Why is Sri Lanka in turmoil?
Political unrest in Sri Lanka has escalated sharply after months of economic crisis – and inflation exceeding 50 percent. The government declared bankruptcy early July when the country was running out of fuel. On July 8, demonstrators clashed with soldiersthen set fire to the the prime minister’s house and seized the presidential palace. As protesters swam in the presidential pool, Rajapaksa left for the Maldives and would now be in Singapore. His Mahinda brotherwho had resigned as Prime Minister in May, is said to have taken refuge on a military base.
What has just happened and what will happen in the weeks and months to come? Our research explains how multiple crises – historical and contemporary, national and global, as well as political and economic – have come to a head.
Sri Lanka’s constitution calls for parliament to choose a new president – and that happened on Wednesday. But there is little consensus among protesters on the way forward: some are calling for patience and adherence to constitutional guidelines, others call for revolution.
Worried about the state of democracy? Here are some reasons to be rather optimistic.
The Sri Lankan war brought it to the brink of bankruptcy before
Unlike its South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka has a unique system with both an executive president and a prime minister. For more than a decade, the Rajapaksa brothers dominated the country’s politics. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism guided their regime, which was determined to decimate the separatist “Tamil Tigers”, or LTTE. Western supporters of War on Terror hailed the Rajapaksa’s approach as a model for defeating insurgencies.
To fight the Tamil insurgency, Mahinda, who was president at the time, with Gotabaya as defense minister, borrowed heavily to buy weapons. Between 2005, when Mahinda was elected, and 2009, when the war ended, Sri Lanka military spending more than doubled.
But it has helped push the country’s finances to the brink. A $2.5 billion emergency loan from the IMF bailed out the government, despite protests from Tamil and human rights activists who criticized the Rajapaksa’s devastation of the country’s northern region. After fanning the flames of Buddhist ethnonationalism, Mahinda called for snap elections in 2010, which he won landslide.
When Mahinda ran for the third time in 2015, he lost to a coalition government that promised to root out corruption and promote ethnic reconciliation. With Wickremesinghe as prime minister, the new government did little to hold Rajapaksa’s regime to account for its wartime atrocities or economic mismanagement for fear of angering Buddhist nationalists.
Then, just days after Gotabaya returned to Sri Lanka to contest the 2019 presidential election, a series of Easter Sunday bombings rocked the country, killing more than 200 people. Police arrested several Muslims for the attacks. Gotabaya quickly mounted a national security campaign, stoking fears of further violence to secure the presidency. Subsequent investigations revealed that members of the security forces aware of potential attack but did not act; there were also no ties to the Islamic Statewhat the Rajapaksas had widely asserted.
Economic pressures have increased
Similar to Sudan, Lebanon and other countries facing popular uprisings, the spark behind Sri Lanka’s latest conflagration may seem mundane – rising food and fuel prices. Shortages forced the closure of hospitals and schools. United under slogans like “GotaGoGama” (roughly, “Gotabaya Go Home” in English) or simply “Aragalaya” (Sinhala for “struggle”), thousands of people have demonstrated since April. Protesters have now forced the resignation of the two Rajapaksa brothers, as well as pressure on their political successors.
In April, Sri Lanka defaulted on its payment obligations for an estimated $52 billion in external debt. While China’s lending has garnered attention, the country’s main creditors are international financial institutions as well as the United States, India and Japan.
Once the government halted payments, Sri Lanka’s creditors refused to provide further loans. In May, as inflation drove up the cost of food and fuel — and drug shortages became rampant — large protests demanded the president’s resignation.
The Rajapaksa family had long relied on the support of the Sinhalese poor and middle classes, courting their votes with promises of end the terrorist threat. It doesn’t seem to work anymore. In the end, it was not war crimes against Tamils or their incitement to hatred against Muslims that toppled Sri Lanka’s ruling family, but foreign debt and economic collapse.
While Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister who never completed a full term, enjoys the support of Western politicians, many Sri Lankans are unconvinced and point to his inaction against the Rajapaksas. And some protesters likely blame the economic crisis on his liberalizing policies, such as his longstanding support for pro-market reforms.
There is little chance for a quick resolution of the worsening crises in Sri Lanka. The ruling elites of the country have shown little interest respond to protesters’ demands. With the economy in tatters and foreign creditors wary of Sri Lanka’s ability to repay its debts, there is little relief in sight for ordinary Sri Lankans.
The protest movement also failed to meaningfully address the issue of Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism. It’s not an unrelated problem – conflicts over national identity have long plagued Sri Lanka, but have also ballooned the debt that has now brought the government to its knees.
Will protesters in Sri Lanka accept Wickremesinghe as president and return home? And can Wickremesinghe broker a bottom-up process of reconciliation and power-sharing between the country’s different ethnic communities – as well as restructure the country’s external debts and revive the economy? Anything else looks likely to leave the country vulnerable to continued unrest.
Fatima Cader is a lawyer and adjunct professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
Zacharie Mampilly is a professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs and an affiliate faculty member of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY).