* Structural changes were made to the Sri Lankan constitution by the Rajapaksas, a sibling regime. Nepotism removed the checks and balances and independent institutions were politicised including the judiciary, police, and military.
* The Rajapaksas accumulated significant debt through large borrowings mainly from China, as well as investments on strategic projects that did not bring any tangible returns and exacerbated already existing problems.
* Sri Lanka needs to immediately recalibrate its foreign policy and once again pursue a rules-based international order. Sri Lanka is an island sitting at the geostrategic location of the Indian Ocean region.
* Sri Lanka needs to re-engage with multilateral security mechanisms like the Quad, which can also provide support in curbing the terrorist threat in South Asia and enhancing international security.
* The political vacuum and economic instability in Sri Lanka could enable organised crime to flourish. The island nation may also be used as a hub for narcotics coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan by sea. International cooperation and greater intelligence sharing are more essential than ever before.
* The largest tourism markets for Sri Lanka were from Russia and Ukraine. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine amplified the economic problems of Sri Lanka post-pandemic, and the resulting rise in global oil prices compounded Sri Lanka’s economic crisis.
SG: Dr. Sajjan Gohel
AA: Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
SG: Hello, and welcome to DEEP Dive, brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. Each episode, we speak to experts and practitioners in international security and defence, counter-terrorism, and geopolitical current events to gain insight into the most pressing matters of global affairs.
In this episode we speak to Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, who is the Strategic Advisor on Geopolitics and International Security at The Millennium Project in Washington D.C. Asanga is the author of several books including Sri Lanka at Crossroads: Geopolitical challenges and National Interests as well as Conundrum of an Island.
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, thank you for joining us on NATO DEEP Dive
AA: Thank you for having me.
SG: Let me paint the scene, if I may. Sri Lanka is a beautiful island nation, off the coast of India. It’s been very welcoming to tourists. When Hollywood needs a forest, it films there, iconic movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I believe one of The Jungle Book movies also was filmed there. Sri Lanka is not often in the news for bad things in the past. Although there had been that long battle against the Tamil Tigers in the civil war, there was also the devastating 2004 tsunami. Yet with the Tamil Tiger insurgency defeated, Sri Lanka began to look like a success story by the standards of the region.
Just a few years ago, it had been elevated from a lower middle class income country to an upper middle class income country by the World Bank. Its GDP per capita was about the same as countries in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine and Moldova, and only just slightly behind Brazil. It was a thriving tourist destination and was the success story of South Asia. Yet now we’re looking at a country with runaway foreign debt, skyrocketing costs of foreign imports, a collapsing currency, falling exports, shortages of food, fuel, and medicines. Where did this go wrong? Did this country sleepwalk into disaster?
AA: Well, I think to answer your question, yes Sri Lanka was seen as a trading hub from ancient history. The word serendipity comes from Sri Lanka, because the island was called Serendib one time. So, it’s a geostrategic hotspot in the Indian Ocean, sitting in the sea lines of communication—the east west sea lines of communication.
The problem emerged due to multiple factors; Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime’s inward policy prescription—irrational prescription—was the main cause for the problem. I would say there were other factors also, which he inherited from the previous regimes, which is the debt, the large amount of borrowings I would say. Those borrowings mainly from China, as well as sovereign bonds, as well as many other countries also. But the Chinese percentage of borrowings as well as the investment that was made on strategic projects did not have any return—minimum return.
So, I’ve studied the Chinese BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects in Sri Lanka, as well as, the larger footprint, the Rajapaksas welcoming the Chinese footprint. The growing footprint in Sri Lanka became a concern to the foreign policy, Sri Lanka had a very balanced foreign policy from its past, non-aligned, and we call it balanced. Now, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother who was the president from 2005 to ‘15, ended a war, as you mentioned, a three-decade civil war in 2009. There were many issues, structural changes that were made to the Sri Lankan Constitution by the Rajapaksas, bringing power to the executive presidency. First initially by his brother, and then followed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa from an amendment, which he made soon after he became president, moving power from the legislature to the executive, removing checks and balances, the independent institutions, such as the Bribery [and Corruption] Commission (CIABOC), such as the Police Commission, were taken under him. He altered the model, I would say much more than his brother did, Mahinda, by inviting 27 military officers into civil positions, including the foreign secretary of Sri Lanka. That I think created one of the biggest concerns because for the first time the civilian military balance we had, was disturbed. And, for example, the archaeology department, again, a military appointment was there in the archaeological [department] and poverty alleviation, [and] on agriculture, to grow vegetables.
