Sri Lanka: Is There Any Hope?
For many people the mere mention of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, brings with it a rather bleak picture of a situation gone out of control. Many will dismiss Sri Lanka as a debt ridden, badly governed, poverty stricken country controlled by one family who, until recently, held key positions in government and wielded their power for their own gain. This is all true, and there is little that can be done when a majority representation in government has its way.
Sri Lanka has gone through various political phases. In the past, attempts were made to introduce a socialist system of governance that would ensure equitable wealth distribution. However, it’s failure led to adopt an open market economy. The ease of doing business in Sri Lanka attracted investors and the country became one of the more developed of South East Asian nations. Almost everything in the country was imported be it motor vehicles, fabrics, clothing, and even food, from various countries in Asia, Europe, the British Isles, and Australia. It was like Singapore (more on this later), when ironically, Singapore itself was not yet established. Contemporary accounts of Sri Lanka in the 1960s refer to Colombo as one of cleanest cities in Asia.
I remember reading about a journalist from Sri Lanka who interviewed Mr. Lee Kwan Yew the first Prime Minister and architect of Singapore’s success story. When the person inquired about Singapore’s rapid development, Prime Minister Yew’s response was, “What happened to Sri Lanka?, Colombo was our model!” The Colombo Plan Conference was launched in July 1951 as a cooperative venture for regional development among 7 countries, and that today has grown to include 27 south-Asian nations. With a vibrant economy and a literate population, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) seemed destined for great things. But changes would soon happen.
Sri Lanka has an ethnic breakdown of 74.9% Singhalese (most of whom have roots in North India); 11.1 % Tamils (from South India); 9.3% Moors (trader communities which also include the Malays); and 4.1% Indian Tamils (brought by the British to work on the tea plantations). The remaining 0.06% are comprised of Burghers (descendants of colonial settlers, primarily Dutch and, Portuguese, who haven’t yet migrated abroad), and some other Asian communities The religious composition of the country is 70.2 % Buddhist; 12.6 Hindu; 9.7% Muslim, and 7.4 Christian. Most Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, belong to Singhalese, Tamil, and Moor/Malay ethic groups, respectively. Christians, however, do not belong to one ethic group; they are made up of Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers.
Sri Lanka is close to my heart as it is the place where I was born and brought up in a Christian home, where I attended a Reformed church, heard the doctrines of grace preached by godly men, and where I was blessed to have I spent the first twenty five years of my life. It is the country where I still have relatives and friends who are going through the horrors we are reading about in the media. It’s a place where I enjoyed travelling around the country to see it’s incredible natural beauty. The Sri Lanka of the current news is a far cry from the Sri Lanka I grew up in.
In the past there was communal harmony between the majority Singhalese population and the minority Tamil population. However, a series of laws were introduced in the country after the 1956 election, to introduce the Sinhala Only policy that created a racial and religious divide and ended up with political parties developing along communal lines. This led up to the 1958 riots where many Tamils were killed or wounded! From this point laws aimed at curtailing the opportunities for the minority Tamils continue to plague the country to this day. Also, educational opportunities and entrance into universities was to be based on reservation and not on merit. All these developments led to an insurrection in 1971 and communal uprisings in 1977 and 1983.
The Tamils, who felt that they were being short changed in various ways by the majority Sinhalese, took to arms and organized resistance. This brutal war lasted about three decades, and resulted in thousands of deaths and many human rights violations. The legendary discipline and the tactical skills of the Tamil rebel group known as the Tigers earned for them a cover page feature in TIME magazine. The Tamil Tigers, developed suicide vests that were used in numerous bombings. On their initiation into the rebel ranks they were given a necklace with a cyanide capsule to commit suicide if they were in danger of being arrested - so that the group’s secrets are not compromised. The Tamil rebels were brutally squashed by the Sri Lankan Army in 2009. Soon after, following a series of clever political moves, the Rajapakse family secured important ministerial positions for themselves and installed their own Gotabaya Rajapakse as the President of the country.
