Hope and fear battle for supremacy in Sri Lanka’s presidential election campaign
Hope and fear battle for supremacy in Sri Lanka’s presidential election campaign
Sri Lanka’s Economic Meltdown Triggers Popular Uprising and Political Turmoil
Sri Lanka’s Economic Meltdown Triggers Popular Uprising and Political Turmoil
Sri Lanka’s common presidential candidate Mithripala Sirisena gestures as he addresses the nation at his party’s office in Colombo, 5 January 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Commentary / Asia

Hope and fear battle for supremacy in Sri Lanka’s presidential election campaign

As the clock ticks down to Sri Lanka’s 8 January presidential election, voters appear to face a clear choice between an incumbent committed to increasingly centralised presidential authority and an opposition pledging to reverse that trend and restore power to the legislature. Following a month of often bitter campaigning, fears are growing the vote could be marred by polling-day abuses and possible post-election violence and fraud. The campaign has already seen frequent attacks on opposition rallies and supporters and what appears to have been a significant level of misuse of state resources by the incumbent, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The growing possibility of an opposition victory looks set to heighten risks over both the integrity of the vote and post-election stability.

Just months ago, the polls seemed pre-destined to result in a clear Rajapaksa victory; indeed, so confident was Rajapaksa that he called the election two years early. But in a surprise move in late November, the opposition announced a consensus candidate to take on the governing coalition: Maithripala Sirisena, himself a former minister in Rajapaksa’s government.  Since then, two dozen other parliamentarians have left the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and endorsed Sirisena, including all members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). They were later joined by Sri Lanka’s main ethnic Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). With Sirisena drawing large crowds, his anti-corruption message appearing to resonate widely and some polls indicating he’s in the lead, a majority vote for the opposition is possible, according to some even probable.

With the TNA and SLMC endorsements, the joint opposition now spans virtually the entire political spectrum and represents all Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities. TNA leaders reportedly delayed their formal endorsement – announced on 30 December – in order to give Sirisena’s campaign time to establish itself free of the expected Sinhala nationalist attacks from Rajapaksa. At the same time, with Sirisena and the joint opposition careful not to offer support for any long-standing Tamil demands – including on devolution of power and accountability for wartime atrocities – the TNA was under pressure from some Tamil constituencies to remain neutral or even call for a boycott. When TNA leaders did announce their decision to back Sirisena, they explained it was “essential for the health of Sri Lanka’s democracy that the authoritarian and dictatorial trajectory on which the Rajapaksa regime has set the country be reversed urgently.”

Despite this caution from both the TNA and Sirisena, the government quickly accused the two of making a secret agreement to support Tamil separatism. With Rajapaksa’s campaign making the most of its control over state media, its nationalist allegations could still resonate with many Sinhala voters. Government media and Rajapaksa officials made a similar claim against the SLMC – accusing it of joining the TNA and Sirisena in an international conspiracy to divide the country on ethnic lines – in response to their widely anticipated decision to leave the government.

The 28 December decision of the SLMC, together with nearly all other Muslim members of government, to switch sides and endorse Sirisena, was a particular blow to Rajapaksa’s chances. SLMC leaders, especially then justice minister Rauff Hakeem, had been under growing pressure from their members and many of their voters to leave government in protest at the government’s failure to protect Muslims from three years of violence and hate speech at the hands of militant Buddhists.

Continuing in government became politically impossible for the SLMC following the 22 December departure of its main rival, the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC), whose leader, Rishad Bathiudeen, had been close to the president’s brother, economic development minister Basil Rajapaksa. The departure of deputy minister Faizer Mustapha, who had maintained close ties to the president’s other, more powerful brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was further evidence of the deep alienation felt by Muslims – and resultant political damage to the Rajapaksas’ own interests – caused by the government’s tacit support to anti-Muslim campaigning.

Sri Lanka’s main Buddhist militant group, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, or BBS), which has endorsed Rajapaksa’s re-election, was quick to attack the SLMC, accusing its leader of being a “political prostitute” bent on dividing the country. While the government appears to be holding BBS in check during the campaign, possibly for fear of losing what remaining Muslim votes Rajapaksa may get, many Muslims are worried their community may be targeted for retribution should Rajapaksa return to power. Indeed, concerns over being targeted as traitorous extremists by the state contributed to the SLMC’s initial reluctance to withdraw from the coalition government. (A forthcoming Crisis Group report will examine the militant Buddhist campaign against Sri Lanka’s Muslims and responses from the government and the Muslim community).

