YouTube video

In July, photos and videos of immense crowds of people storming Sri Lanka’s presidential palace went viral. In spite of global interest in this spectacle of political upheaval, Sri Lanka’s crisis and history remain poorly understood by most people in the outside world. From the lingering effects of a 30-year civil war marked by vicious ethnic violence, to the destabilization of the island’s economy by the IMF, Sri Lanka today is caught in a maelstrom generations in the making. Acclaimed scholar Dr. Nira Wickramasinghe explains the past century of Sri Lanka’s history, examining how the transition from colonial to neocolonial rule laid the foundations for the country’s current crisis. This story is the first in a special TRNN two-part series on Sri Lanka’s history.

Dr. Nira Wickramasinghe is a chair professor of Modern South Asian Studies at Leiden University. She is the author of numerous books, including: Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka; Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History; and Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka.

Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Maximillian Alvarez:  Sri Lanka was headed towards a political and economic crisis long before protestors in the capital of Colombo took to the streets and stormed the president’s house in early July, forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry – A major contributor to the national economy – Basically evaporated overnight. The war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia, moreover, have triggered spiraling prices for essential resources and commodities that Sri Lankans depend on through imports. For months, Sri Lankans have suffered from skyrocketing inflation, widespread power cuts and food shortages, and a gas and diesel crisis that has wreaked havoc on working people’s lives and livelihoods, requiring many to wait up to three days in line for petrol.

But the unfolding crisis in Sri Lanka was also manufactured by government mismanagement, corruption, and the consolidation of power in the decade following the end of the civil war in 2009. A war that had embroiled the country in a perpetual state of emergency and violence for nearly 30 years.

From the disastrous rollout of a government-initiated shift away from chemical fertilizers that upended the agricultural sector to over-bloated spending on the military, the financing of essential government services through external debt, and the rapid depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves, the collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy and the pain every day Sri Lankans have felt has brought the long-simmering political dissatisfaction with the post-war Rajapaksa governments to a fierce boil.

While audiences around the world, especially here in the West, have been transfixed by sensational images of civilians swimming in the presidential pool or setting the prime minister’s office on fire, mainstream media has largely failed to provide viewers with the deeper context behind these scenes of rage and change and to trace the long historical roots of the current crisis.

In this two-part series, we’ll take a deep dive into the crisis in Sri Lanka, the long roots of that crisis from the colonial period to now, and what the economic, political, and cultural conditions of this crisis mean for the lives and daily realities of working people in Sri Lanka.

In part one, I speak with world-renowned scholar Nira Wickramasinghe, chair professor of modern South Asian studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Professor Wickramasinghe is the author of numerous books, including Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History, and Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka. Here’s my conversation with Professor Wickramasinghe, recorded at the beginning of August while she was in the capital of Colombo.

Well, Professor Nira Wickramasinghe, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News Network. How are you holding up?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  I’m well, thank you. I’m joining you from Colombo, actually. So I think I can give you some real up-to-date information about what’s going on. And I look forward to this conversation.

Maximillian Alvarez:  As do we. I’m really, really grateful to you for making time for this, especially given we’re on opposite ends of the world. And as you said, you are there in Colombo in the midst of truly historic events that we are going to dig into in this two-part special series for The Real News. And I wanted to start there, start where we are now, where you physically are right now, and ask you to frame how viewers and listeners should understand what they are witnessing right now. Because from people marching in the streets and storming the presidential palace to the election of Ranil Wickremesinghe last week, we’ve had many folks who have, admittedly, limited knowledge of Sri Lanka in politics and history reach out to us with questions about what is happening. And I wanted to start by asking if you could help frame these historic events for viewers and listeners who fit into that category. So how would you describe what is happening in Sri Lanka right now? What essential context do you think people need to have to make sense of what they’re seeing? And, for that matter, what are people, especially here in the West, not seeing that you are there in Colombo?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much for this question. I think the way the events have been reported, there’s always been a focus on the spectacular. So Sri Lanka became newsworthy, as it were, when people began to storm the presidential secretariat, very often wrongly described as the presidential palace, so you –

Maximillian Alvarez:  Including by yours truly.

