Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as vice-dean, undergraduate, in the Faculty of Arts and Science. His most recent novel is Dante’s Indiana.
I recently saw a picture of people lined up for cooking gas in Sri Lanka. My eyes lingered: The canisters were blue and one of the women was wearing yellow. Was this a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine?
Ask me about dysentery in Mariupol or Polish missile orders, about Emmanuel Macron’s neo-Gaullist flexing or the Russian Orthodox Church’s relationship to a jingoistic Kremlin, or about the influence of a possible Scandinavian expansion of NATO on Turkish domestic politics and vice versa: I have a clear and informed sense of these things and many others associated with Ukraine, as do, I imagine, many Canadians concerned with the world beyond our borders. Whereas over the past few months I have struggled to take more than passing notice of the increasingly dire situation in Sri Lanka, my parents’ birth country, a place I have written about in fiction and essays for many years, and a nation that a UN official, speaking last week, said could soon be facing “a full-blown humanitarian emergency.”
I claim no parity of local or geopolitical stakes between Sri Lanka and Ukraine. That the war in Ukraine is a continuing source of grave concern around the world, with the potential for layers of wider and deeper consequence, is right and undeniable. That my interest in the current situation in Sri Lanka, despite my several autobiographical connections to the island nation, was disproportionately piqued by thinking I saw a combination of blue and yellow isn’t so straightforward. Instead, it’s an indicator of how hard it can be to keep multiple international crises front of mind – even ones that might naturally matter more to you – when one in particular has so decisively commanded, indeed conditioned and actually coloured, your responses to other conflicts and problems around the world. Put simply, it’s hard to devote the time and effort necessary to understand emergent crises and conflicts these days if they’re not already connected to well-established global stories such as the war in Ukraine.
I began to feel this especially last month, when a colleague at the University of Toronto asked whether I’d be willing to have my name put forward for news media queries about the situation in Sri Lanka. I declined, not being in a position to comment with any particular insight or authority (but again, ask me about the brinkmanship involved in the Black Sea blockade, or the merits of Russian oligarch diplomacy). What I did know came from news items and what my parents had passed on from family and friends and WhatsApp forwards, dating from January onward. But even with such relatively direct reports, it was hard to sense things were going as dramatically wrong as they were.
Over the past six months especially, people in Sri Lanka have been increasingly fed up with a government long dominated by members of the Rajapaksa family. Food, medicine and other basic items – such as the blue-cylindered liquid petroleum that’s used as cooking gas in many households – were becoming more expensive and scarce amid daily power outages, which are problems that unfortunately feature in countries throughout the Global South. Finally, more and more ordinary citizens, across sectarian and economic divides, were feeling not just discouraged and worried, but angry with their circumstances and prospects and fast losing faith in their elected leaders. Where isn’t this to some degree the case these days?
These indicators weren’t particularly explicable of Sri Lanka’s dilemmas, nor was its often-tragic modern history, the main events of which are especially well known in Canada. This country is home to one of the world’s largest Sri Lankan diasporas, the majority of whose members, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, are part of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. This diaspora owes mostly to the migrations catalyzed by Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, which ended decisively in 2009 with still-controversial brutality. Throughout the years of that grinding conflict, I could reliably explain the situation by way of rough analogy to other long-standing, more globally prominent sectarian conflicts, whether in Northern Ireland or between Israelis and Palestinians. And among other recent difficult events in Sri Lanka, the tsunami of 2004 required little close study to comprehend its devastating effects on the island, and even the horrific Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 were at least, unfortunately, readily legible well beyond its shores. Radicalized young men attacked ordinary churchgoers with clear intent and vicious abandon as their mortal contribution to a global holy war.
In contrast, a messy tangle of causes is behind Sri Lanka’s paralyzed state – and paralyzed daily life – of recent months. Among them, as Bjorn Lomborg explained recently, is the country’s erratically bold decision to adopt organic farming exclusively in 2021. This was unsustainable in terms of both what was materially and practically needed to do so, and how much food in turn was produced on and for a small island nation of 22 million people. And that clearly bad decision was made under already worsening circumstances that stretch back more than a decade. After the conclusion of the civil war, then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over a family-aggrandizing national renewal effort, marked by years and years of major public-works projects – including an eponymous new international airport and an eponymous new international cricket stadium in the family’s base area in the south.