Already, the campaign has been one of the most violent in Sri Lanka’s history, with one domestic election monitor reporting more than 100 election-related attacks, virtually all against opposition supporters. Among the more notable incidents are:

  1. the 2 January stone attack by an unknown group on a Sirisena rally in the central town of Pelmadulla, which injured some twenty participants, followed the next day by a drive-by shooting towards the stage during a Sirisena rally;
  2. a series of mob attacks on civil society activists, including one on 21 December that reportedly involved threatening actions against opposition supporters by the ruling party mayor of Hambantota, Rajapaksa’s hometown; and another on 29 December that involved members of a youth group established by the president’s son, Namal Rajapaksa;
  3. the 26 December mob attack, targeting a meeting held in Beruwela by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and other opposition organisers. Kumaratunga accused the police of refusing to intervene to stop the attack, which was reportedly led by a local government politician; and
  4. the burning of a stage set up for an opposition rally in the southern town of Wanduramba; four suspects arrested were later reportedly freed through the violent intervention of a deputy minister, who was eventually arrested on returning to Sri Lanka after being allowed to leave the country despite a police warrant.

With impunity deeply entrenched and no independent institutions capable of checking state abuse – as evidenced by last year’s provincial elections in the Tamil majority north – it remains to be seen how effective the efforts of election monitors can be. Domestic monitoring groups have already done important and risky work detailing violence and alleged abuse of state resources. They have now been joined by observation missions from the Commonwealth and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), as well as international teams invited by local groups. An initial invitation from the elections commissioner to the European Union (EU) to send monitors was later rescinded, reportedly due to pressure from the government. A 2 January EU statement calling for a “peaceful, credible and transparent” election earned a sharp rebuke from the Sri Lankan foreign ministry, angry at its interference in a “strictly domestic” issue.

On 1 January, opposition leaders made public what they claimed were detailed plans to deploy military units and retired army officers to key electorates in a bid to suppress opposition voters. Defence officials deny the allegations, but the military appear already to have been involved in various ways in support of Rajapaksa’s re-election – from building stages for his rallies to allegedly mailing pro-Rajapaksa propaganda to thousands of soldiers – and Commonwealth observers have agreed to look into concerns about the military’s role. Many worry troops could be deployed to intimidate Tamil and Muslim voters in the already heavily militarised north and east of the island. Recent heavy flooding in large parts of the north, east and central hills already threatens to reduce turnout considerably. The military’s central role in delivering relief to the affected communities has heightened these worries.

Perhaps the key challenge for monitors will be to document evidence of – if their presence cannot serve to ward off – any manipulation of the results. With the elections commissioner allowing domestic monitors access to less than a third of the more than 1000 counting centres, scepticism is high about the reliability of the final count; in the words of one senior diplomat in Colombo, “the election will be stolen in the counting centres”.

The threat of violence will remain high in the immediate aftermath of the election.

The threat of violence will remain high in the immediate aftermath of the election. Should Rajapaksa emerge victorious, many of his opponents could be at risk. The past month of campaigning has seen a sharp increase in public criticism of the ruling family and regime from many intellectuals, artists and professionals previously too fearful to express their criticisms. While the increased space for public debate is welcome, it leaves many people vulnerable to retribution should Rajapaksa return to power. Memories of the arrest and prosecution of former army commander Sarath Fonseka following his defeat in the 2010 presidential election are fresh in many minds. Should Rajapaksa be defeated, his supporters could also be at risk, as post-election attacks on supporters of the losing side have been an unfortunate feature of most Sri Lankan elections. The visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka, scheduled for 13-15 January, could help limit potential post-election violence, as the winner will not want to be blamed for tarnishing a rare papal visit.

If the vote count goes against Rajapaksa, many worry he and his powerful family may not go quietly. While an outright military coup appears unlikely, some fear Rajapaksa may claim a right to serve out the remaining two years of his term and refuse to leave office, sparking a constitutional crisis with all its attendant uncertainty. The body charged with resolving such a dispute – the Supreme Court, widely viewed as loyal to the president – is unlikely to provide a determination that would be universally respected.  A Sirisena victory would also likely be disputed, whether through the courts or the street, where the BBS and other nationalist allies might seek to destabilise the new government.