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Well, it is the residence of the president, the official residence, but it’s also his office, his official office. And it used to be the old senate building. So it’s an official place. It’s not some kind of palace or whatever. So anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that the focus on the spectacular, on people jumping into the swimming pool, and occupying this official residence and secretariat has, in a way, presented the story in a narrow fashion. And what we need to understand, I think, is that the story begins at least a year before that.

And from about 2021, you had, all over the country, various social groups, farmers… Well, farmers, you also had fishermen, you had students, university professors already protesting and demonstrating their anxieties about the economic situation. And of course, it was not… Of course you’re storming [inaudible] It was picketing, or people were standing on the street, or they were demonstrating in their workplace, close to their workplace, et cetera.

So these events did not make news, but everybody in the country was aware of this. So there is this build-up up to this crescendo, which is the storming of the secretariat, which we all witnessed on TV and saw, some of us, in real life. I was also there at that march on the 9th of July, and I did not actually witness the storming, because at that moment they started, the police and the army were there with… What is it called? This gas, the –

Maximillian Alvarez:  Tear gas?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Tear gas, yes, to disperse the people. So it was not really safe to go too close. But until then, it was a very peaceful march and demonstration, and thousands and thousands of people walked there, to Colombo, from all parts of the country to say very clearly to the government that enough was enough. So in a sense, what was captured on TV was the tail end of the story, not the beginning. And that, I think, gives a slightly skewed analysis of really what happened, which was a very thoughtful and, I think, organized form of protest which came from all different types of quarters and that eventually led to this outburst which made the news, the international news.

Maximillian Alvarez:  So you’re telling me that media, mainstream media and social media only focuses on the spectacular story and doesn’t care about the context? We don’t have a history of that here. And I’m really, really hopeful that this two-part series that we’re doing here for The Real News will provide people with some of that essential context. We obviously can’t provide all of it, and I’m going to plug it a number of times, but just for everyone watching and listening, if you want to know more about this, you really, really should read all of Nira’s books. They’re phenomenal and they’re jam-packed with crucial information about Sri Lankan politics, culture, and history. And we’re going to dig into some of that here to try to give people at least a foundation upon which they can better understand what they’re watching in the videos of people protesting in Sri Lanka and headlines that they’re hearing about Sri Lanka.

And Nira, just to follow up quickly on one thing that you said, about how this pressure has been building, especially over the last year, I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about what everyday people in Sri Lanka have been going through. In the introduction, we mentioned that there are a lot of factors at work here. Obviously COVID-19 has hugely impacted people around the world, but it has also impacted the supply chain and the availability of necessary goods. The war in Ukraine has led to massive spikes in oil and gas and commodity prices that have hurt Sri Lanka quite badly. And of course, Sri Lanka’s largest industry is tourism. And so over COVID-19, that industry collapses. So I wanted to ask just in the past year leading up to these dramatic events, what have people in Sri Lanka been going through on a day-to-day basis?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Yeah, I mean, it’s a virtual collapse of people’s livelihoods. Every single industry has been touched. And I think the biggest issue at the moment is the lack of fuel, because there is no fuel, and it’s really very, very slowly coming in, and every aspect of everyday life is affected. So children can’t go to school, people can’t go to their offices, then small and medium industries are really seriously affected because they’re not able to get the products that they sell. And so it’s really touched every single aspect of people’s lives. Added to that, there’s been a shortage of cooking gas, which is now more or less coming in, but the fuel issue has been… So people are queuing up for petrol for three days.

And so you have lots of people, the ordinary people who don’t use buses, they use these tuk-tuks, these three wheelers, which is like the cheap mode of transport. So there are one million in Sri Lanka for a population of about 22 [million]. So people depend on them, and they’re not functioning. So people can’t drop their kids to school, and it’s really affecting people’s everyday life. Various studies that have come out recently have shown that it’s leading to malnutrition and that the poorer groups in society are skipping meals.