So, it was something very new for the Sri Lankans. And also, the regime was very unique because it was a sibling regime. President, as well as the prime minister, who was his brother, which was Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president, followed by many others. He expanded his family, the finance minister was his brother, another brother, another was in charge of the telecommunications used, Mahinda’s son was involved in that. And then not only the brothers, but also their children also. So, it was a family rule, controlling all the main key ministries, which had internal issues where the senior ministers started questioning the autocracy that Gotabaya built and resigning one after the other. And the corruption issues, the charges that were made by the attorney general, for example, there were charges on a floating armoury issue, with more than 1000 indictment charges raised by the Attorney General [and] was dropped by Gotabaya.
So, the interference with the judiciary was another area, which I saw in 2021, when I wrote The Coming Anarchy in Sri Lanka, because the judiciary managed to keep at least some sort of democracy moving forward, some sort of sensibility, with rational judgments given. But when the executive started interfering with the judiciary, such as my writing in June 2021, The Coming Anarchy I highlighted the president pardoning a political criminal, who was sentenced by the judiciary and he gave a presidential pardon to him. So, what I mentioned was, [if you] keep on interfering with the judiciary like this, you will lose the credibility and integrity of the whole of the institutions and bureaucracies especially. And you’re moving the country toward an anarchic situation, which happened exactly within a year, [on] July ninth was when the people came out and protested.
So, not only the economic issues, economic issues were considerable, but then political issues were also a serious concern because all the protesters are saying, ‘we want a change in the political culture, we want to end nepotism, we want to end corruption.’ So, it is a political culture change that the protesters are requesting. Apart from the hardship that they’re going through, for days in standing for fuel; the highest inflation rate in the world after Zimbabwe, the second highest is in Sri Lanka; the daily wages, there are many Sri Lankans, the larger percentage of Sri Lankans [are] daily wage earners, so they’ve been affected. As well as their income being affected, the schools have been closed, the government sector is completely dysfunctional. So, it’s a complete dysfunctionality, I would say.
SG: Well, you, in much detail, unpacked a lot of the problems that the Rajapaksa dynasty had created and mentioned very rightly that it was not just the economic, but it was the military, it was the judiciary, there was a strong dynamic of nepotism. And we’ve seen that dynastic Rajapaksa rule come to an end. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned. Whilst abroad, fleeing to the Maldives initially. And he was the eighth president of Sri Lanka and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa who you were also talking about was the sixth president. It’s not that dynastic politics is specifically only for Sri Lanka, it’s quite common across South Asia and many other parts of the world, but could we say that this pivotal moment now in Sri Lanka signifies the end of dynastic politics or are there other potential ruling families in the past that may see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation?
AA: I can’t call it an end, because of the South Asian context. When you look at it culturally, as well as when you look at how South Asia—South Asia is a very unique region, I captured in my book Conundrum of an Island, where security sensitivity is a serious issue. I found that, there was an article which I wrote called Bombs and Elections, in which I found that South Asia is very unique to any other region in the world, where, within a week or two, you have bombs, or within a month, you have a bomb, then the whole political [sphere], the campaign’s, redirect towards an authoritarian ruler or a family ruler, who wants to establish [themselves].
So, what happened in Sri Lanka was exactly the same because 6.9 million votes which Gotabaya got, they got two thirds of the parliament majority. So, in 2019, it was following the Easter Sunday bomb attack, which killed 250 People in Sri Lanka. So, his campaign was launched one week after the Easter Sunday bomb attack. So, basically, the campaign was to guarantee security, that when he comes there won’t be any mistakes like this, and highlighting the issues that the previous government had on the security concern, because he was the former Defence Secretary, the ideal candidate for the situation. And then he managed to win the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, which is a larger percentage now who’s protesting as well as who got rid of him, together with the minority community.
So, South Asia has that uniqueness on the fragile security situation and fragile states can be used to breed terrorism, as well as certain clusters of terrorism, the Easter Sunday [terrorists] if you trace back there were clusters in India. So, we found many security lapses. And then intelligent sharing was a serious issue, the intelligence that was shared by India to Sri Lanka, [which were] multiple warnings prior to the attack, were not shared with the United States.
