Sri Lanka: change falls short of protest demands
Following months of protests by thousands of Sri Lankans in response to economic crisis, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa tended his resignation on 14 July, having fled the country the day before. But this change in leadership did not bring about the fresh start many protesters want: Rajapaksa’s replacement, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is closely associated with the former regime. His first acts have been to extend the state of emergency and grant security forces additional powers to suppress protests and arrest dissenters. Protesters will continue to call for fundamental change to replace untrammelled presidential power with more accountable decision-making.
Sri Lanka has a new president – but this change at the top fell far short of protesters’ expectations.
On 21 July Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who the previous week fled in response to mass protests. But spectacular scenes of people occupying the Presidential Palace, which surely convinced Rajapaksa the game was up, soon gave way to dismal images of repression. Wickremesinghe has moved to try to stifle the protests that continue to mobilise demands not just for a different president but for lasting curbs on executive power.
Anger at economic crisis
Protests were sparked by economic turmoil, which Sri Lanka has seen for the past two years, with the situation rapidly deteriorating in recent months. As of July, the country owed over US$51 billion in foreign debt, in its worst economic crisis since the country’s independence in 1948. Food, fuel and medicine are extremely expensive and scarce, leaving millions without meals and struggling to secure the basics of life.
No wonder thousands took to the streets in a mass show of anger and frustration.
Protests took off in March, with small groups of people holding candlelight vigils across the country. Gatherings began to grow and soon hundreds were taking to the streets after work to demand change.
As crowds ballooned, protests became more spontaneous, leading to protesters first storming the ministerial office of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother, then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and then the Presidential Palace, where they helped themselves to the president’s luxurious amenities.
Recently ravaged by civil war, Sri Lanka has been deeply politically divided. The Rajapaksa family – alongside Gotabaya and Mahinda, several other family members held cabinet positions – thrived by stoking divisive ethno-nationalist politics. The current protests, however, have been markedly less partisan than before.
Former government supporters and opponents have protested together. Buddhist monks, Christian priests and Muslim leaders have marched side-by-side. People from all walks of life have taken part. Members of the professional class – doctors, lawyers and teachers – gathered alongside their unions.
Young people, particularly those who are better-off, have played a key role in sustaining protests during the day, when others have to go to work. At the main protest camp in Colombo, a community kitchen was established to feed hundreds of people for free – a vital response to the current economic crisis.
A government folds
Protesters didn’t just want economic fixes: they called for new leadership. They wanted the entire cabinet to go and the Rajapaksa family dynasty to be swept away. But they also want a different kind of leader, with the president’s extensive executive powers reined in, such that no future president can make unaccountable and unchecked decisions of the kind that led to economic ruin.
In the early days of protests, when the crowds were small and relatively docile, daily demonstrations went largely unacknowledged by the government. But by April, growing protest numbers prompted President Rajapaksa to declare a nationwide public emergency. A 36-hour island-wide curfew was imposed, during which people were banned from gathering in public spaces and social media platforms were temporarily blocked.
This attempt to disrupt the protests and sap the energy of the growing movement didn’t work. As the pressure told, on 3 April the entire cabinet resigned, apart from Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although many of them were reinstated in a new cabinet the following day, this marked the first serious victory for protesters.
The government regrouped and escalated repression. Prominent activists were arrested and brought before the courts. Teargas and water cannon were used indiscriminately against protesters. Curfews were periodically reinstated. The army was deployed, sometimes using live ammunition.
But crowds continued to swell regardless. On 9 May the prime minister tendered his resignation. On 13 July, following the storming of his palace, the president fled the country, after initially being prevented from doing so by airport staff. Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned only when he was safely away, presumably to avoid the risk of prosecution. Other members of his family were banned from leaving Sri Lanka.
An old face returns
Ranil Wickremesinghe stepped in as acting president, having been appointed as prime minister when Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down in May. But he’s far from a new face: he has been prime minister five times before. He’s a long-standing member of the political elite and ally of the Rajapaksa family.
Given the composition of parliament – at the last election the Rajapaksas’ party gained a large majority – he easily won the parliamentary vote to become president, with 134 votes for to 82 against. He now faces the dubious task of rescuing Sri Lanka from the economic abyss it has fallen in.
Wickremesinghe was an unpopular choice as prime minister and the same goes now he’s president. Many in the protest movement continue to voice their opposition to him in his new role, and he is so far proving their fears well founded. He has called protesters ‘fascists’ and ‘insurgents’ – hardly signalling an attempt to build a new consensus. As soon as he took office, he declared a national state of emergency and gave the military the freedom to do whatever necessary to restore ‘order’.
His words have been backed with action. The police and military have forcibly removed protesters from streets and destroyed protest camps. Several protest leaders have been arrested and some assaulted, with journalists also targeted. The state of emergency has been further extended until mid-August. Wickremesinghe’s heavy-handed tactics have been criticised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and diplomats from the UK and USA.
Wickremesinghe’s elevation to president fell short of the fundamental change people seek, so protests are likely to continue. At the same time, some may be prepared to give him a chance: they are unhappy but want the economic crisis to be addressed. Wickremesinghe has emphasised his economic credentials and appears to be in good standing with the International Monetary Fund and states whose help is needed.
Until fresh elections are held, Sri Lanka will likely be stuck with this makeshift government. But while some may try to make the current compromise work, others should be free to keep pushing for change in the political system. The government should signal change by respecting rights and let its critics keep speaking out. There’s no solution to this crisis in repression.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Security forces must refrain from using violent tactics to suppress peaceful protests.
The government must launch investigations into all claims of police brutality and hold those responsible accountable.
Fresh parliamentary and presidential elections should be held as soon as feasible and the government should commit to reinstating checks and balances on presidential power.
Cover photo by Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images