Op-Ed: Watching Sri Lanka’s democracy teeter amid popular uprisings

A popular revolution is unfolding in Sri Lanka, with the fall of one of Asia’s most powerful political dynasties amid hunger, heartbreak and the immutable resilience of the Sri Lankan people.

Widespread apathy transformed into political anger. After 40 years of fierce internal conflicts fanned by politicians, Sri Lankans are united on an unprecedented scale, demanding an end to an entrenched political order. What is emerging on the streets of Colombo is a lesson for the rest of the world.

Over the weekend, protesters stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home and office, and the official residence of the prime minister. Rajapaksa fled the country, first to the Maldives, and then traveled on Thursday to Singapore. For months, demonstrators have been demanding accountability, transparency and effective governance. Unlike the rioters in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, they are not seeking to delegitimize the legislature or the country’s democratic institutions. Rather, they are calling for those who claim to represent the people to be held accountable for their actions. As the Rajapaksa dynasty comes to an end, the much harder task of righting the wrongs now begins.

Sri Lanka is a 2,500-year-old civilization, Asia’s oldest democracy to offer universal suffrage and the country that produced the world’s first female prime minister in 1960. Until recently, it was an economic success story — emerging from nearly three decades of civil war that ended in 2009 — and it was a model for public health and educational development in the region. And yet it is now a nation teetering on the verge of collapse due to political and administrative mismanagement, corruption and an apathetic democratic culture that allowed for political impunity and rampant nepotism. As long as roads were built and wars were won, people tolerated the status quo.

It took an unprecedented economic crisis to jolt the country into action. Sri Lanka went bankrupt, and there have been food and fuel shortages, while talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout are ongoing. Rajapaksa’s reputation of ruthlessness earned him the nickname the “Terminator” within his family. With his humiliating departure on a military aircraft to the Maldives, a scene that evoked the memory of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s run from Kabul in August, the first chapter of Sri Lanka’s revolution has come to a volatile end. (Rajapaksa reportedly emailed his resignation to Sri Lankan officials on Thursday.)

Now the people’s movement, called the Aragalaya (the Struggle), is entering a new and more complex phase. The Sri Lankan Parliament must form a new government under the constitution. For Sri Lanka’s democracy to survive, a deeper examination of the political culture that led to this crisis is necessary, and a system reboot is critical. This starts with the accountability for the political elite.

The concentration of power in the hands of a few in Colombo, as well as royalty-like deference to those in authority, was the norm. A few selective educational institutions in the capital created an elite class of politicians and bureaucrats. This allowed for presidential Cabinets as large as a small town and ministerial titles that sounded made up, and, in the case of Rajapaksa, near total control of a government that was run like a personal fiefdom. The great irony is that all of this took place in a highly literate, democratic country with generally free and fair elections. The last few months have turned this political culture upside-down.

Although the Rajapaksa clan has been dethroned, the enablers and executors remain in power, mostly behind the scenes. And opportunistic politicians in Parliament are now lining up one by one for their customary news conferences. With the whole world watching, Sri Lankans know that it is not enough for these politicians to point fingers on camera while professing their love and admiration for protesters on the streets.

Sri Lankans will not forget the excesses of these politicians or how they facilitated and benefited from a political culture that has led to this collapse. Gone are the days of reverence for ministers with titles longer than their resumes.

The people of Sri Lanka have an opportunity to rewrite their nation’s destiny. This means saying no to a political culture that bends the rules based on one’s social status. This means saying no to corruption and to the politics of division. For decades, political parties benefited from pitting one part of the population against another to gain political power.

The combustible mix of cronyism, inequality and institutional mistrust that upended a failed government is not unique to Sri Lanka. Exacerbated by the pandemic and pushed to the brink, Sri Lankans have shown how a citizenry will act to correct its course. The United States and other countries should take note. The future of liberal democracy depends on it.

Michael Paramathasan was born in Sri Lanka and is a former director of labor relations and senior policy advisor in the administration of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.