And what you have to know, and what maybe is something that needs to be reminded, is that Sri Lanka, in South Asia, among the countries in South Asia, is a country that has very high social indicators. It’s a country that has nearly full literacy. It was a middle income country and it had just reached the upper middle income level. So people are not accustomed to these kinds of hardships. And Sri Lanka has always had uninterrupted electricity. And for the first time since independence, you have situations where there are 12-hour power cuts. Now it has been reduced to about three hours. We have a fairly developed hydroelectric energy system. So with the rains, this is somewhat being solved, but it’s not completely solved yet. And so these power cuts also affect the productivity of people. And it’s something that is affecting every single aspect: economic life, social life.

The only thing that people have on their mind is, can they get gas? Can they get fuel? Can they get their next meal? It has led to a realization also that the politicians have failed in providing and in anticipating this crisis, and that there is a failure of governance. So it’s not only an economic revolt. It’s also, in many ways, a political revolt that you are witnessing now, where people want a change, and not simply a regime change. They also want fundamental structural changes. And so they want an end to corruption. They want an end to people abusing the system.

And so that’s also something which does not come out sometimes very well in the reportage that I see of the events where it’s always portrayed as an economic, visceral reaction to hardships. Whereas in fact there is, I think, quite a thoughtful analysis which comes from common sense. People have realized that there is a group in society that has been living off the system, and that the hardships are being felt by 90% of the people and that this is no longer acceptable. So I think what has to be made clear is that it’s not simply a revolt, an economic revolt. It’s also something very political that we are witnessing now.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, let’s drill down on that. Because given the breadth of your research and writing on Sri Lankan politics, history, and culture, I could genuinely ask you questions about this for days about the roots of today’s crisis, but I know that we only have limited time together. And again, I would encourage folks who want to learn as much as they can about this to read your books. But let’s start working our way backwards from this moment, trace and see how far we can get in the time that we have left. And to start that task of tracing the roots of today’s crisis, let’s take our first step back to 2009, when the decades-long civil war came to an end.

So in your book Sri Lanka in the Modern Age you write, “After President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government won a ruthless victory in the country’s three-decades civil war against a fierce insurgency waged by the rebel Tamil Tigers, the stage seemed to be set for the wartime president to assume a new persona, that of the father of the peacetime nation. Yet one of his earliest moves after the end of the civil war upset the country’s already precarious democratic balance. Following the passage of a constitutional amendment, clearing the way for him to stay in power ‘as long as the people desire it’. The regime became increasingly nepotistic, patriotic, sycophantic, corrupt, militaristic, and amoral. Supported by a depoliticized middle class and a blinded rural constituency, the country has now reached a stage of oppressive stability.”

So we’ll discuss the civil war in more depth next, but first I wanted to ask if you could unpack that paragraph for our viewers and listeners, because there’s a lot of really important stuff there. How did the promise of this long-awaited peace time give way to the oppressive stability that you write about, and how did this lay the groundwork for today’s political and economic crisis?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Yes, I think after this 30-year civil war came to an end, and your listeners probably know that it really ended in a very violent manner, with the Tamil Tigers being completely annihilated, and this led to the Tamil minority community becoming a subdued minority with no real voice. So what I feel, and what many people think, is that it was really a missed opportunity. Because this was the moment when the war was over, where a leader and a government with vision could have used this opportunity to build something and to be an Ashokan figure, who reminds you of this great King Ashoka in Indian history, who massacred thousands and thousands of people, and then became a righteous ruler, a Buddhist ruler.

But this moment was lost. It never happened. And instead what you found was a triumphalism and also a reliance on the majority and particular groups that were seen as the victors. So the army, the armed forces, the Sinhalese majority, the Buddhist majority, were given pride of place, and minority groups just had to accept this. And this was all done under the cover of a patriotic ideology. So the idea that either you love your country or you don’t, and all those who critique some of these ideas, et cetera, are seen as enemies and traitors. So since the Tamils had been already disposed of, the next group that was pitted against the majority, so this imaginary threat that were the Muslims, and also the the Westernized middle class that used a discourse of human rights or [inaudible], they were also seen as enemies of this project, this hegemonic project.