These continuingly unsuccessful projects have been made possible by billions in loans from China, on China’s terms. This is in keeping with its constricting largesse to poor and struggling countries in Africa and Asia. Indeed, the continuing Belt and Road gambit now counts among its winnings a warm-water deep port just south of China’s neighbour-cum-rival India: In 2018, China negotiated a 99-year lease to a new southern Sri Lankan port after it became clear that Sri Lanka could not pay back the loan it had accepted – from China – to construct the port in the first place.
In other words, Sri Lanka’s finances were in bad shape four years ago, and that was two years before COVID-19 shut down the country’s tourism economy and severely interrupted its remittance economy, as expatriates working in service jobs in the Middle East and elsewhere had much less to send home during the pandemic. Meanwhile, after a few years’ absence from power, Mr. Rajapaksa and his brothers successfully took back control of the government in late 2019, this time with Mahinda as prime minister and former defence minister Gotabaya as President, and other siblings and relatives occupying various ministerial posts.
It was under this particular arrangement of players that Sri Lanka reached its current reckoning: an ever-increasing inability to feed and fuel itself amid and because of double-digit monthly inflation, a failed national agricultural scheme, a near-total loss of the foreign currency reserves needed to import basic goods, a default on debt interest payments to foreign creditors, and a credible claim of total inability to pay down its accumulated foreign debt, which is currently estimated to be at least US$50-billion. All of this has led, in recent months, to broad (rather than sectarian) protests (a small and hopefully durable good, in such a long, sharply divided country), which became violent and eventually led to the prime minister’s resignation and other members of the Rajapaksa family stepping down, other than the President.
A new parliamentary government now faces two bad options for improving Sri Lanka’s situation. Ranil Wickremesinghe, returning to the position of Prime Minister for a sixth time, declared in a recent interview with the Associated Press his willingness to buy oil and accept wheat from Russia. Here, rather than my myopic picture-viewing, is a hard connection to the war in Ukraine: An economically isolated Russia is looking for outlets for its resources, and the sudden new leader of Sri Lanka needs these same resources, desperately. Will adherents of the embargo on Russian goods find material ways to help Sri Lanka stay on their side? Or will they acknowledge the comparative security and ease of their rejection of Russia’s offerings, given the far greater array of options they have, and also the lack of strategic value associated with Sri Lanka? Meanwhile, beyond the abiding interests of India in Sri Lanka’s situation – always a source of mutual ambivalence – at least one other major nation has made it clear it wants to help: China has offered hundreds of millions of dollars in new loans, which Mr. Wickremesinghe has said he may accept, no doubt in absence of more attractive offers.
This situation offers clear evidence of China’s muscular global presence but we don’t need to cite that, or a connection to the war in Ukraine, to understand Sri Lanka’s dilemma. Instead, we should look at Haiti. As a wide-ranging series of scathing articles in The New York Times revealed recently, Haiti’s long-standing terrible state of domestic affairs owes to two centuries of punitive treatment by world powers, beginning with a French imperial state that acquiesced to early 19th-century independence, absent warfare, on the agreement of cash payments that were only possible because of high-interest loans provided by French banks. The Times story points to later variations, by U.S. and international organizations, of this same pattern of controlling support, affirming the core premise of Haiti’s deep struggles to advance itself. All this, in turn, starkly frames Sri Lanka’s current temptation and possible trajectory: to accept loans from the powerful nation it’s already indebted to, which in turn will deepen that already deep debt, all just to pay for basic goods from a global pariah.
Belatedly beginning to understand Sri Lanka’s situation, I claim no special sense of what it should do, nor can I predict when and how it will emerge from its latest struggles. Instead, I can only hope that more and more people so clearly capable of large-minded and great-hearted responses to clear and dramatic evidence of suffering in places such as Ukraine can and will, without any gratuitous colouring, devote a little more attention to the less clear, less dramatic, but no less real suffering under way in places such as Sri Lanka.
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