Sri Lanka: Meet the New Dynast, Same as the Old Dynast

September 7, 2022

Prof. Farzana Haniffa, University of Colombo, discusses the current protests and change of government in Sri Lanka on International Horizons

Prof Farzana Haniffa against a black and white photo of protestors in the pool of Sri Lanka's Presidential Palace

Sri Lanka has recently endured tremendous political and economic turmoil with severe shortages of goods and fuel leading to the ouster of the sitting president. After Gotabhaya Rajapaksa fled the country in disgrace, he was replaced by another dynastic heir, Ranil Wickremesinghe. While much has changed in the once war-torn island nation, much has stayed the same. 

In this episode, Farzana Haniffa, Professor of Sociology at University of Colombo, speaks with John Torpey, Presidential Professor of History and Sociology and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at Graduate Center, CUNY,  about the events that led to massive protests and a coup d’état in Sri Lanka, including the deterioration of the economy caused by COVID and Sri Lanka’s reliance on tourism and remittances and the long reign of the Rajapaksas. Haniffa also discusses how the government is prosecuting and attacking protesters and incarcerating them without trial to instill fear as they did during the Civil War, and how Sri Lankans are responding with anti-polarization protests.

International Horizons is part of New Books Network of podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it in Spotify and Apple podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below.


John Torpey  00:09

Sri Lanka has recently endured tremendous political and economic turmoil with severe shortages of goods and fuel leading to the ouster of the sitting president. After Gotabhaya Rajapaksa fled the country in disgrace, he was replaced by another dynastic heir, Ranil Wickremesinghe. While much has changed in the once war-torn island nation, much has thus stayed the same. Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast to the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. 

John Torpey  00:45

My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Farzana Haniffa, who is a professor and head of department of sociology at the University of Colombo. She obtained her PhD in anthropology from Columbia University in New York. Haniffa has published on the social and political history of Muslims, the anti-Muslim movement, gender politics, and on education reform in Sri Lanka. In 2018 to 2019, she was a visiting fellow at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge, and in 2016 she was a visiting research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) that is the Leibniz Center for the modern Far East in Berlin (perhaps not altogether far, far east but in any case the east). She joins us today from Colombo. Thanks so much for being with us today, Farzana Haniffa.

Farzana Haniffa  01:50

Thank you for having me, John. 

John Torpey  01:54

Great to have you. So as I mentioned in my intro, Sri Lanka has been through considerable political upheaval in the past few months, political and economic. And I know, I don't have to tell you that, but could you outline for our listeners, what's been going on? 

Farzana Haniffa  02:11

Yes. You know, there are many, many ways in which we can sort of map the trajectory of how we got here. But basically, what has happened is that we've run out, as a country, we've run out of dollars. And that's important because as an economy that is dependent on imports, we need dollars for fuel, we need dollars for medicines, and we need dollars even for food. So we've run out of dollars for, again, for a multitude of reasons. But mainly, we are dependent on an income from tourism and on an income from migrant labor. So both of these took a huge hit during COVID. And I think that's globally known. So as a result, our dollar earnings dropped seriously. And in the middle of all of this, we're also heavily in debt. So we had to service our debts without these dollars that we were expecting. 

Farzana Haniffa  03:04

And so ultimately, what has happened is that the government has not been able to manage the situation well enough. And so we have shortages of fuel, of medicines, and food also. And we have huge knock-on effects of these shortages, because the lack of fuel means that the whole sort of transportation system is at a standstill. So nothing is moving, manufacturing is at a standstill. So the economy is slowly and painfully grinding to a halt. It's been projected that the economy will shrink by 8%. This year, food inflation is at 80%. Transportation costs, year on year inflation is more than 126%. So those are the conditions under which we are existing right now. 

Farzana Haniffa  03:47

Now, the political crisis is that, understandably, people resisted what is happening. I mean, the sort of the real effect of all of this - also included 13-hour power cuts, huge, long fuel queues, right? People were staying in fuel queues for days, and people were, there were deaths in cars in fuel queues in the heat, right. So people protested against the deterioration of the situation. And also, I mean, the regime that brought us to this crisis, also has been in power for a really long time, with sort of breaks in between as well. And we've put up with a lot of excesses from this regime. And it was sort of the coming together of all of this. 