So, a mechanism like the Quad and security sharing mechanisms from the Quad that have materialised, are positive trends towards curbing the terrorist threat in South Asia. So, I think the multi-pronged approach is what is required. Regionalism is lacking in South Asia, although we have ‘minilaterals’ like Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India on intelligence sharing, which was signed after 10 years of negotiations, those are achievements, but then you need a wider regional approach on these security concerns.
But Gotabaya Rajapaksa did a lot of policy blunders as well as disturbing countries. If you look at—I can give a good example—the Easter Sunday report, on the presidential report, basically the report mentions that the Indian intelligence that was shared was just information only, it was not intelligence. That is absolutely wrong because it was intelligence. And they managed to even mention the day of the attack. So, they were accurate in intelligence. So, there was a kind of distrust between nations like India. The Rajapaksa’s usually have a tendency of tilting towards China, which happened in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime. And our foreign policy was even tilted so much that the foreign secretary spoke of the human rights violations of another country, which is China, on Xinjiang, saying that there is no human rights violation in Xinjiang. Sri Lanka has never taken such positions in the past. So, the reasoning of that is because reciprocally, they expect China to defend Sri Lanka’s human rights concerns in Geneva.
So, I think the loss of the foreign policy tilt, as well as, the loss of many projects, such as the US Millennium Challenge Corporation Fund, a grant of 480 million, Gotabaya then had a commission for that, to evaluate the MCC grants. So, the report came out saying that there is a national security threat from the grant. These are all illogical, irrational decisions that he took. So, I think right now, you would have all these issues that he [made], the policy blunders were part of his. I would say he lost his position because of all of this.
SG: Interestingly, you’ve spoken about the Quad, which is this alliance with the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. Sri Lanka, as you mentioned, is a very important country geo-strategically, and it seems to have moved from various different positions when it comes to its relationship with, say Quad nations and then its relationship with China. Where do you see Sri Lanka pivoting itself in the future, now that the Rajapaksa regime is over? Will it try and keep a neutral position? Or do you think its future is perhaps aligned with one particular group or nation?
AA: Sri Lanka needs to immediately recalibrate its foreign policy towards the balanced foreign policy we had. And that should be number one of the interim regime now, after the president leaves the country basically, and he leaves his position now, the acting president, basically, as well as the Prime Minister, now, you should understand this is the fourth cabinet will be having in three months, so the dysfunctionality is very clear. And this is the first time a Sri Lankan president has escaped from military flight and given resignation to the Sri Lankan embassy in another country. So the situation is that the recalibration is really important, because we have lost trust with a lot of our friendly countries by coming up with this, what I mentioned earlier, the policy decisions that they took. Again, to give you an example on Japan. Japan’s LRT projects, as well as Japan’s East Container Terminal (ECT) project, Japan and India, the tripartite agreement, so Rajapaksa cancelled both of them. So ECT, again, they saw it as…all of these decisions, he tried to weaponize it to his own political gain, which is the ultranationalist sentiment which he was propagating. So he tried to sort of weaponize it, but then the foreign policy tilt was also an immediate recalibration of foreign policy, so a balanced foreign policy was required.
Some of the agreements we have signed, I would say were pretty much harmful for the country. I mean, the 99-year lease agreement, I have seen this agreement, because I had access to it as the Director General, I have seen multiple agreements in Sri Lanka, which has serious, I would say, long-term implications, because I call it, more than a debt trap in Sri Lanka, a strategic trap. There are three reasons I call it a strategic trap from China. First is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) involvement with the Rajapaksa political party, [Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, SLPP], the CPC as well as the SLPP. Now, about that particular point and the funding to the political party, so I have elaborated in one of my papers which will be published very soon on that particular area, which I have studied. The second is basically on the interference on the human rights issue, the reciprocal arrangements and the human rights concern, which I discussed, between China and Sri Lanka, again moving the country towards a dangerous tilt. The third is the military-to-military agreements, which is very concerning. One of the issues is, for example, the telecommunications network, 80% or more is owned by China, is run by, operated by China. So the surveillance for law enforcement as well as intelligence, so there is a concern, with military-to-military basically agreements, because Sri Lanka is an island sitting at the geostrategic hotspots, the Indian Ocean, the Indian Ocean security, which we have played earlier for a rules-based order, we have always contributed as a nation to a rules-based international order. Law of the sea, for example, Sri Lanka’s immense contribution in the 1970s.
