed, but by the time the Tamil war came to a violent end in 2009 nearly 100,000 Sri Lankans had been killed. In comparison, Nepal’s Maoists insurgency lasted a decade and left 17,000 dead.

The precursors of Sri Lanka’s current crisis lie in post-war politics and the rise and fall, and rise again, of the Rajapaksa family, its greed, ambition and drift towards authoritarianism. Sri Lanka’s thriving tourist industry was destroyed in the deadly Easter bombings in 2019, and the pandemic wiped out what remained. Exports and remittances from its workers abroad slumped.

In addition, the Mahinda Rajapaksa in his previous stint had borrowed extravagantly from China for grandiose infrastructure projects, and the Chinese were demanding their pound of flesh.

Another Rajapaksa brother as agriculture minister decreed overnight that Sri Lanka would go organic, and banned the import of agro-chemicals. Tea export and food production fell.

The Ukraine crisis could not have hit at a worse time. Fuel prices doubled in a space of weeks, and Sri Lanka had no foreign exchange reserve to pay for imports. Faced with a 40% inflation rate, a crippling shortage of food, cooking gas and fuel, peaceful protesters were camped out in central Colombo.

Then, on 9 May the Rajapaksa brothers sent hired goons to drive out demonstrators from Colombo’s seafront promenade. The police stood by, and visuals of violence went viral on social media. Nine people were killed and scores injured as protests spread nationwide.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down, and his much-reviled brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swore in Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister for the sixth time, beating a record set by our own Sher Bahadur Deuba.

This could be too little too late. As long as the Rajapaksas cling to power, Sri Lankans fear that the nepotism, corruption, and mismanagement will continue.

The coming weeks are critical for Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, and he himself admits that things will “get worse before they get better”.

Sri Lanka is an object lesson for us in Nepal about how short-sighted leaders, populism, and lack of accountability of elected despots and their dynasties can completely ruin a country that was once so full of promise.

Crises like these do not just happen overnight, they are the result of decades of mal-governance by leaders who neglect the needs of citizens. Democracy is supposed to fix that, but this is what happens when leaders hijack the democratic process itself.

Nepal has a unique opportunity during this election year to find leaders that can take the country forward. That so many independent candidates have won local elections this week should be a wake-up call for Nepal’s politicians to mend their ways or be swept away by public anger.

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