For nearly a month, Sri Lankans have been taking to the streets in the thousands, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, amid an unprecedented economic crisis. A shortage of foreign reserves has severely restricted Sri Lanka’s imports of basic necessities like food, fuel, and medicines, leading to shortages and price jumps that have impacted people across the country. But there are also longer-term concerns about nepotism, corruption, and incompetence on the part of Sri Lanka’s leaders.
The Diplomat interviewed Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer, about what’s driving the protests and the implications for broader political reform. Fonseka is a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
What are the major grievances fueling the protests? Is it the day-to-day struggles due to the economic crisis, “big picture” governance issues like corruption, or a combination?
The present protests commenced several weeks ago when ordinary citizens peacefully took to the streets in response to the growing economic hardships, scarcity of essential items, and long power cuts, among others. What started as small citizen organized protests across Sri Lanka has transformed into the largest protest movement in recent years, with thousands peacefully protesting demanding for change in government and governance in Sri Lanka.
The political and economic crisis have exposed the multiple failures of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency with several examples of mismanagement and policy U-turns that have had devastating impact on the people. For example, the sudden ban on the use of chemical fertilizer has had a significant impact on the agriculture sector, affecting thousands of livelihoods and food security. Disastrous policy decisions such as the tax cuts have also impacted sources of revenue. These and other developments have directly impacted the people with many facing enormous hardships in getting essential items including food, medicines, gas, and fuel. In addition, we now have the unfortunate situation of several deaths of those who stood in line to obtain essential items, deaths that are directly linked to the mismanagement of the Rajapaksa government.
Thus, a combination of factors in this present economic and political crisis has impacted people from all walks of society and this has seen thousands of people peacefully stepping on to the roads in their united call for change.
What role did the COVID-19 pandemic play in fueling the economic crisis – and, by extension, the protest movement?
Sri Lanka is facing multiple challenges at present, with the pandemic exacerbating certain issues. The challenges as a result of the lockdowns during 2020 and 2021 impacted livelihoods and exposed the structural inequalities in Sri Lanka. Many communities, including those reliant on daily wage work and the informal sector, faced challenges. The pandemic also exposed the inadequacy of the social welfare programs in Sri Lanka and the inequitable distribution of assistance, with many vulnerable communities not receiving the assistance they require.
The economic crisis exacerbated many of these issues, exposing again the structural inequalities in Sri Lanka with vulnerable communities facing severe hardships. It has also resurfaced calls for a review of budgetary allocations for different sectors, including questions being raised as to why the defense budget continues to be the highest as opposed to health and other sectors. Sri Lanka is in a post-war context and resources should be targeted at assisting the people, including through revamped social welfare programs.
While the current protest is largely focused on the more immediate economic hardships, there is recognition that systemic change is needed in Sri Lanka, including long-term reforms. The pandemic and the present crisis highlight this, with the calls of the protesters focusing on both immediate and long-term reforms.
The Rajapkasas were voted out of office in 2015, and the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government enacted a constitutional amendment to limit the power of the president. By 2020, the Rajapaksas were back in power and had undone those reforms with their own constitutional amendment. What are the prospects for broader political reform that will stick?
Sri Lanka has witnessed several attempts at political reform, but none have been able to abolish the executive presidency. Despite campaign promises by successive governments, the promise to abolish the office never materialized due to several factors including lack of political leadership and will. Some attempts at curtailing powers of the executive and strengthening parliament were witnessed with the enactment of the 17th and 19th amendments to the constitution, but the pendulum swung back when subsequent amendments rolled back reforms and consolidated further power with the executive. Thus, Sri Lanka’s attempts at progressive reforms are mixed, with several lost opportunities.
The present call to abolish the executive presidency comes at an opportune moment when thousands have witnessed and experienced the dangers the office holds and the devastation it can cause in different spheres with implications for Sri Lanka’s stability and economy.
I must also note that the executive presidency evolved into an all-powerful institution with the enactment of the 20th amendment to the constitution in 2020. This was spearheaded by the Rajapaksa government and done on the premise that a strong leader was needed to ensure Sri Lanka enjoyed economic prosperity, stability, and security. Ironically, the all-powerful executive president has not lived up to its hype but taken Sri Lanka in the opposite direction. The reality is that despite the campaign promises, Sri Lankans are facing unprecedented hardships under the Rajapaksa rule.
In such a context, there is now a realization that structural reforms are essential, which includes the need to abolish the executive presidency and strengthen parliament. These must be coupled with other progressive reforms that address political accountability and structural inequalities. One can only hope that parliament is able to speedily enact legislation that reflects the demands of the thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka.
Are human rights concerns – from transitional justice following the end of the civil war to rights for religious and ethnic minorities – playing a major role in the current protests?
The present protests commenced as a direct result of the economic crisis with many focusing on the most immediate hardships. The posters and placards capture the challenges faced by the people at the current moment and highlight more shortages of essential items, high inflation, long power cuts, and other immediate issues.
Many who have protested for years on abuses linked to the war and other cycles of violence have commented how their struggles were forgotten or ignored by the thousands who are now on the roads. It is also a reflection of the polarization in Sri Lanka, where many in the south were not aware or did not agitate when minority communities faced discrimination and violence. This was evident during the war years and also during post-war years such as when families of the disappeared and displaced communities agitated with little to no acknowledgement from the majority community.
The current protests have witnessed some recognition from certain quarters that the protests need to go beyond the immediate hardships and include other dimensions, including calls by victims of past cycles of violence and communities that have experienced decades of violence and discrimination. There is also now a gradual expansion of issues that reflect on past human rights issues, including violations that occurred during the previous Rajapaksa government and other governments, but there is also scope for improvement in terms of recognition and inclusivity of the different demands and standing in solidarity with the many who have been protesting for decades.
Can the Rajapaksas hold on? If not, do you think they could manage to return to power for a third time, replicating their political resurrection in 2019-20?
The call of the protesters is loud and clear. They are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The demand is for change. The protests resulted on the mass resignation of ministers and others on April 3, which included several Rajapaksas. Yet, and amidst continuing protests, the president and prime minister continue to remain in office.
As we speak, the opposition is calling for a no-confidence motion against the government. There is also a Private Members Bill proposing to abolish the executive presidency, which if passed will significantly change the structure of the state in Sri Lanka. We will have to see what happens in the next few weeks and months, but the pressure has remained on removing the Rajapaksa family from power.
Sri Lanka’s political landscape has witnessed the Rajapaksa dynasty not just survive but thrive under challenging times and I suspect this is not the end of the road for them. They are extremely unpopular at present, but they are also mercurial. Anything is possible.