By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
This post will be an unusual one for me, a short take inspired by the juxtaposition of this year’s French national revolutionary holiday – Bastille Day – and the storming of the presidential palace in Sri Lanka, which led Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee to the Maldives.
Those looking for a deep dive won’t find one here. I make no further claim for this post than I will Share some thoughts and impressions.
First, happy Bastille Day! I asked one of my friends – a French art historian – just what one says and does to celebrate the holiday, now observed on Jully 14. And she couldn’t come up with anything in particular. Other than a mention of dancing, and singing of the Marseillaise. Some good food and drink. And of course, fireworks. One cannot forget the fireworks.
Now, I’ve never been in France on Bastille Day. But I have been in Genève, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, on July 14, 1987, during the latter part of the academic year I lived in the city. Funded by a Gallatin Fellows at l’nstitut de hautes études internationales (HEI), I was researching trade policy there, at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – the multilateral institution that was eventually superseded by the World Trade Organisation
The vending of Bastille Day 1987 was a pleasant one and my husband and I were strolling along the shores of Lac Léman, as people were celebrating. Some set off fireworks – which came so fast and furious, we feared for our eyesight. Eventually, we retreated to my small studio on the backside of a building across from the Palais Wilson, the original headquarters for the League of Nations. During the night one of those fireworks went astray, sparking a fire that severely damaged the building (including some irreplaceable archives within – this was long before anything was digitized). Apparently the building burned for several hours, despite the efforts of the fire brigade. Stephen and I managed to sleep through it all – and only learned of the fire the next morning.
Moving halfway around the world, from Switzerland to Sri Lanka, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the remarkable events unfolding there.. The two-decades rule of the Rajapaksa brothers has finally came to an end after a deep economic crisis, sustained protests, and profound shortages of fuel, food, and medicine.
I don’t claim to know very much about the political economy of Sri Lanka, having no more than an acquaintanceship with the country, I made a short visit once, the highlight of which was seeing cricketer Kumar Sangakkara the last time he played a One Day International (ODI) in the national capital, Colombo. England was the opponent. The Sri Lankans loved the man, who unusually for a top-class international athlete, retired while still at the top of his game. On that beautiful day in December 2014, everyone in the stadium was rooting for him to score a century. And I mean everyone, including I think, even the English team and England’s supporters. Alas, he only managed 86, but Sri Lanka did take the match, winning by 6 wickets (and the series, 5 games to 2).
Yet I wanted to share here a remarkable BBC video, which places visitors at the center of these recent extraordinary events – which have largely unfolded peacefully..
I encourage readers to watch the video, to see the delightful footage of people cavorting in the presidential pool. The BBC presenter’s commentary I think is more or less on the mark discussing just unfolded in Sri Lanka. ‘These are peaceful protests, this is not violence, this is not irrational rage it’s very very calm anger about the fact that people have not been able to eat, and keep themselves warm, and all the rest of it, for weeks now.’ Later videos included below, including that of Al Jazeera, suggests this presenter was somewhat mistaken: the protesters may have been peaceful but in some instances, they were met with tear gas.
In the days since the storming of the presidential palace, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled to the Maldives with his wife and two security officials (For some insight into why he chose the Maldives as a getaway, see this Firstpost account, Explained: Why Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa picked Maldives as a getaway .) Earlier today, according to Reuters, Rajapaksa emailed his resignation letter to the parliamentary speaker.
Under the Sri Lankan, Constitution, that letter should trigger his replacement by the Prime Minister and set in motion a selection process that within thirty days would result in election ion a candidate to serve out his presidential term. But that might be sufficient to calm the situation and there will no doubt be many further resignations and reshuffles before some sense of order is reestablished. I won’t attempt to figure out what’s likely to happen here. As I said up front, this post is not intended as a deep dive into Sri Lankan politics. Rather, my interest lies elsewhere. (That being said, I encourage readers more knowledgeable than I am about Sri Lankan politics to bring any outright errors to my attention in comments, and I will fix them, as well as to offer any additional insights they might have.)
What was the root cause of the country’s complete collapse? The Norwegian diplomat Erik Solheim, who was involved in failed efforts to negotiate an international solution to Sri Lanka’s civil earlier in the millennium said, offered the following explanation, per The Wire in ‘Rajapaksas Lacked Vision, Worked for Themselves’: Erik Solheim, Peace Mediator in Sri Lanka War:
The Norwegian politician-turned-diplomat said he interacted with the Rajapaksa brothers, primarily then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, “over hundreds of hours in numerous meetings.”
“They never had a larger vision for Sri Lanka. They didn’t spend any time to consider what Sri Lanka looks like from a Tamil or Muslim perspective. Nor did they have any economic policy which could take the nation to prosperity, like for instance Singapore.”
“They are Sinhalese nationalists. But above all, they are into politics for themselves, for the family. Where else can you find an entire nation of 22 million run completely by four brothers,” Solheim said in his first interview after the July 9 storming of the President’s House forced Rajapaksa to flee. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis].
From what little I know, the Rajapaksas make the Clintons look like amateur grifters.
No food, fuel shortages, lack of access to medicines. Out of touch leaders, who lack any understanding of the lives of ordinary people and the struggles they face. Does that ring any bells? I think readers see why I’ve highlighted the Sri Lankan situation.
As a student of politics over several decades, I’ve observed several revolutions from afar during my lifetime. One thing I’ve noticed is that after protests dribble or even surge over several months or even years, when the dam finally breaks, it often do so suddenly. Events quickly develop in a way virtually anticipated even days, let alone weeks, months, or years before.The first such revolution I paid close attention to was hat of Iran.
Yet I also remember the collapse of Communist governments, throughout central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, beginning in the late ‘80s. These transitions weren’t wholly peaceful, of course – especially the fall of Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, who following a brief ‘trial’ in December 1989, was abruptly executed along with his wife, Elena. I remember this particularly vividly, since as with the latest events in Sri Lanka, I watched it all on the BBC. I recall my friend Hazel Mills – an English historian whose area of interest was the French Revolution- marvelling over dinner at her flat in Cambridge (UK) that that BBC footage gave her at least some idea what it must have been like be in Paris during the French Revolution, exactly two centuries before.
Now, a majority of Americans and Europeans aren’t facing food shortages, loss of heat and hot water – yet. But fuel prices have definitely climbed. And worryingly, some crucial medicines are in increasingly short supply – causing some rationing of treatments. As regular readers od Naked Capitalism’s daily Links are well aware, supply chain disruptions and shortages are increasingly common. Baby formula, anyone?
What’s caused this decades-long deterioration in day to day living conditions and essential public services? Why, how about unchecked neo-liberalism, augmented by the mishandled COVID-19 pandemic, all made possible by elite cupidity similar to that of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka (or if you won’t follow me quite that far, at minimum, their indifference).
Alas, on this Bastille Day 2022, the situation looks far less stable than I’d like it to be. And the determination to maintain what’s increasingly apparent is a wrong-headed Russian sanctions policy doesn’t augur well for the future. So, on that note, let me conclude; Happy Bastille Day, citoyens!
Swell, perhaps not quite. So as to end this post on a positive note, even a rather weak one: storming the presidential palace doesn’t necessarily have to end in killing, maiming, looting rape, or pillage.
Watch again as ordinary Sri Lankans transform a pool previously reserved for the country’s elite into a community pool:
And for those not yet tired of videos of Sri Lankans storming the presidential place, here is a more thorough Al Jazeera account (Although please note it was broadcast on July 9, and has been somewhat superseded by more recent developments, especially as to precise details of the current state of play of Sri Lankan politics.