The roots of Sri Lanka’s political chaos go back to 2005, says Emily Schmall in The Daily, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was first elected president. He envisioned Sri Lanka as “the next Singapore”: a booming economy with a growing middle class. So Rajapaksa courted China and the IMF for loans to build the infrastructure he believed would make Sri Lanka a tourist hotspot. “And it worked.” Europeans flocked to the country; modern cities sprang up with high-rise towers and luxury hotels. In just ten years, the economy “more than tripled”. People largely turned a blind eye to Rajapaksa’s nepotistic appointments and “vanity projects” – notably a Chinese-funded state-of-the-art cricket stadium – as they, for the first time, enjoyed their share of modern luxuries.
But Covid revealed the cracks in this success story. Sri Lanka’s tourism-dependent economy was crippled by “one of the most stringent lockdowns anywhere in Asia”. And when Russia invaded Ukraine, “a situation that had been difficult became impossible”. Skyrocketing global prices meant the government struggled to import essentials as well as service its colossal foreign debt. Faced with 50% inflation, the middle class, now used to higher living standards, couldn’t even afford the basics. Their children were sent home from schools that couldn’t afford to keep the power on. The 300,000 protestors descending on Colombo are not a coalition “in any political sense”, but are united in their anger at the elite’s economic mismanagement.