And so you see contribution towards democratic values and the alteration of the democratic model was happening during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime, with the military as well as with the external interference. So, you need immediate recalibration of the foreign policy and to support a rules-based order in the Indian Ocean, as well as to support the neighbouring country, India’s neighbourhood first as well as the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), the programme of Prime Minister Modi, which all the other nations are supporting. So, here’s a nation kind of sandwiched between the BRI and the Indo-Pacific. But if you look at the, it’s important…okay, BRI, we are part of it, but then we need to have a sort of toolkit to have the BRI projects more transparent as well as, I mean, those agreements should be made available to the general public. The protesters are asking for them; they said, we don’t even know what’s going on in this country, because the group of elites are controlling the signing. We sign an agreement on a Sunday, on a weekend. We don’t sign agreements on a 99-year. So we did that also. So you could see that all these malpractices and all that happened, a constitutional…I mean, we did a change to our constitution again without any consultation of the general public. So the public and the protests are asking for consultation, accountability. Now, the president has run away again, they’re asking for accountability.
I think the democratic nations should support Sri Lanka at this moment. There is a huge role for the international community to play. I mean, I know that the US is giving technical assistance for institutions, but then what the British parliamentarian raised,
Ed Davey, he’s the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, very interesting, he said Sri Lanka requires two packages: one is the economic package, which is from the IMF and all that, but then the political package, what I want to highlight is what he mentioned on the political package was accountability. So people are asking for the looted money, the corruption charges, all that. So Ed Davey mentioned that why don’t we even discuss, talk about an international arrest warrant? I mean, obviously that’s what the democratic leaders should be talking about right now. And, if they have looted the money, there’s the corruption charges they should investigate. So the democracies and even President Biden did not invite Sri Lanka for the democratic summit because of the serious concerns of what’s going on to the democratic fabric, as well as how Rajapaksa was interfering and creating this autocratic model. So, I think the Quad in the Pacific, all these mechanisms should have specific roles for these countries, because you need to tag them, especially we are in a volatile time because of post-COVID, as well as the war in Ukraine, a situation where countries can tilt towards autocratic, you know, bring in autocratic sentiments, as well as move away from the democratic norms and values. So, there is a huge role for the international community.
SG: Absolutely. One other aspect is that when there is a political vacuum and economic instability, organised crime tends to flourish. Now even prior to the fall of the Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lanka was having to deal with the challenges of narcotics coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan by sea, especially heroin and now increasingly methamphetamines. NATO DEEP recently produced a very detailed report entitled Narco-Insecurity, Inc., in which it showed that, in many ways, Sri Lanka is one of the primary victims and targets of what is going to emanate from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Do you think that in this vacuum that now exists inside Sri Lanka that there could be further challenges that could be coming from both Afghanistan, Pakistan, not just in terms of terrorism, but in terms of narcotics as well?
AA: Definitely. Sri Lanka, that’s why I mentioned that they could use Sri Lanka as a hub for transnational security concerns. I mean, it has been reported so much about the drug trafficking, on people smuggling, so, various other concerns…I mean, if you look at the Indian Ocean security, there is a role that Sri Lanka should play as sitting in the geostrategic hotspot in the Indian Ocean. So, the role is that, on the maritime security, they should be sort of, I mean, you know, the government of Sri Lanka should have a plan with India as well as neighbouring countries. How to sort of tackle these issues, one particular incident was, I mentioned about the Easter Sunday terror attack, the intelligence sharing is one very important area, but then when it comes for maritime security projects, such as in the European Union, the EU has about what’s happening in Madagascar as well as in the western Indian Ocean can come into Sri Lanka also. So this is on maritime, you know, illegal fisheries as well as maritime on arms smuggling and various others, so it’s very important that these measures as well as technical assistance come in to Sri Lanka. And it’s a time that, while the political system has been reset and all that, while the people are asking for better political culture, more transparent, so it’s very important to have this mechanism.