Whoever loses, however, will be presented with an opportunity to regroup in the parliamentary elections that could come within a few months of the presidential polls. And whoever wins will face the challenge of mending a polity in urgent need of being brought together.  This is true not just of Colombo’s politics but also with respect to the many legitimate demands of Sri Lanka’s beleaguered Tamil community that remain to be addressed.  Understandably, if not admirably, Sirisena has promised to continue the current government’s policy of rejecting efforts by the international community to ensure accountability for the thousands of civilian deaths incurred at government hands at the end of the civil conflict in 2009. These efforts have not gone away, even five years after that bloody denouement, but rather have intensified. Thus whether Rajapaksa or Sirisena, whoever wins will need adequately to address the many credible allegations over the army’s conduct at the end of the war if they are effectively to reduce international pressure.

In short, Sri Lankan politics are almost certain to remain volatile in the months ahead. Continued vigilance and engagement from Sri Lanka’s international partners – to encourage a peaceful electoral process, tempered rhetoric, adequate observation of counting centres, and respect for the results duly observed – will remain essential if Sri Lanka is eventually to emerge with greater stability and better chances for lasting reconciliation.

A protestor wearing a mask of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa performs during a protest against President Rajapaksa in front of the Presidential Secretariat, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 9, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Q&A / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Economic Meltdown Triggers Popular Uprising and Political Turmoil

Sri Lanka is embroiled in nationwide protests amid deepening economic woes and increasing political volatility. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Alan Keenan analyses the implications of the crisis, which could have lasting political and economic effects.

What has been happening in Sri Lanka?

Protests, which had been building from late February in response to Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in nearly 75 years of independence, have now morphed into a nationwide uprising. Protesters are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and removal of the Rajapaksa family from politics.

The protest wave gained momentum as the results of the government’s financial and economic mismanagement became increasingly visible amid rapidly disappearing hard currency reserves and widespread shortages. As prices of petrol and other basic commodities spiked, and imported goods became more expensive and harder to find, the public expressed its growing frustration through ad hoc protests and nightly vigils in middle-class neighbourhoods. Average Sri Lankans are furious at the collapse of living standards and government ministers’ repeated statements betraying indifference to the immense hardships they are facing. Popular anger grew after the president addressed the nation on 16 March, refusing to accept any responsibility for the economic problems, and a special All-Party Conference on 23 March produced no solutions to the crisis.

Organised in large part through social media, including under the banner of #GoHomeGota, protesters have shifted from calling on the president to resign to calling for the whole Rajapaksa family – including the prime minister and former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa – to exit politics. They are also demanding thorough investigations into the alleged large-scale corruption and political crimes widely attributed to the ruling family and their associates. Since 9 April, thousands of peaceful protesters have been continuously camped outside the president’s offices in central Colombo. While the Rajapaksas’ reputation for political repression had earlier deterred many protesters, growing anger seems to have overcome fear.

The evening of 31 March was a turning point for the protest movement, as large crowds gathered near Gotabaya’s private residence. Protesters marched directly up to the president’s well-guarded house, chanting their demand that he leave office. Police efforts to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons only fuelled discontent. The clashes saw security forces assault journalists and arrest more than 50 demonstrators, some of whom were reportedly tortured. Public outrage at police violence and the deployment of troops deepened the shift in public mood against the Rajapaksas. In the protesters’ eyes, the family, which has been at the core of the nation’s power politics since 2005, is the central cause of Sri Lanka’s woes and no longer credible as the protectors of the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority.

On 1 April, in an effort to prevent planned future protests, the president declared a state of emergency, followed by an island-wide curfew and a shutdown of social media networks. He lifted these measures within days, but even before he did so, protest organisers had found ways around the social media ban. Demonstrations on 4 April saw tens of thousands in the streets in multiple locations, with some protesters beginning to link the government’s economic mismanagement to the Rajapaksa family’s alleged corruption and other crimes, starting with Gotabaya himself.

Amid the tumult, the entire slate of government ministers resigned on 3 April. It was a coordinated move, allowing Gotabaya to appoint a new four-member cabinet, still headed by his brother Mahinda as prime minister. Gone from office were two other Rajapaksas – Basil, who as finance minister had been a lightning rod for popular anger, and Namal, Mahinda’s son and heir apparent, who had been sports minister. The loathed Central Bank governor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, also resigned.

The president then called on the opposition to join a “national unity” government, but there were no takers, and his political stock continued to plummet. On 5 April, more than 40 allied lawmakers withdrew support from the governing coalition led by Gotabaya’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), putting its parliamentary majority in doubt. In response, Gotabaya said any group of parties that could assemble a majority was invited to form a new government, but so far none has tried to do so.