So in some ways, what’s interesting is that the idea of democracy was appropriated and subverted, in a sense. The idea that democracy means the voice of the folk, the people, and that this is the government that represents the people. And people, I think, just bought it, because they had been, for 30 years, in a situation of war. And I think when Mr. Rajapaksa came up as the savior, as the man who ended this war and who would bring about some kind of normalcy in the country, the Sinhalese electorate just endorsed it. And that was the beginning, really, of the power of this family, the Rajapaksas. He did come into power in 2005, but it really got entrenched once he won the war. And so yeah, this is really the story of the last 15 years.

And how this really relates to what is happening now, I think, is that these rulers made a lot of promises. They made a lot of promises that they were going to bring about this era of prosperity, et cetera. And when this economic meltdown happened, people who had voted… There’s 7 million people who voted in 2019 for the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who’s the man who won the war. Suddenly, it led to a realization that these people are really frauds, that they are not working for the benefit of the people, that they are just interested in their own prosperity and family politics. So I think, in some way, there is a lot of disillusionment now about what happened in the last 20 years, which seems to be…

I mean, there were lots of grandiose projects and people thought, okay, this is going to bring prosperity. This is going to trickle down to us. But actually, nothing really happened. And it was things like new ports, a new port, highways, buildings, these kinds of things. But in actual terms, when it came to the people’s everyday life in the last two years, it’s been a complete collapse. And all these choices that were made, economic choices that were made, actually seem to be totally faulty. I hope, in a sense, that these dominant ideas have now been eroded and that there is a breach, there is a sort of counter narrative, a counter hegemonic narrative that is being accepted, and that people are going to be more critical about their leaders and not take them as leaders, but as representatives. People have begun to realize that they don’t need leaders, that they need representatives, and that representatives, if they don’t perform, can be sent back.

So there is, I think, something good, really, that has happened out of this crisis. And I hope it’s going to lead to a more alert citizenry and a more active citizenship also, which is something that we really need at this moment. You know, checks and balances. Nobody believes anything now. When statesmen make various allegations, nobody believes in them anymore. And that’s, I think, some kind of progress, in a sense. It shows a more mature type of citizenship.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And I want us to end up there, about how this moment, as scary and painful as it is, is both a moment of great and terrible possibility. But before we get there, I guess the elephant in the room that we’ve already started to discuss is the civil war. And volumes and volumes have been written on the civil war, and I can’t possibly ask you to give viewers and listeners a crash course on 30 years of brutal conflict in a short amount of time. But, given that we are operating here with the goal of helping people understand the context and roots of today’s crisis, I’m hoping that that will at least give us a slightly narrower and more manageable avenue to discuss the civil war.

So, for those who don’t currently have that understanding, what would you say are the most essential contours and dynamics that characterized this nearly 30-year conflict, and what did experiencing such drawn-out hell do to the people of Sri Lanka, and how did it reshape the country, and how do you think the civil war set the stage for the crisis that Sri Lankans are experiencing today?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Yeah, I think the civil war has always been… I mean, at least for the people who grew up and who lived and worked during the last 30 years, it’s been, I think, the most damaging factor for the economy, in a sense. I mean, all the potential that could have been realized from the resources that Sri Lanka has. I mean, it’s a very well endowed country. It has lots of natural resources. It has so much potential in terms of human capital, the very educated, young population. And so all these potentials were put on hold during these 30 years. And everybody was in survival mode. And tourism really blossomed only after the end of the war.

