Happy Bastille Day: Some Musings on Recent Events in Sri Lanka

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policy there, at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – the multilateral institution that was eventually superseded by the World Trade Organisation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.

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  1. RobertC

    This is India’s moment. Will it turn to the distant West (IMF) or the nearby East (China)?

      1. RobertC

        Yeah that could work. BRICS would provide cover and India would be the mother hen bringing in all the “emerging economy” new members.

  2. norm de plume

    ‘What was the root cause of the country’s complete collapse?’

    I am certainly no expert on Sri Lanka either (though likewise a big fan of the great Sangakkara, and Murali, and Jayasuriya..) but while the concentration of political power and the corruption of a tiny elite are not unrelated to the current situation they can hardly be considered a ‘root cause’.

    That is surely the postwar international architecture of global trade governed by US dominated debt-generating institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, predicated on the neoliberal economic idea of ‘comparitive advantage’.. which sounds like common sense until you realise that in trading away your self-sufficiency in food you have, when the merde hits the fan, sentenced yourself to the sort of outcome we now see. The Rajapakas have obviously been ticking the right boxes for those who really matter for a long time, but one hopes a genuine people’s government emerges, one which might consider declaring much of the outstanding debt ‘odious’ and inviting the BRICS (or the ‘G13’) to come to their aid, but with aid tied to equity rather than peonage and clientelism.

    It seems to me like an open goal for the imminent multipolarity; will they take this opportunity to demonstrate their bona fides as the New World Order? And if they ‘re-set’ Sri Lanka successfully, will the coming tsunami of European revolts grasp the nettle and ‘get with the strength’?

  3. norm de plume

    I should add that my comment was written under the influence of an excellent podcast featuring Michael Hudson and Steve Keen, who disagree with the Mosler/MMT position on imports=good, exports=bad, making the point that while sensible in a purely domestic context, this dictum insufficiently addresses the presence of the foreign sector, which, esp in the case of a Sri Lanka, looms very large indeed.

  4. Grebo

    It’s always a pleasure to see a presidential palace stormed, especially without any bloodshed. It seems the army was not too wedded to the incumbents. They have resigned so a constitutional transition will be attempted. I hope it has the desired effect, but I doubt it will.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    Ian Welsh has written a post on the Sri Lanka collapse called . . . The Debt Trap That Helped Take Down Sri Lanka Was Not Chinese. He looks at the history of the debt-cropping model offered by the West to various Third World governments who were in a hurry to develop, and they fell for the baited hook. Sri Lanka was one of those, and he describes a bit of the forms the debt-trap setup worked there in particular.
    Here is the link.


    1. H. Alexander Ivey

      Welsh’s analysis is wrong. The simple take away to the question, what happened to Sri Lanka? is the Rajapaksas stole the wrong money. They stole US dollars from the foreign currency account, instead of the local rupees account. So, no US dollars, no energy (oil and gas). No petrol (gasoline) means 4 day queues to get 16 liters at a time; no LPG means no cooking a meal for your family. Etc.
      Then repeatedly saying you and he will resign, then they don’t, destroys any faith in what you say.
      So this isn’t a debt trap, it isn’t a “developing country” over-reaching, it’s a country whose elites stole all the US dollars so now the country can’t buy oil or gas on the “open” market. A textbook example of what happens when you don’t have US dollars.

  6. lentil

    It’s so disturbing and shocking to see in these videos what is clearly an insurrection and an attempted coup against the democratically elected leadership of Sri Lanka. The storming of the presidential palace and the swimming in the presidential pool, the frolicking on the presidential bed and the lifting of weights in the presidential gym are certainly a vicious attack on Democracy Itself. It’s a sacrilege, really. These violent insurrectionists should be thrown into prison and a commission of some kind should investigate the instigators, preferably on national TV, to show the people what their proper place is in this Democracy.

    1. ChrisPacific

      Those are Presidential weights! They are not to be touched by anyone but democratically elected officials!

    2. Cesar Jeopardy


      Of course you are right (assuming you are not being sarcastic). a democratically held election is the proper way to change who governs you.

  7. Adrian D.

    Interesting (but not surprising) that the building ‘stormed’ is universally described as the President’s Palace. As I understand it the White House has TWO swimming pools, but is usually only described as a ‘residence’ and usually an ‘official’ one at that (neither were swam, jumped or dumped in on January 6th either).

    Here in the UK Bozo has been gaudily, and very expensively, refurbishing his ‘flat’ in one of his ‘official residencies’ (Downing Street) whilst trying to get a £150K tree house installed in the extensive grounds of his ‘country residence’ Chequers.

    These buildings of course, are most definitely not palaces, and absolutely positively should never be referred to as such.

    1. JohnA

      The liar Johnson is set to get an Obama type advance for his memoirs. Like much of his book output, he is likely to employ staff to write this. I also read an interview with a car magazine that once upon a time employed Johnson to review cars. He ran up massive parking fines, and in many, if not most cases, the mileage when the car was delivered to Johnson to review, was exactly the same when it was collected at some point later. Seemingly like his reports on the EU as a Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, which were mostly fictitious and anti-EU, his car reviews were all made up too. A lazy, lying, grifting charlatan, in other words.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Is most or all of Britain’s old-family upper class social AND money elite descended in whole or in part from the gang of pirates who invaded Saxon England with William the Conqueror?

        If it is, could Britain’s fine old Upper Class be thought of as an ongoingly-foreign ethnic-alien occupation demographic? A pack of Norman Vikings under “English” cover? Would that explain their attitude to the ravaged deathbed body of the Saxon England ( and the conquered Celtic enclaves) they still extract all possible ” vital bodily fluids” from?

        And if all that were true, and the non Norman Viking non-Aristocrats of Anglo-Saxo-Celtic Britain decided to see them as an ethno-cultural foreign elite, might the Anglo-Saxo-Celtic masses at some point decide to rise up and give the British Upper Classes a thorough and no-exceptions round of Interahamwe-style ethno-demographic chemotherapy?

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