Sri Lanka: economic meltdown sparks mass protests
Economic crisis has provoked a great wave of protests in Sri Lanka. People are demanding the resignation of the president, blamed for high-handed and unaccountable decision making, exemplified by his introduction of an agricultural fertiliser ban in 2021 that has resulted in a food crisis. People don’t just want the president’s removal: they want a change in the political balance of power so that future presidents are subjected to proper checks and balances. Hope comes from the wide-reaching and diverse protest movement that has put aside past differences to demand change.
Recent weeks in Sri Lanka have seen anger and protests alongside struggles to secure the basics of life – but also hope that change is coming. An economic meltdown has brought normal life to a halt. People are living with lengthy power cuts, almost no access to fuel and soaring prices that have made essential foods unaffordable, forcing many to cut down on their daily meals.
There’s no doubt that Sri Lanka’s economy has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which largely put a halt to tourism and slashed remittances from Sri Lankans abroad, and most recently by Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has pushed up global fuel prices. But people are also pointing the finger at strong-arm president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his centralised and unaccountable brand of decision making.
A disastrous decision on farming
High global prices are affecting every economy, but Sri Lanka is doing notably worse than most, indicating that problems have been building up for some time. Sri Lanka has the region’s highest inflation, the value of its currency has collapsed and it has almost completely depleted its foreign currency reserves. This is all making it even harder and more costly to import the food and fuel it needs. The country has defaulted on billions of dollars of foreign debt repayments and is now in what could be lengthy negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. It’s a long way from the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ Rajapaksa promised in his 2019 election manifesto.
On coming to power, Rajapaksa cut taxes, including corporate tax, and reversed the policy of the outgoing government that would have made the central bank independent and stop the government printing more money as a short-term economic fix. The government, including the administration headed by Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda from 2005 to 2015, was accused of running up debt on grandiose infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s home-grown food supplies have been depleted as a direct result of a presidential decision. In April 2021, President Rajapaksa introduced a ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The move, which came into effect straight away rather than being phased in over time, gave farmers no time to change the practices they had used for decades. The result was a swift decline in yields of rice, the key crop that feeds the nation, and export crops that earn essential foreign currency, notably tea.
Following protests in response to falling harvests, the government reversed its policy for some key crops and agreed to pay compensation, but it was already too late: Sri Lanka’s economic woes have been compounded by the need to import rice, on which it was long self-sufficient. Earlier this month, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana, speaker of parliament, voiced his fear that many face the threat of starvation. A medical workers’ union has similarly warned of a national health emergency as the country struggles to import essential medicines.
For many farmers, who make up 27 per cent of Sri Lanka’s workforce, the fertiliser ban and its fallout epitomised an unaccountable president able to make unchecked decisions. Farmers, many of whom had previously backed the ruling party, felt taken for granted; some wondered if the scheme was a ploy to force small farmers off their land to enable large-scale commercialisation of farms.
An out-of-control ruling family
At the heart of the crisis is one powerful political family. When former army leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in 2019, he was just the tip of the iceberg. He appointed his brother Mahinda, former president and one of five members of the family to win seats in the 2020 parliamentary election, as prime minister. He also placed two other Rajapaksa brothers and a nephew in the cabinet, making governing a private family business.
Presidential power was extended by constitutional changes in October 2020: the president gained additional powers to dissolve parliament, appoint and dismiss ministers and choose judges and the heads of key commissions, including the election commission. Unaccountable presidential taskforces were created, removing key issues from parliamentary scrutiny, and a slew of current and former army officers were given government roles previously held by civilians.
Unsurprisingly this consolidation of Rajapaksa family power was accompanied by a crackdown on civic space, with protest bans, the detention of activists and the harassment and criminalisation of government critics and independent media.
It was no shock that the government’s response to protests was to fall back on its machinery of repression. When protesters camped outside the president’s residence on 31 March to demand his resignation, teargas and water cannon were used and at least 50 protesters and several journalists were injured. Dozens of protesters were arrested, with some ill-treated in detention.
The following day the government introduced a state of emergency, imposing a curfew and giving itself the power to arrest and detain people without warrants. The military was deployed onto the streets. Internet and social media access were restricted.
Despite the curfew, there were thousands who came to the streets to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka.
However, the pressure did not let up as people kept protesting despite the curfew. In response the government had to give some ground. On 2 April the cabinet resigned and President Rajapaksa offered to form a unity government, an invitation opposition parties rejected, since both the president and his brother showed no indication of stepping down. The next day 41 members of parliament quit the ruling coalition, leaving the Rajapaksas heading a minority government and potentially facing a future vote of confidence. The state of emergency, clearly untenable, was quickly withdrawn.
The protest movement continues, demanding that both President and Prime Minister Rajapaksa quit. More than that, protesters are insisting they don’t want another all-powerful president: they want a form of government where presidential power is subject to checks and balances and policies like the disastrous agricultural reforms can’t simply be pushed through. Protesters have also started to call for accountability over recent human rights violations, including those committed during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.
Voices from the frontline
Bhavani Fonseka is from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, an organisation that advocates for non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka:
The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.
It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. There is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.
In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the president and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.
Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.
Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew.
Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens.
I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.
Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion:
This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.
Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.
The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the President Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.
Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.
Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.
I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.
Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.
Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that led to at least one death and several others injured.
There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously.
These are edited extracts of our conversations with Bhavani and Ruki. Read the full interviews here.
Diverse movement points the way forward
Pressure continues to mount. Some senior ruling-party politicians have said they back the protesters and called on the prime minister to quit. Influential Buddhist leaders have done likewise. It seems increasingly clear that if the president and prime minister had national unity and the best interests of the country at heart, they would stop clinging onto power.
Concern comes over the president’s close military links, which could help keep the Rajapaksas in power. Sri Lanka could be at a significant fork in the road: it could potentially become more democratic and pluralist, but alternatively it could transition into de facto military rule. Worryingly, the protests experienced their first fatality on 19 April when police opened fire on protesters blocking railway lines and roads in the town of Rambukkana, killing bystander Chaminda Lakshan and injuring several others. Violence towards protesters may increase if the Rajapaksas try to stay in power.
But hope comes in the unity across diversity of the protest movement. The political power of the Rajapaksas has rested on a stridently religious-nationalist appeal to a key segment of the country’s majority Sinhala Buddhist population, based on the exclusion of Tamil people and other minorities. But protesters are coming from all groups and mobilising outside party structures. Young people are denying their reputation for apathy by protesting in numbers. LGBTQI+ people, previously made invisible, are being embraced as part of the protest community.
People are no longer either intimidated or impressed by President Rajapaksa’s strongman posturing, and they no longer want such a leader. The protest movement is showing instead what Sri Lanka could look like, and making clear that the best way for the country to respond to its economic crisis is to listen to the voices of its people.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President and Prime Minister Rajapaksa should step aside in favour of a government of national unity to develop a consensus-based response to the economic crisis.
The government should amend the constitution to restore checks and balances on presidential power.
Sri Lanka’s protest movement must stay unified, respect the diversity of its members and resist factionalism.
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