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Sri Lanka

The Rajapaksa family’s return to government has put an end to tentative efforts to address the legacy of civil war and brought in more centralised, militarised government, anchored in Sinhala majoritarianism. As Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethno-religious tensions continue to linger, the presence of hardline Sinhala nationalists in power rules out any accommodation of Tamil political claims. Once-fringe ideas of militant Buddhist groups regarding violence and hate speech against Muslims are increasingly being adopted as government policy. Building on Crisis Group’s work to address the humanitarian and human rights crises of the civil war’s last phase, we aim to strengthen communal relations among Tamils, Muslims and Buddhists, while advocating for governance reforms that are essential to lasting peace.

CrisisWatch Sri Lanka

Unchanged Situation

Unprecedented multi-class, multi-ethnic protest movement demanded Rajapaksa govt’s resignation, as fears rose over prolonged political standoff and Central Bank announced first ever default. Following unrest late March when crowds attempted to storm President Rajapaksa’s private residence, govt 1 April declared state of emergency followed by two-day island-wide curfew and shutdown of social media networks; moves triggered fierce resistance to orders, forcing govt to reverse course. Tens of thousands 4 April took to streets in multiple locations. Thousands since 9 April peacefully camped outside president’s offices in central Colombo, with daily protests across island. In coordinated tactical retreat designed to restore govt credibility, all govt ministers 3 April resigned. President Rajapaksa next day appointed new four-member cabinet, headed by brother Mahinda as PM; move failed to quell unrest, as parliamentary opposition 4 April rejected president’s offer to form unity govt. Over 40 allied lawmakers 5 April withdrew support from govt, putting ruling party’s parliamentary majority in doubt. Main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) 21 April tabled bill with constitutional reforms, including to end system of executive presidency and return to full parliamentary system; parallel efforts to gain majority for no-confidence vote against govt were unsuccessful. President Rajapaksa 18 April appointed new cabinet, which failed to placate protesters. In 29 April meeting with 11-party group of former govt allies, president reportedly agreed to form interim govt with new PM. Police 19 April fired on crowds protesting fuel price increases, killing one and wounding two dozen. President Rajapaksa, under domestic and international pressure, 20 April promised impartial inquiry; incident renewed fears president and his allies in security forces may turn to widespread repression as means to retain power. Govt efforts to secure international financial relief continued. Central Bank 12 April announced suspending repayments of foreign debt, effectively declaring country’s bankruptcy and first-ever default. Govt 18-19 April held first substantive talks with International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and 20 April indicated talks were at early stage. India 20 April announced willingness to supply additional $500mn credit line for fuel purchases.

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Reports & Briefings

In The News

17 Apr 2022
Sri Lanka would be in crisis even if you didn’t have a war in Ukraine, but it’s compounding everything. Washington Post

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
25 Apr 2019
The president has tried to weaken [Sri Lanka's Prime Minister] in many ways, including taking the police under his control. So it's entirely possible that the police wouldn't share information with ministers not aligned with the president. AFP

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
24 Jun 2018
It is particularly damaging that the reasons the U.S. Government gave for leaving the Human Rights Council – for being hypocritical and biased, echo so closely criticisms that the previous Sri Lankan Government and many Lankan politicians in opposition and in the current Government have made about the Council’s engagement with and resolutions on Sri Lanka. The U.S. withdrawal will have lasting damage and will strengthen governments and politicians across the globe who prefer to be left to their own devices, even when this involves violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens. Sunday Observer

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
8 Mar 2018
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims. Al Jazeera

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
6 Mar 2018
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority. The Guardian

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
18 Feb 2018
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver. CNN

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka

Latest Updates

Op-Ed / Asia

Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk

Twice postponed because of COVID-19, Sri Lanka's parliamentary election finally took place on 5 August. The SLPP's electoral victory should be understood not simply as a result of dissatisfaction with rival party UNP, but of the failure of its internationally-backed liberal reform agenda to gain lasting traction with Sri Lankan voters.

Originally published in LSE South Asia Centre

Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Other COVID-19 Crisis: Is Parliamentary Democracy at Risk?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government appears headed for a constitutional crisis that could lastingly damage Sri Lanka’s political institutions and aggravate conflict risks. Firm and concerted action by the country’s international partners could help break the impasse, which comes amid rising authoritarianism and anti-Muslim propaganda.

Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Sea Change in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government has initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations and the rule of law. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its pressure on Colombo to strengthen rights-respecting governance while making it clear that it will not support programs which encourage political repression or discrimination.

Q&A / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Brings Back a Polarising Wartime Figure

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decisive victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election reflects voters’ concerns over security, poor economic prospects and ineffective governance – but also indicates the country’s dangerous ethnic polarisation. Many worry that Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist, will energise anti-Muslim campaigning and further alienate the Tamil community.

Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

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Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
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