John Torpey  03:48

Fascinating. I definitely wanted to follow up on the kind of dynastic, what seems from the point of view of an untrained observer, a rather dynastic kind of system that doesn't exactly seem to comport with, you know, the democracy that I take Sri Lanka to actually have. So maybe you could talk about how families influence or control or dominate the political system? And, how is that happening? I mean, I know what's happening in the United States and other places; the Bushes and the Clintons, you know, have sort of followed each other or almost followed each other into the presidential office. But this is not really the way democracy is supposed to work. So what's going on?

Farzana Haniffa  04:38

And there were huge countrywide protests to get rid of the President and the Prime Minister who were brothers, and to get rid of them and to actually just not only to get rid of them, but to get rid of the entire political system, political elite that had brought us to this crisis, and to institute a new system. Now unfortunately, the way in which the political crisis has resolved itself is, as you mentioned in the introduction, to bring someone who is sort of diehard from within the system to take on the acting presidency and now presidency proper until the sort of the end of this particular term. Right? So that's kind of where we're at right now.

Farzana Haniffa  06:11

Yeah, so I was thinking about the narrative of the families. And it's true now for the, you know, with the Rajapaksas, who have been ruling us since and they were there during the war, and then there was a brief break from 2015 to 2019. And then they came back. So they, I mean, are responsible for huge sort of transformations in our political system, sort of breakdown of structures, sort of nepotism, a huge kind of power vacuum in places where the family hasn't sort of taken over. The family took over so much of the running of the country that when the family was kicked out, there was a huge power vacuum.  

Farzana Haniffa  06:51

So the issue of families, dynastic politics in our country is huge. And the Rajapaksa commitment to a particular kind of dynastic politics is also partly responsible for why we are here now. But in this instance, it is not so much the dynastic politics issue that is so important. It is actually sort of the coming together of the ruling elite. Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas have now come together in some sense.  

Farzana Haniffa  07:16

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who's taken over now, has absolutely no legitimacy to do so for this reason, because I mean he came to Parliament after losing his seat. He was the former prime minister in the former government that was just defeated in 2019. But he was so unpopular, that he lost his seat, his party was defeated so completely that they, which they were historically one of the main parties in the country, were left with only one seat in Parliament. And he came into that seat was also something which is not elected. So he came in through this seat as the leader of the party, so he has absolutely no legitimacy to do anything that he has done so far.  

Farzana Haniffa  07:34

So the way in which he got elected into the presidential seat is by mobilizing the party that the protest movement wanted to actually throw out. The Rajapaksas party basically elected him within parliament to the seat of President, right. So it was a consolidation now of the UNP Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas who've kind of taken over and are doing everything that they can to undermine all of the sort of issues that were sort of raised by the protest movement in the few months that it had such popularity and such a presence within the country.

John Torpey  08:03

So this doesn't sound like the most auspicious background for addressing a massive political and economic crisis. I mean, one of the things that was emphasized in the reporting, at least that I saw about developments in Sri Lanka in the last few months, was the nonviolent character of the protests and of the sort of takeover if that's the right word of the presidential palace, there's pictures of people hanging around the pool and sort of realizing how these people live. But it was all you know, it was stressed it was nonviolent, which, of course, is something of a contrast from the long period of the war. So maybe you could say a little bit more about, you know, what are the prospects of Mr. Wickremasinghe effectively meeting the current situation.

Farzana Haniffa  09:42

So you're totally right. I mean, the entire kind of ethos of the protests was one of nonviolence. And also it was a rejection of the sort of the power bloc that had brought us to this situation, which included several years of war as you know, right? So it was a rejection of that entire power bloc. I mean, the protest movements were also not just one, it was the protest movement constituted of a variety of different groups and movements and sort of organizations and also just people coming up spontaneously. So there is that.

Farzana Haniffa  10:23

But now, I mean, the way in which the government with Wickremesinghe at the helm has decided to deal with it is really interesting. They have now started arresting everyone who could be identified as being somewhat sort of prominent within the protest space and the protest movement. The protest was organized in such a way that it was located in this one large public space in Colombo. So people gathered there every evening, and we chanted slogans, till until eight o'clock at night. Some stayed there, there were tents, there was sort of an occupation of that protest site. So all of this went on. And what the regime has done now is to dismantle the protest site, to arrest many of the people who led the protests, to arrest people who were prominent in the social media representations of the protest. There have been arrests of people who were in the president's house, these sort of clips that were circulated globally. So there have been arrests of those people. 