The emergence of a broad-based popular movement against autocratic rule is for many Sri Lankans a welcome change in a country traditionally divided on ethnic and religious grounds. The situation is volatile, however. Political paralysis could lead to even deeper economic collapse or more serious social unrest. Authorities could in turn use the turmoil to justify violent repression and an even larger role for the military in governance.

For the time being, Sri Lanka is stuck in a political standoff: the president refuses to resign, even as his parliamentary majority is in question, while the opposition has failed to develop a coherent plan for removing him or for ruling the country if he leaves. Even if Gotabaya resigns, it is not clear that opposition parties are ready to take on the responsibility of seeing Sri Lanka through the economic crisis, given that international creditors are certain to impose conditions for further lending that will force painful sacrifices on average Sri Lankans, making whoever is in power unpopular.

Sri Lanka has never faced this kind of economic and political meltdown.

Just how bad have things become for average Sri Lankans?

Sri Lankans across the island are increasingly desperate. Skyrocketing prices – due to the scarcity of imported goods, low recent crop yields and a 60 per cent drop in the Sri Lankan rupee’s value since mid-March – have made even basic commodities unaffordable for many families. The risk of widespread food insecurity and malnutrition is growing. High prices have hit the poor and day labourers particularly hard, but shortages of key food items, cooking gas and petrol have affected the middle class badly, too. The misery is worsened by daily power outages up to twelve hours long, with power plants lacking the imported fuel they need to generate electricity and water levels in hydroelectric reservoirs low due to drought. Lack of reliable power forces many businesses to shorten their hours. Medicines and medical supplies – virtually all imported – are getting hard to find, with doctors and medical trade unions warning that the health system could fall apart.

Although no stranger to natural and manmade disasters, Sri Lanka has never faced this kind of economic and political meltdown. Even through 30 years of war, it maintained a relatively high standard of living in most parts of the country, with a functioning, if increasingly threadbare welfare state. The economic pressures and rapid decline in living standards are traumatic for all but the wealthiest Sri Lankans and lie at the core of the nearly universal anger at the government.

Meanwhile, the possibility that the crisis spirals into a humanitarian emergency looms as Sri Lanka’s lack of money threatens to cripple economic activity and undermine its shaky banking system. On 12 April, the Central Bank announced it was suspending repayments of foreign debt in advance of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other outside creditors. In effect, the announcement begins the process of Sri Lanka’s first-ever default, although some economists and investors are nevertheless welcoming it as a long overdue acknowledgment of how critical the situation has become.

Even if the government is able to reach a deal with the IMF to avoid an “unstructured default” (ie, one that occurs outside a deal with creditors and the IMF) and the downward spiral that could ensue, Sri Lanka’s economy and living standards will take years to recover.

What is driving the economic crisis?

Sri Lanka’s economic disaster has deep roots: the country has long lived beyond its means – borrowing too much and taxing too little – and produced below its potential. But the Rajapaksa administration’s gross negligence on economic matters since it came to power in November 2019 has significantly aggravated the island’s chronic problems.

At the heart of the crisis is the lack of hard currency needed to service the country’s huge foreign debt and to purchase the imported goods that Sri Lankans rely on, including much of their food and medicine, and all of their fuel. Foreign reserves have long been low, but the COVID-19 pandemic made things worse by almost entirely interrupting tourism, one of the country’s largest sources of foreign currency. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s international debt obligations have steadily grown, in part because of costly infrastructure projects financed with Chinese loans that must be repaid even though the projects have yet to pay economic dividends, and the need to finance chronic budget deficits generated by a large public sector and low taxation rates. With debt increasingly composed of high-interest commercial loans and sovereign bonds held by international creditors, Sri Lanka needs to repay another $4-6 billion in 2022 alone, but has less than half a billion in usable dollar reserves.

Gotabaya’s authoritarian, centralised and non-transparent decision-making is central to the crisis.

The previous government (2015-2019) made modest progress toward fixing Sri Lanka’s chronic problems, but its efforts were quickly reversed after Gotabaya’s election. In early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic started affecting the economy, the new administration introduced massive tax cuts that sharply reduced government revenue and garnered lower credit ratings that eliminated its ability to borrow on the international market. In an effort to keep inflation under control, the government spent large amounts of its dwindling hard currency reserves to prop up the Sri Lankan rupee’s value. To save hard currency, the president also banned the import of chemical fertilisers in April 2021, forcing farmers to adopt organic methods overnight, without resources or training. As result, agricultural yields plummeted, farmers got poorer and the government was forced to import more food.

