Sri Lanka
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Sri Lanka’s disgraced former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen greeting his supporters in 2019. Reuters

LettersSri Lankan crisis is a cautionary tale about the dangers of authoritarian populism

  • Sri Lanka’s self-serving leaders exploited racial tensions to gain power, then drove the once-prosperous country to financial ruin
  • In an age of populist politics, it’s a path other countries could be led down
Sri Lanka
Feel strongly about these letters, or any other aspects of the news? Share your views by emailing us your Letter to the Editor at [email protected] or filling in this Google form. Submissions should not exceed 400 words, and must include your full name and address, plus a phone number for verification.
Despite calls for the arrest of Sri Lankan ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he is almost certain to get off scot-free, having been granted permission to remain in Singapore for now. There, Rajapaksa and his funds are in good hands. The same cannot be said for the country he left behind, where crisis serves as a warning to a world increasingly governed by self-serving demagogues.

Sri Lanka’s story is one of progressive unravelling, from a prosperous multi-ethnic democracy into political and financial bankruptcy. The decline began in 1956, with populist leaders stoking racial tensions. Exploiting feelings of resentment among the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population towards the minority Hindu Tamils due to their over-representation in white-collar jobs, Sinhalese politicians sought to remove Tamil as an official language and instigated pogroms.

Official complicity and “disappearances” of Tamils eventually led to the formation of a separatist movement known as the Tamil Tigers. Their war with the government lasted decades and only ended with the Tigers’ defeat in 2009.

Serious though was the harm done by years of domestic terrorism, ethnic discrimination and economic stagnation, the war’s most poisonous legacy lies in the normalisation of authoritarian “emergency” governments.

Though Sri Lankan politics had long been dominated by elite families, prolonged civil strife had allowed families like the Rajapaksas to form an authoritarian oligarchy. In a system where familial nepotism is the modus operandi, incompetence, cynicism and corruption are inevitable. Unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka scores poorly in freedom indexes due to human rights violations, censorship and undemocratic practices.
It was an inept authoritarian leadership that squandered Sri Lanka’s opportunity of a lifetime. In the 2010s, the end of the civil war, a global post-2008 boom and a rising China keen to buy influence together meant Sri Lanka enjoyed an unprecedented influx of loans and investment. Yet corruption and imprudent spending turned the blessing into a curse.

While one may dismiss Sri Lanka as “just another Third World country”, it is worth considering whether our own politicians possess any greater integrity (or competence). Indeed, the current political zeitgeist expects and implicitly honours corruption. We as a society ought to re-evaluate our collective Stockholm syndrome before following our political elite down Sri Lanka’s path of self-serving suicide.

Shun Kwok, Tsuen Wan