Farzana Haniffa  10:30

So there is a sort of using of the sort of law and order mechanisms to undermine the entire protest project. So that’s what they're doing. And also there has never been a clearer indication that the entire ruling class, the entire ruling elite in Parliament, is completely out of touch with their constituencies; you can't even call them their constituencies anymore, because the protest movement was so clear in what they did not want. And what they did not want was for this Parliament to continue. So Ranil Wickremesinghe, after he came, he's been sort of like consolidating the ruling elite. 

Farzana Haniffa  12:18

But at the same time, it must be said that while there was a commitment to a nonviolent sort of protest movement by and large, there was a lot of violence unleashed at particular moments of this long period of struggle. And these are very specific and also have to be understood in terms of how they were set up in some sense, because, you know, there was violence on the ninth of May, via the Prime Minister. One of the Rajapaksas, Mahinda Rajapaksa called his supporters from a far away southern town to come to Colombo. And after the meeting at Temple Trees, which was the residence of the Prime Minister, that group of people were unleashed on the protesters, and they started beating up the protesters and dismantling the protest sites. So that happened. 

Farzana Haniffa  13:15

And in terms of a reaction to that, there was a huge outpouring of public protest against this violence, that also led to a further unleashing of violence across the country. It is really unclear how this violence came about, how organized it was, and who perpetrated it. But it caused a lot of damage. It was targeted at the politicians, and many minor politicians and major politicians' houses were vandalized, and there was a lot of arson. Houses were burned, right. So that violence did happen. Several people died. Okay, so now there is a sort of a law and order move to catch all of these people who committed violence against the MPs. And but there is no similar kind of interest in catching the people who actually perpetrated the violence against the protesters on May 9, which set off this whole crisis, right; this whole May 9 violence. So after May 9, the kind of the protest movement was also undermined, in some sense. And there was a kind of a hiatus, and Ranil Wickremasinghe was made acting prime minister because the prime minister resigned. 

Farzana Haniffa  14:37

I'll just say one more thing about the protests: on July 9, there was a call by the protesters saying that we are unhappy with how the status quo has formulated itself after May 9, after the May 9 violence, and we really need to push to get rid of the President and the Parliament and to bring about an interim government, which can take us out of this crisis, which is both political and economic. So it was very clear from all of the conversations we were in during the time of the protest movement that we really wanted to change in the administration in who was in Parliament and who was in the cabinet. Right. So that is what was asked for. 

Farzana Haniffa  15:16

But when Ranil Wickremasinghe took over as president, through a sort of a parliamentary vote, right, he didn't listen to any of this. I mean, he paid lip service to some of the language of the protest movement, like an interim government, for instance, and like sort of an all party government and all, but not really in terms of substance. So in terms of substance, we have the same ruling elite consolidating itself, and taking on this sort of crisis, and with no guarantees that it's going to be sorted out in any way that is friendly to the people. As I said before, they're hunting down protesters and putting them in jail.

John Torpey  15:59

Right. So despite a kind of commitment on the part of the protesters to nonviolence, it hasn't been entirely a nonviolent situation, not necessarily due to their fault, but because of what the regime is doing. So I wanted to go back to something that you said sort of at the very beginning of our conversation and has to do with the background to the contemporary situation, and that is the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. I mean, I think if I understood correctly, you were sort of hinting at the role and the importance to the Sri Lankan economy of remittances from migrant workers. Now, maybe you could say whether that's exactly what you had in mind, and how does that all work? I mean, I'm not sure everybody who's listening may know the extent to which the Sri Lankan economy is dependent on migrant workers and their remittances.

Farzana Haniffa  16:54

Yeah, so two of the main foreign exchange earners for us, the highest --I'm not quite clear about the numbers, but the highest-- are from tourism and from migrant worker remittances. The dollars that they bring in are hugely important. I mean, we have some exports as well, we have garment exports and tea exports, but migrant worker remittances and tourism are huge. And both of those broke down during COVID as you know, so that was a huge issue in terms of managing other foreign exchange balances, right. 

