Rotten wood cannot be carved — rundown on how corruption and ethnic conflicts broke Sri Lanka

Photo by Matthias Koch on Unsplash

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island nation with rich biodiversity, mineral resources, stunning beaches, and a warm and soothing climate. Apart from man-provoked disasters such as landslides and floods, the country does not possess any significant threat from nature. Holistically it’s an ideal place to live.

Nevertheless, this is not the case in reality. Currently, Sri Lanka is going through the worst economic crisis in its history, which has led people to suffer from food, medicine and energy shortages. How did Sri Lanka come into this place with all the beauty she has? In my opinion, the current situation in Sri Lanka is attributable to two main factors, viz,

01) Ethnic and racial conflicts

02) Corruption and fraud

Let me explain my perspective on how ethnic and racial disputes paved the way for the current situation in the country.

After its independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka faced several conflicts with the majority, the Sinhalese and the Tamils (Table 1), resulting in a civil war sustained for more than two decades. The war ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan forces killed the leader of LTTE. Even though the war ended, most didn’t realise that the real problem was not resolved unless further fulminated.

Table 1: Sinhala-Tamil riots of Sri Lanka (1956–1983)

On top of these, anti-muslim trends also started in the 2000s, which came to their zenith from 2015 to 2019.

But the main question is not the ethnic and racial conflicts. It’s the people who provoked them, and people who benefited from them. In my opinion, ordinary Sri Lankan citizens did not benefit significantly from it. Even though no empirical evidence exists, it is anecdotally known that the aforementioned ethnic conflicts were provoked for political benefits. This made people exercise their sovereignty for the wrong deed.

Ethnic issues can be considered a subcategory of corruption. However, the tree of corruption has a wide root and branch network throughout Sri Lankan society.

Starting from forging documents and making children jabber lies to get into schools to the nation's top schools, the Sri Lankan system is corrupted. Bribery in the public sector is what people mostly see as corruption. Yes, it is. However, corruption in Sri Lanka has more avenues. Lack of efficiency, forging overtime timecards to claim pay, non-transparent tender calls, disregard of meritocracy during recruitment for jobs and many more are contributing to a massive corruption bubble.

Corrupted individuals supported corrupted politicians. Maybe in their opinion, it is just an instantaneous cause, but in reality, it affected the country’s long run at large.

Let me explain this with a hypothetical example.

Imagine a country “A” is willing to provide high-interest loans to country to build an artificial waterfall. For Sri Lanka with many natural waterfalls, such constructions are unnecessary. Therefore, it is not a primary requirement when it has other issues such as health, education, etc. needs to be solved. Nevertheless, country “A” agrees to offer a handsome commission to the decision makers of this deal. Both political and public sector personnel may engage in such decision-making, and in most instances, it is a team effort. The correct decision is to deny the offer, however, corrupted decision makers decide to accept it. The construction of the waterfall is also not transparent and is full of corruption, which makes it a huge expense rather than an asset. Once the construction is complete, its real value stands at a cost that is far below the amount that is spent on its construction. Furthermore, the income generated from this structure fails to pay back the loan. This, makes the country to be paying for another country in large amounts from public money. Not having a transparent and fair law and order will further facilitate such events. Individually they might not have a significant impact on the country’s economy, however, when complied they impose a great deal of damage to the country’s economy.

Therefore, my belief is that for Sri Lanka to stand up from its current position it is necessary to,

  • Stop corruption at all levels
  • Stop racial and religious discrimination

The West has become the world model; developing countries are dreaming of living like us, which is impossible. They should reject our model, because it is not sustainable. Developing countries should even give us the example, but unfortunately that’s not what happens.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand



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