President Gotabaya Rajapakse, enjoyed unlimited powers and took certain unwise decisions such as his attempt to make Sri Lanka the only fully organic country in the world, by banning all chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Though this action was reversed subsequently, the damage done to the crops affected the agriculture production of the county. Other events that led the country into a financial mess and the President‘s downfall were: 1) Giving generous tax cuts that did not help the economy; 2) Accepting ‘freebies’ from China, that landed the Island into debts of several billion dollars to China; 3) The Easter bombings by Muslim extremists in 2019 who wanted to avenge the mosque shootings in New Zealand; 4) The COVID pandemic that badly affected tourism – Sri Lanka’s top foreign exchange earner; 5) When the pandemic was slowly coming under control, the war between Russian and Ukraine had repercussions on tourism - because most tourists to Sri Lanka were from Russia, followed by Ukraine, and then other countries. All these developments led Sri Lanka from being a prosperous South East Asian nation to a model of inefficiency and mismanagement.
To understand the depths off this cancer it is important to realize that the country is today controlled by the Rajapakse family, though some have fled Sri Lanka, they still have a strong support base in the country. Of the Parliament’s 225 Members, more than 160 are favorable to the Rajapakse’s. Global entities such as the IMF, the World Bank and other lending institutions, as well as neighbor India, and other prosperous countries are reluctant to make commitments until there is fair representation in the new government so that all parties, not just the new President Ranil Wickremasinghe or the Rajapakse supporters, are part of the new scheme of things.
From an economical point of view what is the future for this nation? Apart from its three major crops, tea, rubber, and coconut, it is a country blessed with so much of natural resources, it is known for its precious stones, all kinds of minerals, and a workforce of skilled and educated people, with one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia – 92.4 % (2020). The country still attracts many tourists, thanks to its pristine beaches and the hill country with acres of tea plantations, which once produced one third of the world’s tea. Sri Lanka boasts of the highest density of water falls in the world – 382 in total. With such resources, perhaps the country can get back to its feet again.
From a Christian perspective what hope is there for Sri Lanka? Christians are a minority in Sri Lanka making up only a small percentage of the population (see above). Their importance is their composition. They are primarily made up of the majority Singhalese and the minority Tamils. All through the decades of the ethnic conflict, Christians in churches worshipped their holy, living, loving, and forgiving God. They prayed together and they reached out when their brothers and sisters were in danger. Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World comments that the Sri Lankan church is the most liberal in Asia. While this may be true, we should not forget that there are respected evangelical leaders and conservative, Bible believing, growing churches in the country.
Though we may not like to associate ourselves with liberal churches, it must be noted that the National Christian Council (NCC) risked their lives to speak up against human rights abuses. It is hard to overlook the role the church played in reversing some decisions by the government during the Tamil insurgency. At the height of the civil war, the government introduced a draconian law to forcibly send back to the Northern and Eastern Provinces any Tamil people visiting the capital Colombo, for whatever reason – whether for medical needs, official government work, like applying for passports, etc., etc, on the pretext that they could be terrorists. In response to this action, the NCC mobilized Singhalese, Tamil and Burgher Christians and held a silent peaceful protest. The result was that this law was retracted. The same is happening today in Sri Lanka. Spread among the peaceful protesters are Christians, praying, worshiping, and reading Scripture with the hope for peace and reconciliation. With the Lord’s people in Sri Lanka, there will always be hope. Will you pray for this country?
Dr. Matthew Ebenezer is a Member of the WRF Board of Directors. He is an ordained teaching elder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of India (RPCI). He has served on the Board of the WRF since 2006. Matthew began teaching at Presbyterian Theological Seminary (PTS), Dehra Dun, India in 1982. Between 2004 and 2014 he was engaged in other ministry opportunities that included serving as Country Director for Mission to the World (MTW) in his native Sri Lanka, overseeing Tsunami rehabilitation; Director for Theological Education for MTW’s church planting work in India, and Adjunct Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at the New Theological College, Dehra Dun. He is now Interim Principal of PTS (from August 2014). In addition to his administrative duties, Matthew teaches Church History and Practical Theology at PTS.