In the wake of the worst economic crisis in its post-independence history, over the past two months thousands of Sri Lankans have been taking to the streets to peacefully demand the resignation of their government. After protests reached President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence, the government temporarily declared a State of Emergency, imposed curfews and blocked social media. On 19 April, the first death was recorded when police opened fire on protesters. Yet, violating the right of Sri Lankans to their freedom of expression and assembly has only fuelled the peoples’ grievances further.
On 12 April 2022, two decades of a brewing debt crisis resulted in the Sri Lankan government defaulting on USD 51 billion of foreign debt. In the coming months and years, 22 million Sri Lankans will likely suffer from increased living costs, taxes, and borrowing rates as a result. These difficulties are compounded by frequent electricity outages and growing shortages of fuel, medicines, staple foods, and other essentials in what was once known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”
As the going gets tougher for all Sri Lankans, much of the country’s population is uniting against a seemingly common “enemy”—their very own government. Growing public pressure by ordinary Sri Lankans and civil society on their elected leaders indicates that Sri Lanka’s faltering democracy may be at a turning point. Propelled by economic hardship, Sri Lankans are finally waking up from a deep slumber to voice the need for urgent and far-reaching system reform.
While many past protests have been partisan in nature, we are now witnessing Sri Lankans of different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds overcoming those divisions to pave a path for radical change. The unity is especially striking in a country that faced 26 years of civil war.
In response, the entire Cabinet (including the President’s nephew) resigned, but President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, refuse to cede power. The Rajapaksas are criticized for exacerbating a culture of corruption, nepotism, and dishonesty in Sri Lanka’s political and business communities. Their practice of awarding project contracts to their henchmen and appointing unqualified friends and family into senior posts has led to incompetent and unchecked decision-making. The absence of good governance has also contributed to a continuous brain drain from the island. Soaring inflation, rapid currency devaluation coupled with decades of debt accumulation and economic mismanagement—including ill-conceived infrastructure and vanity projects that generated no or negligible returns, baseless tax cuts and arbitrary policies to force organic farming—are just a few of many decisions that now threaten what was once one of South Asia’s fastest-growing economies.
International IDEA’s 2021 GSoD report identified Sri Lanka as being at high risk of “democratic backsliding.” GSoD data show that Sri Lanka has suffered decreases in all of the sub-attributes of Check on Government as well as decreases in Absence of Corruption over the past several years. Declines in these attributes signify serious failures of the Rajapaksa government to uphold the rule of law in the delivery of services to its people.
Declines in Selected Subattributes, 2015-2020
Protest momentum is being driven by Sri Lanka’s youth, business owners, artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. C. Perera, a Sri Lankan national who advises the tourism investment sector notes that “Sri Lankan university students and labour unions regularly stage protests; but now, the elite, upper classes and business community are taking to the streets themselves, for the first time in our history.” Perera adds, “Younger generations are showing more courage and confidence, unafraid to voice opinions and request for a much-needed system overhaul that older generations have failed to address. Responsible thinking and years of pent-up frustration drives the current momentum for positive, values-based change. Sri Lankan people are rightfully demanding for transparent and accountable leadership which simply has not existed for decades across government and big business.”
The country began talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on 18 April with the aim of expediting financing to Sri Lanka, but addressing the fragmented political system will take time. Reforms which have been recommended include abolishing the executive presidency, reinforcing and protecting an independent judiciary, increasing accountability among the political classes i.e., declaring their assets and auditing expenditures, enforcing transparent and professional tender and contract processes; and filling key economic decision-making roles with competent and experienced professionals to reinstall confidence among the Sri Lankan public and international creditors.
For many, there is hope that this crisis—echoed by people’s protests- will serve as a wakeup call and turning point toward much needed political, economic and social reform. Ultimately, an uprising of this scale and diversity will be hard for the rulers of Sri Lanka to ignore.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.