Farzana Haniffa  17:30

And also the paying off of loans, that was a huge issue as well. There were certain loan payments made while we were in dire crisis in relation to other dollar reserves. And that also exacerbated the lack of funds for essential supplies. Now, there are many debates about whether the government should have paid that loan that came due, I think, in June this year. But through that payment --I think in January and in June there were two payments made --the situation in the country got worse. So there was a huge set of problems of management, of the finances within the country that we are now having a really hard time with.

Farzana Haniffa  18:15

Now, one thing that needs to be said is that currently there is, the government has signed an agreement with the IMF. The Ranil Wickremesinghe government is sort of consolidating itself. And its recognition within a certain sort of business sector and the middle class is quite good, because it has managed to bring about this IMF agreement, the conditions of which the government is not telling us. And also, what they've done is they've also started managing the economy a little bit better in the sense that there is now a way in which you can access fuel, a quota of fuel, every week, right? Now, again, this is not for those who can't utilize this QR code that they have, and have access to the internet and all of these kinds of facilities. So it's a very sort of classist kind of management of the economy. So in many ways, it is sort of a way of managing the country that maintains the class status quo, but not servicing the people who are in most need. 

Farzana Haniffa  19:37

Now in relation to the question that you asked with regards to migrant worker remittances, so large numbers of Sri Lankan migrant workers are actually very low paid domestic workers and very low skilled, are the kinds of workers who have migrated, right. So we are really dependent on the labor of all these people who are not in the higher income sectors, but given the fact that the elite closest to the government are the ones that the government seems to be sort of responding to, they have sort of been able to consolidate their position at the expense of sort of migrant worker families, the families of the poor. Right? And so that's kind of where we're at right now.

John Torpey  20:30

Got it. So another, you know, sort of external factor, so to speak here is, or may be, the Ukraine war. So, people have been remarking for months, and we've done a podcast about the international ramifications for the food supply of that war, because of the huge significance of Ukrainian grain primarily and just cooking oils and things like that. But it's generally been said that the wealthy countries of the world like the United States will weather this and probably not really particularly notice it. But for poorer countries in the world, it's likely to be a major, major problem. So would you say that has played into the whole political turmoil in Sri Lanka?

Farzana Haniffa  21:20

So it's this way: when the oil prices were going up, that was a huge issue, because we barely had money to pay for the little bit of oil we were getting. So when the prices went up, it was, you know, the impact was huge. Now, Ukraine is really important in terms of people coming into Sri Lanka as tourists; they are a huge percentage of all of the tourists who come into Sri Lanka, Ukrainians, right. And also Russia is important for tea exports. So in those terms. Also the wheat, but for us rice is probably more important than wheat, and we have dwindling rice supplies. But so of course, the sort of the global context impacts but in very particular ways in terms of Sri Lanka, I think.

John Torpey  22:00

I see. So maybe another sort of background factor is the war that took place within Sri Lanka for many years between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese Buddhist community or the dominant part of the political structure. You know, is that a factor? I mean, has that been kind of laid to rest at this point? I mean, how would you characterize the legacy of the war in contemporary Sri Lanka?

Farzana Haniffa  22:33

Yes, so that's a really important question. So there are three ways in which we can talk about that. So the first is that the history of the conflict is very much with us in this way. Now that I talked about the attacks against the protesters. Now, the laws that are being used to attack protesters is a relic of the civil war moment called the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Right. So they're using that to arrest protesters and throw them in jail, and they can be jailed for three months without being produced in court. So all of these kinds of really excessive measures that were legitimized during the war are being used now, right. So the irony is not lost on anyone. So that is happening. 

Farzana Haniffa  23:21

And then also the way in which there's been a kind of cultivation of the fear psychosis, right? Sort of a culture of harassment, this is also sort of a leftover of the war, which the military and the police are kind of well versed in from the time of the war, right. So those sorts of institutional mechanisms that were cultivated during the conflict for a particular purpose are now being reanimated to deal with the protest movements, right. So that's a sort of a scary, scary, scary manifestation of the history of the war today. 