Gotabaya’s authoritarian, centralised and non-transparent decision-making is central to the crisis. Surrounded by cronies and oblivious to criticism, his administration rejected repeated calls for a course correction as the crisis deepened. Defying expert opinion, the president and his Central Bank governor initially refused to enter into negotiations with the IMF to arrange a financial package that could win international creditors’ confidence and allow for the restructuring, and reduction, of Sri Lanka’s debt. Instead, throughout 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, the government arranged a series of short-term currency swaps and credit lines from China, India, Bangladesh and others. These were merely stopgap measures, failing to address the fundamental problems and in fact adding to Sri Lanka’s total debt.

After more than a year of resistance, Gotabaya announced on 16 March that his government would enter into negotiations with the IMF. By then, the situation had grown truly dire, with currency reserves down to dangerously low levels and the government struggling to pay for even the most essential imported goods. Two weeks earlier, the IMF had issued a statement outlining the reforms needed to win its financial support. These include a long series of austerity measures, from budget cuts to income tax and VAT increases, an end to inflationary money printing by the Central Bank, phasing out import restrictions, stopping government interventions aimed at stabilising the rupee, and “growth-enhancing structural reforms”, which will likely include the sale or partial privatisation of state-owned companies.

On 6 April, the president appointed a committee of three respected economists to handle talks with the IMF. It will face a daunting task. In addition to negotiating with the IMF on the details of long-term structural reforms, the committee, together with the finance ministry and Central Bank, will need to arrange urgent “bridge financing” from international agencies to inject short-term liquidity, convince creditors to allow a pause in debt payments, and prepare a range of legislation to increase taxes and cut non-urgent public spending. With currency reserves dangerously close to zeroing out, speed is of the essence. While the Central Bank’s 8 April doubling of interest rates and subsequent suspension of debt repayments shows that some in the government now seem to understand the urgency of the situation, there is little in the administration’s record to inspire confidence about how it will handle the challenges ahead.

The government is due to start talks with the IMF on 18 April and has announced that it needs $3-4 billion in support from external lenders for the remainder of 2022. To secure agreement from the fund on such a large amount will likely take months, but it might deploy emergency financing (most likely in the tens of millions) as a stopgap, likely in coordination with the World Bank, which has said it is considering emergency assistance. Whether the IMF acts quickly will likely depend on how serious the Sri Lankan team seems about reforms, how dire the situation continues to look on the ground, and how eager the IMF is to avoid rattling the global markets that see Sri Lanka as a bellwether for a string of future potential defaults across the developing world.

What is the way out of the political crisis?

Despite the vigorous protest campaign demanding his resignation, President Rajapaksa appears determined to cling to power, especially as public calls to hold him and his family accountable for alleged corruption and other crimes grow louder. Various parties in the opposition are developing plans to remove him or trim his powers, but it is proving to be a challenging undertaking. One possible road to removal is impeachment – a complex effort that requires a two-thirds majority in parliament. The bloc most likely to attempt it is an awkward grouping of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), former Rajapaksa supporters, the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and smaller Tamil and Muslim parties. But they are still far from meeting the required threshold.

Another approach that may present fewer procedural obstacles, proposed by SJB leader Sajith Premadasa on 5 April, would be to amend the constitution to strip the presidency of its executive powers and transfer them to the prime minister and cabinet, who would be accountable to parliament. A draft bill giving effect to this approach, formulated with a view to past supreme court rulings in order to avoid the need for approval by referendum, is reportedly ready to be tabled at the next parliamentary session on 19 April. If the amendment is approved – which would also require two-thirds support and take three to four weeks – Gotabaya would have the choice to remain as a ceremonial president or to resign. Under this scenario, whatever new parliamentary majority and prime minister emerged would then face the challenge of negotiating with the IMF to win support from the fund and begin restoring investor confidence, before likely calling fresh elections.

To increase political pressure on Gotabaya to resign and be in a stronger position to win a vote on amending the constitution, the main opposition party, the SJB, plans first to call for a no-confidence vote in the hopes of then forming an interim coalition government it will lead. It had earlier hesitated to do so, uncertain that it has the votes and also well aware it could struggle to set policy with Gotabaya still in office given the enormous powers the president enjoys (and which he significantly reinforced though a constitutional amendment after coming to power). The SJB also knows that governing under Gotabaya, even briefly before his removal, could taint it by association and damage it politically, especially given the unpopular decisions any government will need to make to stabilise the country’s financial situation. The SJB’s hesitation, and its failure to communicate to the public a clear strategy for removing Gotabaya and addressing the immediate economic crisis, appear to have provided space for the Rajapaksas to regroup partially. Other parties, including those formerly in government, are floating rival plans.

