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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

Amid risk of “full-blown humanitarian crisis”, tensions mounted as authorities sought to address widespread hunger and shortages and Supreme Court dashed opposition’s hopes for root-and-branch political reform. Economic prospects worsened during month as lack of hard currency to purchase fuel increasingly strained productivity across country, raising risk of economic depression on top of skyrocketing inflation. UN 9 June launched global appeal to raise $47.2mn in assistance by Sept 2022; UN’s humanitarian office next day warned economic crisis is deteriorating rapidly and is at risk of tipping into a “full-blown humanitarian crisis”, while UN Resident Coordinator in capital Colombo same day said estimated 4.9mn people, or 22% of population, were currently in need of food assistance. Govt closed schools and ordered workers to stay at home for two weeks beginning 20 June, while queues for cooking gas and petrol extended miles in many places, leading to violent incidents at gas stations. Notably, army 18 June fired live ammunition over heads of Tamils waiting in line in northern town of Vishvamadu. Sri Lanka Bar Association 18 June called on police to “act with restraint and caution in dealing with the public”. Police made series of arrests of protest leaders and social media activists throughout month. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe 7 June urged citizens to be patient and not hoard fuel or essentials; said govt would request $6bn in support from International Monetary Fund (IMF), including $5bn for daily needs in next six months, along with another billion to stabilise rapidly depreciating rupee. IMF representatives 20 June visited Colombo in effort to complete staff level agreement on economic reforms and bailout. On political front, hopes for passage of opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB)’s proposal for 21st Amendment to constitution to abolish executive presidency were dashed after speaker 21 June announced amendment would require both two-thirds parliamentary majority and approval through referendum. Cabinet 20 June approved separate amendment proposed by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, which would reportedly limit president’s power only modestly. SJB and opposition National People’s Power (NPP) 21 June announced boycott of parliament in protest at govt’s failure to address crises.

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Reports & Briefings

In The News

6 Jun 2022
China has gotten a lot more involved in the politics of Sri Lanka and in backing the government in a much more public way. The Sunday Morning Herald

Alan Keenan

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
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

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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