Violent protesters loyal to President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

‘Even if a coup fails, it still damages your government’: What the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s coup attempt

Back in November, Sri Lankan writer Indi Samarajiva wrote a prescient essay titled, “I lived through a stupid coup. America is having one now.” After a violent Trump-backed mob attacked the US Capitol on Wednesday, Samarajiva shares what the US might learn from Sri Lanka.

American democracy prides itself on the peaceful transfer of power. What the United States has seen this week is anything but peaceful.

After rioters backed by US President Donald Trump ravaged the US Capitol on Wednesday, the president tweeted Friday that he would not attend US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

For one writer in Sri Lanka, what’s unfolding in Washington, DC, looks familiar. Two years ago, Sri Lanka had its own experience with a political leader refusing to leave office. Chaos and violence erupted not long afterward.

Sri Lankan writer and podcaster Indi Samarajiva is a close observer of the US government. His prescient essay in November was called “I lived through a stupid coup. America is having one now.” He spoke to The World’s host Carol Hills about what the violent mob in Washington looked like from abroad and what Americans might learn from Sri Lanka’s experience with a coup.

Related: In pictures: Trump loyalists storm US Capitol

Carol Hills: Indi, what were your first thoughts when you saw what was happening in Washington?

Indi Samarajiva: So, when I heard about it [Thursday] morning, I thought it was crazy. But also I think you could very clearly see this coming — or look, I could see this coming. I think this was really telegraphed quite far in advance.

You live in Sri Lanka. There was an attempted coup in 2018. Do you see these two events — what happened in Washington and what happened in Sri Lanka — in similar terms?

I can show you two photographs, which are exactly the same photograph in two different situations. We had someone occupy the speaker’s chair in parliament. You had someone occupy the speaker’s chair in your Congress. It’s basically the exact same picture, except your guys are more heavily armed. Our guys were just throwing chili powder.

You’re talking about the images of when the mob basically moved into the Capitol and were kind of hanging out and sitting in chairs and things like that.

Exactly. So we had the exact same images, except those were our opposition MPs. Those guys were at least elected to be in parliament. So we elected our mob. You guys have a completely unruly, white supremacist, gun-wielding mob, and that’s much scarier. And of course, four people have died. [Editor’s note: As of Thursday, Jan. 8, five people have died.]

In the article you wrote just two months ago, you sort of make the point that the US doesn’t even understand what’s going on with these kinds of protests. And that was before Wednesday’s events. What do you mean by that?

Well, I think there’s a sense of American exceptionalism. So, there’s a sense that these things can’t happen to you. Whereas all over the rest of the world, we’re kind of used to this. You guys have been inflicting all of this trauma on the world and now the chickens have, to a large degree, come home to roost. Look, when terrorists attacked on 9/11, when they attacked the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and I think the other target was either Congress or the White House, those are symbolic attacks on your centers of power. This is a symbolic attack on your center of power. So, they have attacked. They’ve breached your Congress. So, you’re under attack.

And if you keep saying, “Oh, OK, we just have to hold out for 14 days until the inauguration, or “We just have to wait for this and it’ll all go back to normal,” I think you’re not understanding where you are.

What has happened in Sri Lanka in the two years since, — in terms of what might be in store for Americans after what happened Wednesday — that we’re not even thinking might happen? What has been torn asunder, do you think?

Even if a coup fails, it still damages your government. So what happened to us was the coup happened and the courts rolled it back. So, we had the elected government back and that seemed good. But that government was crippled, and then that government couldn’t respond to a terrorist threat, which is, you know, three months down the line, and then then all hell broke loose, and then it was completely unstable. And then the people who staged the coup were able to point to the chaos that they helped create and say, “Hey, you need us in.” And so that’s who’s been elected.

I think perhaps what Americans may not be understanding is that it’s not over. When you attack your center of government, when you attack Congress, even symbolically, that weakens your governance. And when governance is weak and it’s like a Pandora’s box, all sorts of other risks come out of there.

Related: ‘I fear for our democracy,’ says Rep. Mondaire Jones in calling for Trump’s removal

You mentioned earlier that the US foreign policy has caused a lot of rancor around the globe and it’s coming home to roost. What do you mean by that?

I don’t mean that the rancor is coming home to roost. I mean, that’s sort of the militarization of your society, the violence of your society. A lot of the people who would have attacked your Congress, they might have been serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, causing God knows what problems to the people there. The militarization has come to your borders. Your militarization at the edges of your society has come home to roost. And the violence of your culture, which has always been projected outward, is now falling in.

Are there any other valid comparisons to make between the US and Sri Lanka in terms of — I’m thinking of your article and the sense of “something’s happened here and we didn’t really understand what” and in the US, maybe Americans not understanding what’s really happened at some basic level, trying to think that this will all right itself.

Look, I think the most valid comparison to make is that we are comparable — as in, you can learn something from someone in Sri Lanka. You can learn something from someone in Lagos, in Dhaka. So, people have been through similar experiences. And this is an exercise I think Americans don’t do enough. Because as long as you think you’re exceptional, as long as you think things can’t happen to you, then you’ll be constantly surprised and you won’t learn from other human experiences. If you can just let go of this thing that “we’re America, this can’t happen to us, this isn’t happening to us,” and you can see that it is happening to you and then you can start to learn from the world, then perhaps you can join us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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