The road to Hambantota may be paved with Chinese silver, but its value is up for debate. Set amid the rice paddies and coconut palms of Sri Lanka’s deep south, the place is best known as the stronghold of the Rajapaksa clan, who spent years using borrowed money to build monuments for themselves. The little-used Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, the often overgrown Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium and a memorial to Rajapaksa elders that was burnt down and destroyed by a furious mob of protesters on May 9 bear witness to this terrible mess.
A statue of DA Rakapaksa, a former MP and father of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and recently resigned Prime Minister Mahinda, was also targeted. He now lies on the ground, covered with a ragged tarp. The clock tower in their hometown of Weeraketiya was vandalized, “Gota Go Home” spray-painted on it. In the past, it was unimaginable to see this feeling expressed in the heart of Rajapaksa. While some residents say the infrastructure projects have created jobs, others swear they will no longer tolerate what they see as such misuse of public funds.
Less than 10 km away, local farmers and traders are preparing for the worst. The president’s decision to switch to organic farming overnight by banning imports of chemical fertilizers last May took everyone by surprise and hurt the agricultural sector. The ban was lifted six months later, but by then the damage was done – yields had been decimated and Sri Lanka had plunged into a food and foreign exchange crisis that ended in its default on May 19. “He destroyed his own village with this decision,” says Anura Vidana Arichi, a cinnamon farmer and local opposition politician, pointing to the rice fields. “These fields have been cultivated for decades – yields have dropped by more than 50% this season and we have given up for now. Next season only 10% will be planted, and even then we don’t know what that will grow without fertilizer.”
As inflation approached 40% last week, the government urged farmers to plant rice. This attempt to avert a deepening food crisis is likely to have little effect; there is no money to import fertilizers and without it the crops will simply not produce what is needed to feed the island’s 22 million people. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned of an acute food shortage by September, while the president told officials to stockpile essentials.
The South Asian nation needs $4 billion to get through its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Negotiations are underway with the IMF and major bilateral creditors China, Japan and India, but it it will take a long time to unravel its tens of billions in foreign debt and the tangle of capital market borrowing and Chinese lending for unprofitable infrastructure projects. The Rajapaksa government’s decision in 2019 to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy and businesses, resulted in annual revenue losses of $2.2 billion. The new regime is seeking to reverse this decision in order to meet IMF bailout conditions.
In Colombo, doctors and lawyers united in an unprecedented effort to convince the government to undertake real reform. An urgent letter sent to the country’s diplomatic community in April that reported alarming shortages in the medical supply chain of 273 critical items prompted embassies and high commissions to act quickly. Some drug donations have arrived and anesthesia stocks have been temporarily replenished, but most elective surgeries have been canceled due to the crisis.
Popular anger remains palpable. People have seen politicians’ mansions and fancy cars and all those wasted billions, and now they feel the pain of default in every aspect of their lives.
A court case, in which the president was charged with embezzling around $91,000 in public funds to build a museum for his parents, was dropped shortly after his election in November 2019. There are other serious allegations against the Rajapaksa family and their associates, including money laundering, illegal transfer of state-owned weapons worth millions and a separate case of mismanagement and corruption at Sri Lankan Airlines. The brothers deny all allegations of corruption.
There is still no accountability to those who put the country in such peril. A move to curtail the extraordinary powers the president has granted himself and ban dual citizens from holding seats in parliament is already being pushed back by another Rajapaksa brother, no less. Basil Rajapaksa, who as finance minister oversaw the country’s economic collapse, is also a US citizen, so he is fighting for his career. His self-serving initiative, aimed at preserving power rather than stabilizing the country, will only fuel indignation. So it should. It’s time to put Sri Lanka first and the Rajapaksas far behind.
Ruth Pollard is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Opinion.