Episode 57. Sri Lanka: The End of Neutrality
Sri Lanka has for decades experienced crisis after crisis, but throughout it all remained steadfastly neutral, always playing bigger states like India and China off of each other. But now with a worsening financial crisis and ethnic tensions flaring up again can Colombo afford to go it alone?
Guests: Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Fellow at the The Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
Fellow at the World Economic Forum
Fellow at Colombo Shapers
Sri Lankan minister for regional cooperation.
MP for Kegale
Chair of the foreign relations committee.
Professor of international law at the University of Nottingham
Panel member to the International Protection Office
Part 1: Where The Tigers Sleep (3:34)
Abeyagoonasekera gives us an overview of the political and economic history of Sri Lanka from its independence from the United Kingdom until today. He notes that prior to 1977, policy was highly nationalistic and inwardly focused, which gave way to a period of economic liberalisation. The governments of this period failed to address social issues however, namely minority and youth concerns, which would result in the country's civil war between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic communities. It also led to struggles between disparate political factions, created a 'dysfunctionality of policy', and thereby severely hampered the country’s economy.
The ethnic divide if anything is widening, and no formal or practical reconciliation process exists, despite multiple promises by successive governments. We look at the socio-political tensions and demands which have emerged within Sri Lanka, and the ways in which the government has tried and failed to respond effectively to them.
Economic dysfunction is also growing, with food shortages, black market hoarding, the collapse of tourism in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and import restrictions contributing to growing anger towards the government. A notable symptom of Sri Lanka's economic woes is the increasing migration of its youth away from the country, seeking jobs and easier costs of living.
Part 2: Feeding the Loan Sharks (21:17)
The Chinese financed construction of the Hambantota Port and its subsequent leasing to the Chinese Government in exchange for debt relief has been closely monitored due to the ports highly strategic location. With Sri Lankan Minister Tharaka Balasuriya we discuss Sri Lanka's approach to foreign investment and its position and relationship with its regional neighbours and trade partners.
We discuss the long-standing Sri Lankan commitment to non-alignment and geopolitical neutrality, but also its collaboration with regional powers on matters of common security and trade. Sri Lanka maintains fruitful and positive relations with its closest neighbours India and Bangladesh, as well as important trade links with China, ASEAN, and the Middle East.
The Indian Ocean is receiving increased geopolitical focus thanks to the presence of numerous major sea-lanes. Balasuriya discusses the geographic barriers to overland trade in Asia, and how the resulting importance of maritime to the increasingly powerful China ensure its interest in the region.
Part 3: Drifting Apart (36:25)
The possibility of China or another power establishing a military presence on Sri Lanka, potentially in exchange for financial aid has been raised. Ananthavinayagan highlights the aversion within Sri Lankan political society towards foreign military presence on the island, stemming from the typically nationalist outlook displayed by the government and the memory of the 1987 Indian Intervention.
We discuss the geopolitical future of Sri Lanka, and whether it should align itself with India, China, or ASEAN. Ananthavinayagan considers that the Rajapaksa government favours China as a strategic partner and has numerous aligned goals and policies. Sri Lanka is likely to move further towards them unless there is a major shift in the parliamentary balance of power. The newfound activity from China and even India's growing importance is also prompting the United States to take a closer interest, which has not been met with favour due to the perception that the USA will use issues such as human rights to intrude on domestic politics.
Ananthavinayagan believes that in the short-term, Sri Lanka will continue to slowly fracture as a nation as economic problems and ethnic tensions compound. The Rajapaksa family will likely continue to garner support from nationalist voters, but may ultimately be undone if the economy does not improve.
The Red Line's Sri Lanka Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Sri Lanka's position.
Sri Lanka: The Politics of Human Rights. Haans J Freddy The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka Gordon Wiess The Conundrum of an Island Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Jim Robertshaw