All kinds of possibilities opened up with the end of the war. So for 30 years you had a country that was divided, you had people who were divided. Although you have to also understand that the minority Tamils, the group that spoke on their behalf, the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam… About half of the Tamils actually lived in the South, in Sinhalese areas. So it was not a division of the island into two very clear-cut regions, for the Tamil minority were actually quite a small group of people. People imagine that, because they were so much present in the media, et cetera, that it’s a… But actually, now the Tamil population is about 8% of the population, and there’s about 10% of Muslims who are Tamil-speaking. And about 5% also people of Tamil extraction who are in the Central Highlands. So you have about 25% of people, but the actual who are minorities.

So anyway, how this really connects to what we are living now is that I think the war and the hardships that people lived through allowed populist regimes to emerge. And over the years, the 30 years, you had a succession of leaders and governments that entrenched this narrative, this whole discourse of division, of authenticity, that also allowed these cross-ethnic solidarities never to take place. And so you had this focus on ethnic belonging on both sides. So it was kind of like a mirror image on the part of the Tamils and the Sinhalese and impossibility, really, of other types of solidarities to emerge.

And even in the politics of the country, you find political parties, et cetera, that are more ideological gradually just disappearing. So the old left completely collapsed after the ’70s. And we had two rebellions, two revolts of the youth, which were Marxist rebellions. And they were also crushed quite brutally in ’71 and then in ’88, ’89. So you don’t really have a type of politics that is capable of cross-cutting these ethnic divides. And the majority parties, of course, found it very useful to perpetuate this kind of politics, because it allowed them to have a very secure vote bank. And this also gave them a free hand, in a sense, to legislate in the way they wanted, et cetera.

So I think these types of politics are now being challenged with what you call the Aragalaya, which is the struggle, what it’s called. You might have seen on television some of the representatives of this Aragalaya, those who are more vocal. Because there’s no actual leadership, but there are people, various people who take stage and who speak. They are from all types of ethnicities, all types of religions. We could see Buddhist monks, you saw Catholic nuns, you had everybody taking part in this struggle. And this is, I think, something that is really challenging what we’ve been having since independence, actually, this division in terms of ethnicity and cultural groups.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I think that, again, one of the more hopeful things that I’ve been seeing from far away is what you just said. That the collection of people from different socioeconomic and ethnic groups participating in the revolts, the political revolt and the economic revolt, seems to be a really important sign of the will of a new post-civil war generation or political consciousness. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but given 30 years of brutal civil war, I have to imagine that seeing at least those different strands of society begin to coalesce is something that’s really good.

And I wanted to also bring up something that you write about in your book Sri Lanka in the Modern Age, which was exceedingly helpful for me. But at the same time, as you said, that a lot of the hopes for Sri Lanka were put on hold as the civil war wore on for nearly 30 years, there was also a concerted transformation that took place in the realm of the state. And you write “The transformation of the state from one based on welfare and redistribution to a neo-liberal war state accelerated under the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa.”

So viewers and listeners may not have known before today that Sri Lanka actually has a deep history of creating and expanding social welfare programs along with a strong democratic strain, having notably achieved universal suffrage all the way back in 1931 when Jim Crow was still alive and well here in the United States. But I wanted to ask if you could just say a little bit about that transformation of governance that you noted in the quote that I just read, and what that meant for Sri Lankan people and society as the 20th century wore on and gave way to the 21st?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Yes. As you remind me, Max, Sri Lanka was, for a long time, the model colony. Probably because of its size, and also it had a manageable population, et cetera. So it became a kind of laboratory for people to try out things like self-government and things like that. So as a result, from 1931 onwards, Sri Lanka was practically self-ruled. It had a state council of elected people by men and women. So you had universal suffrage for men and women. It was the first country in Asia. The state council introduced welfare measures that continued. So free healthcare, free education, subsidized transport, these kinds of things, which Sri Lankans have gotten used to. And these, for a long time, continued.

One central banker I think said this… And I think in this image, it reflects what actually happened. He said that we pluck the fruits before planting the tree. So in some ways, Sri Lanka was always living beyond its means, and this led to a relationship between the citizen and the state which was very special, because people really expected things from the state. They felt it was absolutely normal that the state looked after its own citizens, and there was a sense of entitlement.