Any move to remove or sideline President Rajapaksa is likely to take weeks, if not months, and could fail entirely. Meanwhile, the prospect of an unmanaged default looms, with hard currency reserves likely to run dry within the next few weeks. Moreover, there is no guarantee of success in negotiations with the IMF and international bondholders, who will want to be assured that any likely government will make and sustain the reforms and other measures they insist on as a condition to any relief package. Against this backdrop, opposition parties will need to work with serving officials on an urgent basis to craft a consensus set of economic policies that can win over the IMF. They will need to cooperate closely with the new Central Bank governor, P. Nandalal Weerasinghe, and the committee of economists appointed by the president to manage the IMF negotiations.

Outside powers and international institutions have an important role to play.

Is there a risk political tensions could turn violent? Could the military be tempted to intervene?

Should the protests continue to grow or turn violent, perhaps following a banking collapse, some fear Gotabaya, known for his hot temper and his role in brutal counter-insurgency campaigns against both Sinhalese and Tamil insurgencies during his military and political career, might be willing to call in the military to crush them. So far, the government has been careful to cultivate an international image of moderation, and the military has denied any plans to intervene, but Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s address to the nation on 11 April, in which he presented the protest movement as anti-democratic and hostile to the police and military, was widely interpreted as a veiled threat.

It is unclear how much support there would be in the army for a crackdown. On one hand, its top commanders – most notably the army head, Major General Shavendra Silva (sanctioned by the United States for credible allegations of war crimes), and the defence secretary, retired General Kamal Gunaratne – are known to be close to the president. On the other hand, while military personnel are paid well relative to other civil servants, the worse the economic crisis gets, the more they and their families will also feel its effects. They could be reluctant to turn their guns on protesters, especially those who are fellow Sinhalese. There is also evidence of fissures between the army and police, who are normally in charge of dealing with protests. In one incident – widely discussed on social media – police turned away unmarked army special forces motorcycle units sent in to intimidate protesters near parliament on 5 April. The army commander and defence secretary reacted angrily and ordered the chief of police to discipline the policemen involved.

What can foreign governments and multilateral agencies do to help?

Only Sri Lankans can solve the country’s crises, but outside powers and international institutions have an important role to play in reducing the risks of economic collapse and violence. In particular:

  • First and foremost, donors can provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance, particularly in the form of medicine and medical supplies. An Indian government credit line to buy fuel, food and medicine has been crucial, but with Sri Lanka’s hard currency resources diminishing further each day, more assistance in those same areas is immediately required to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis.
  • Secondly, to limit the risks of violent escalation, Sri Lanka’s democratic foreign partners should send strong messages to military leaders that any attempt to intervene in politics or to repress protest will do lasting damage to bilateral relations and could trigger targeted human rights and other sanctions of the sort that the U.S. has enabled under the Magnitsky Act.
  • Thirdly, support from the IMF (as well as the World Bank and bilateral donors) is essential to avoid a complete economic disaster. But it brings risks, too. Many critics of the president and his administration fear that a lifeline from the IMF, while easing pressures on average Sri Lankans, could provide breathing space to Gotabaya as well, allowing him and his family to restore themselves. In the event the political opposition mounts a successful impeachment or power-stripping effort along the lines outlined above, this concern will at some point become moot. But regardless of the Rajapaksas’ fate, the IMF should take steps to help ensure that any international bailout does not perpetuate the systemic weaknesses that have contributed to the current crises. To this end, the IMF should insist on reforms that can help rein in a bloated military, institutionalised corruption enabled by a lack of financial and political accountability, and systematic attacks on free media that make it harder to report on and challenge official malfeasance.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks and months, Sri Lanka’s recovery from the current crisis is likely to be difficult and could last years. If the Rajapaksas hold onto power, they will be governing an angry, restless populace without the public support needed to impose the painful measures Sri Lanka must take to restructure its international debt. If they do not, a string of unstable and short-lived governments is a distinct possibility, as few politicians will be eager to design or administer the new social and economic policies that creditors will require as part of any bailout package. Sri Lanka will warrant close international attention and support throughout the difficult years ahead.