Also, the concern is law and order, yes, crimes. These obviously will be affected because of what’s happening. I mean, Sri Lanka is almost a failed state, because if you look at the fourth cabinet appointed, so there’s not functioning properly, the government is not functioning. So it moved from a fragile state, I would say, to a crisis state, and now I could call it almost a failed state. So we need to sort of bring back that sort of normalcy to the institutions as quickly as possible. So that it will not move towards a failed state where law and order is completely dysfunctional, and that’s really important. So, there is a danger here also, because what had happened was Rajapaksa appointed a prime minister, during his last few months, he appointed a new prime minister after his brother had to leave because of the protests. So the prime minister has only one seat in the parliament, and that’s also a bonus seat, which was given. It’s the first time again we are having a prime minister with one seat in the parliament. But then the credibility of the political model has to be re-established. The prime minister and the president should be people who are appointed by the people, elected by the people, not who come from bonus seats. And also those are really important, because if you make a sort of alteration to the credibility of the model, you will have a space for the military to walk in. This is the danger that I’m trying to highlight. I’ve been sort of mentioning in my…because there is a trend that it won’t become like Myanmar, but a model similar to Myanmar can emerge from Sri Lanka—a civilian-military sort of rule, because what I hear for the last few days is like, okay, the protesters walked into the president’s house, they counted the money, gave it to the police, so it’s not a mob, if they were mob, they would steal the money. There were incidents like two guns were stolen from the military, so that sort of thing. So I mean, there is a danger in those, because what they’re saying is like, okay, the prime minister’s made a statement saying rebels have to be sort of identified from the protesters. And then instead, an emergency was declared and then the curfew, followed by curfew. So the next, I think, couple of weeks are going to be very crucial for Sri Lanka.
SG: Very crucial indeed. And in a connected point about how things are impacting on Sri Lanka, if we can pivot to the sort of the final question of our discussion, the final topic even, the Russian invasion of Ukraine meant that the world’s biggest grain exporters were effectively taken out of the market, as well as Russian exports of fertiliser, which Sri Lanka’s farmers were recipients of. Coming out of the pandemic, Sri Lanka was counting on the return of tourism, which is a vital industry to the island. One problem was that the first and third largest tourism markets for Sri Lanka were Russians and Ukrainians. Russia is also a major buyer of Sri Lankan tea. The realities of the war and the sanctions on Russia have somewhat upended a lot of these arrangements. Did Putin’s invasion of Ukraine compound the economic problems of Sri Lanka?
AA: I would say to a certain percentage, yes. I mean, it did have an impact on the consumer prices because of the rise of the field prices. It did have an impact for the tourism industry. We had a large Eastern European tourist industry. That got affected from the war. Sri Lanka is one of the main tourist hotspots, and then we earn a lot from tourism, but the pandemic and then the Ukraine war had serious impact. So, the consumer prices, yes, there was an effect because of the oil prices, the rise of the oil prices. So yes, I would say the war in Ukraine did have an impact on the daily lives because of the consumer prices and the tourism industry. So those are the two things that were affected. On the fertiliser, well this has to be clearly understood, although the organic fertiliser switch was done by Gotabaya [Rajapaksa], there was Chinese shipments coming into the port. So a lot of people have not read that. They think that organic fertiliser, although he changed the immediate switch from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser was the main trigger point for the economic crisis, no, it was not the main trigger point. He made it a political, basically, a campaign to go on organic and you know, e-cars, or electric cars, etc. But then, while the Chinese shipment which came to the port, authorities found that was contaminated, and it’s a very interesting read to understand. And then 24 hours before it came to Colombo, we [Sri Lanka] had to pay for that shipment, which I have analysed that. So it’s not that he wanted to bring in organic fertiliser. Although it was a political choice he made overnight, switching did impact the entire agriculture industry. But with Russia, I would say only these two points were the main concerns, we do bring in fertiliser also. But the biggest impact was for the tourism industry.
SG: Interesting, and it’s been very important to have this discussion with you on a very important country that perhaps won’t necessarily get always the headline attention. But it just shows you what happens in Sri Lanka can have much wider ramifications. And I think it’s very germane to point out that Sri Lanka is not a dictatorship, like in the case of say, Libya, when the despot Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was violently removed from power back in 2011. Sri Lanka is a democratic nation with a thriving civil society movement that has very peacefully demonstrated its desire for change. And it’s been very important what you’ve been saying, because it helps us to glean from the Sri Lanka case study about democracies and what could go wrong when there is economic turmoil, as well as when there is political interference in terms of the military institutions and the judiciary. So I have to thank you for providing all this insight. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, thank you so much again for joining us on NATO DEEP Dive.
AA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
SG: It’s been our pleasure.
Thank you for listening to this episode of DEEP Dive. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. DEEP Dive is brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. The production and research team are Marcus Andreopoulos and Victoria Jones. For additional content, including full transcripts of each episode, please visit: deepportal.hq.nato.int/deepdive.
Disclaimer: Please note that the views, information, or opinions expressed in the DEEP Dive series are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of NATO or DEEP.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.