Now, I believe that the state has a role to play and that it should be a very strong actor, but there is also the whole issue of how you pay for it. And governments did not actually think too hard about bestowing upon people these entitlements. And it’s in 1977, with one of the first countries also to open its economy and to become a market economy in South Asia, that some of these rights began to be eroded, and you had a right-wing government, of course, that came into power, and they also destroyed the power for the trade unions, et cetera. And they started slowly dismantling some of the, what you call in French the [foreign language], what people had actually acquired.

So it’s not a complete dismantling that happened, but it was something much more subtle, sort of underfunding, underfunding the institutions of the state, which led to a crumbling of higher education or health, encouraging private hospitals to compete with the state facilities and that kind of thing. So with the Rajapaksas, it’s not something that they started, but it gathered momentum. And what is interesting is that if you look at the different political parties in Sri Lanka, although one of them might claim to be center-left and the other one more sort of conservative right-wing, but they have exactly the same policies in terms of their approach to the state or to the role of the state, et cetera.

I think this is also something that, in this new context, people are thinking about, and how you can really transform this old welfare state into something else without eroding the rights of people and the responsibility of the state. And there’s a term that I came across, which is the emancipating state rather than the welfare state. So you have a state that also has a role in emancipating his or her citizens and to create and to encourage human flourishing.

I think all these issues are now suddenly coming to the fore and are being debated, are being thought about, things that people took for granted. People are beginning to question why Sri Lanka has a larger army than the United Kingdom, for example. Why are we keeping such a large army? And why are they repairing the streets when it costs so much more to pay for a soldier to repair the streets than someone who is trained, and et cetera. So all these issues, which were kept very quiet for the past 15, 20 years because nobody thought of questioning these issues, are suddenly being debated. And I think I hope something very new will come out, not from this government, I’m afraid, but something that might happen in the next few years.

Maximillian Alvarez:  That was a detail that really stuck out to me when I was reading your book Sri Lanka in the Modern Age that… Here at The Real News, I mainly cover worker struggles and the union movement both in the US And beyond. And so it was very heartbreaking to read about the destruction of the trade unions in Sri Lanka, and then to see, decades later, how the largest public sector workforce is the military, and they’re the ones fixing the roads and operating ports and doing a bunch of public sector work. That was really sad to see.

And again, I could genuinely talk to you about this for days, but I know I got to let you go. So I wanted to pick up on that final point that you mentioned at the beginning of your last response about Sri Lanka being the perfect colony. Because I want us to talk about, for lack of a better term, what we’ll call external factors here. Because Lord knows, we in the West love to explain and pathologize the political and economic turmoil of entire countries by only focusing on endogenous factors. If there’s turmoil in a country, especially if the people are Brown or Black, it’s because of something wrong with them and their history, and that’s it, there’s no other external factors at work.

But no man is an island, as Thomas Merton famously said, and nations develop an intertwined and uneven connection to the rest of the world, to paraphrase Trotsky. So we can’t hope to leave viewers and listeners with, I think, a solid foundation for better understanding the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka today without also addressing the outsized influence and lingering legacies of colonialism and global capitalism.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this interview, from the war in Ukraine’s impact on oil and commodity prices, to the disastrous rise in the country’s debt holdings, to the flood of foreign investment that came after the end of the civil war as the recession was beginning to recede, Sri Lanka has been hit hard by forces that are either beyond the country’s control or that have sought to control the country, its resources, and its people.

So with the remaining time that I have with you, I wanted to ask, given that you’ve written so extensively on the colonial and post-colonial period, how those outside forces have shaped Sri Lanka’s development over the last century. I know that’s a big question, but taking everything that we’ve been talking about, what should folks watching and listening really understand about that perfect colony issue and how that has also played a major role in what we are seeing unfold today in Sri Lanka?