Farzana Haniffa  24:03

Now in relation to ethnic relationships to you know, communities and their perception of each other. Now, one of the sort of interesting developments of the protest movement was, at least in some circles, a rejection of the polarization that had been cultivated by successive political regimes, right? Because the government was always sort of cultivating anti-somebody's sentiments, either the anti-Tamil sentiments or the later on anti-Muslim sentiments, right. And it was very clear and obvious to everyone, especially under the most recent regime, it's very obvious that this was a sort of Sinhala supremacist regime that was sort of capitalizing on they see themselves as having "won the war". And they kept talking about it. So as a result of them kept talking about it, we never moved on from the rhetoric of the war, right? So it kept coming up. 

Farzana Haniffa  24:59

But so the protest movement in some ways was a rejection of that rhetoric of who we are. So that was kind of interesting. So while it was a rejection of the rhetoric, that is not to say that all of the animosities that had been cultivated for generations just disappeared. Of course, they didn't, but there was a possibility of some conversations, some sort of reassessment of the past was there, right. So, that is the sort of the second way of thinking about the impact of the war and what happened in this particular context. 

Farzana Haniffa  25:38

So, in terms of the third, is that today the regime is less committed to that understanding of us as a collective, because the political elite cannot understand how to do politics in Sri Lanka other than through a cultivation of an other. So, different kinds of fear psychoses are being let loose even now that there are certain left-leaning parties, populist kind of parties, which were getting popular during the protest movements, as posing a threat, as bringing about a threat of violence, and that we could again be in a situation where we will have a war, or we will have violence that is similar to what we had during the war. Right? So, eerily, the war is very much with us, even at this moment 10 years after.

John Torpey  26:47

Right. Well, these things can linger on for a long time, as you know. So, you know, we're kind of coming towards the end of our time, but I want to ask you what do you think is coming? How do you foresee this playing out? I mean, I don't know if one can speak of a resolution, but what's your sense of where this is all going?

Farzana Haniffa  27:12

Well, so, we have this in discussions. We talk about the fact that the protest movement is not done, we talk about the fact that the legitimacy of the regime is so clear to so many people that it is impossible that they sort of go on like this, right? That and also the kind of the crisis, and the way in which it's affecting a majority of the population, people are going to react in some way and another kind of an uprising is coming is what we think. 

Farzana Haniffa  27:51

So now, we can also talk about the fact that we are all very tired, the struggle took a lot of energy from us, and the way in which it has been sort of like now scattered and managed, and all activities being undermined is taking a cost, right? So, it will reemerge, but it seems like it may take some time before it reemerges. So that's one. Now, the second thing is that the government, like I said, is managing the economic problems in a way that it has acceptance within sort of an elite sector, but we will have elections at some point. And the elections will be a deciding factor in bringing about some change. 

Farzana Haniffa  28:45

So, now, in terms of the economic crisis also, we are constantly reminded of wartime again in that during the war in the north, the deprivation that the northern population suffered was nothing compared. This is what they're suffering now in the south is nothing compared to what they had to undergo in the north during the conflict, right. So, we survived that, they survived it, we will survive in the south as well is what a lot of people are saying, right. So, I mean, there is a lot of hope, there is a lot of resilience, there is a lot of people who are trying to figure things out, and we are a very literate, very educated population. And already there are signs of people figuring things out. 

Farzana Haniffa  29:33

The other export numbers were quite high a month ago. And the central bank has said that we are getting enough money from sort of remittances and from other kinds of earnings that we are managing a minimum level of fuel and food at this moment. The other agencies are saying, of course, that people are starving and nutrition levels are dropping. So all of this is happening at the same time. So we don't have a choice in terms of survival. So therefore there is hope. And sort of everyday life continues despite all of this doom and gloom. So I mean, we are teaching at the university, our students are coming on campus now, post-COVID. And, yeah, so we are getting on with things. And so, we've had, I think, harder struggles, and I'm hopeful that we will come out of this as well.

John Torpey  30:33

Well, that's a worrisome balance, I suppose, but also an optimistic one. So we certainly wish you the best in finding a way out of this dramatic and concerning situation. That's it for today's episode. I want to thank Farzana Haniffa of the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka for sharing her insights about recent developments there. 

John Torpey  30:55

Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance, as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.