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Hmm. Yeah, that’s quite a big question, but let me try to say a few, few, few points about that. I think something that we must always keep in mind is that Sri Lanka has, for the past hundred years, I think, and even far longer, it’s been an island that has been really, really well connected to the rest of the world. It’s an island that has had contacts from the Roman period onwards with Europe. It had a Greek name, Taprobane. It had contacts with the Middle East, with Africa, with China. It can only be understood in a global context, I think.

Now, unlike India, perhaps, Sri Lanka was colonized for a much longer period. I mean, for 400 years. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch did the bridges from the 16th century onwards. And the legacy of colonialism is something that is very difficult to estimate or to assess because it’s something that cannot really be quantified. If you think of repayments or something, it’s something that’s just not quantifiable. I mean, it has affected people in such a visceral manner. It has changed the way people live, the way they marry, the way their families are constituted, the language they speak. It has changed the nature of the whole environment with the introduction of plantation agriculture. And it has also, I think, in many ways, influenced the path of development that Sri Lanka took, which was a path of development quite different from India that went really bang into industrialization.

Now, Sri Lanka chose a different path, which was very much to remain an agricultural and agrarian economy which was based on exporting tea, rubber, coconut. And then later on opening up to tourism and also exporting its people. From the 1970s onwards you had people, migrants going to work in the Middle East, et cetera, and sending back remittances. So I think the colonial legacy, in a sense, was crucial to understand the path of development that Sri Lanka adopted, which was very much based on these types of exports and importing all the finished goods.

So that’s one of the issues, one of the problems we are facing now. With the disruption of this import-export economy, we find that some of the much needed products are no longer available. And instead of, for example, creating an economy based on solar energy, wind energy, we continue to import fuel, and we are completely dependent on that from external suppliers. And we did not really invest in research and development, in R&D. We depended on other countries for that. We created an economy which was very much dependent on exporting garments. And when that line of supply dried out and when our workforce became too expensive, the factories shifted to places like Vietnam, for example, or Bangladesh.

So all these issues, I think, are tied, in a sense, to the path of development that we chose. And that was, in a sense, predestined, because it was already a path that had been written and traced from the 19th century onwards. Today, Sri Lanka finds itself in a very peculiar situation where there is a distrust of the West, but at the same time, it’s a country that has never been hostile to technology. I mean, I wrote about it in my book, Metallic Modern, how easily people acquired a taste for metallic machines, and there was no issue about bringing them to their houses.

But there is still a distrust of the West, which I think is the underlying effect of these years and years of colonialism. And even if you don’t realize it, it’s there. So this has really led to an acceptance of the role of other powers such as China. And China’s presence on the island is not seen in the same way as, for example, the presence of America, because China is not seen as a colonial country. It’s seen as an Asian country. And the same goes for India. Although with India there is some ambivalence, because India is always seen as a big brother, and there is a past of India having sent its peacekeeping force in the ’80s. So there is a kind of ambivalence.

So what you see is it’s a small island, but which is very much at the center of all these geopolitical ambitions on the part of various countries. And it has to, I think, find a middle ground. It has to be able to negotiate all these different demands and positions.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Man, well, professor, we have covered so much in the past hour, and I seriously can’t thank you enough for putting up with my questions and being so generous with your brilliance and insight. Thank you so, so much. I know we only really grazed the surface. And for everyone watching and listening, I have to say again, if you really want to learn as much as you can about this, I can’t recommend enough that you read Nira’s books. They’re truly invaluable. So thank you so much for being a good sport about this and giving us so much of your time.

Nira Wickramasinghe:  Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And that is professor Nira Wickramasinghe, world-renowned scholar and professor of modern South Asian studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She’s the author of numerous books, including Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History, and Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka. Again, I cannot recommend Nira’s books enough.

For everyone watching and listening, this is Maximillian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to, become a monthly sustainer so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. And please stay tuned for part two of our deep dive into the current political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka, the roots of that crisis, and where things may go from here. Thank you so much for watching.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
Follow: @maximillian_alv