Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka
Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s Economic Meltdown Triggers Popular Uprising and Political Turmoil
Sri Lanka’s Economic Meltdown Triggers Popular Uprising and Political Turmoil
Sri Lankan Tamil women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the U.N. head office in Colombo on 13 March 2013.
Sri Lankan Tamil women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the U.N. head office in Colombo on 13 March 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Commentary / Asia

Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka

As the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva this month, it’s time to assess how far Sri Lanka has come since last year’s passage of a landmark resolution to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights.

Resolution 30/1, adopted in October, was a major achievement for the Council – and an important milestone in Sri Lanka’s journey toward lasting peace and a just settlement of its decades-old ethnic conflict. Following years of bitter resistance by the previous Sri Lankan government to international efforts to encourage post-war reconciliation and accountability, the new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe displayed admirable political courage in negotiating a consensus resolution containing many of the elements needed for a sustainable peace.

However, Sri Lanka today is not yet the success story that many in the international community claim it to be. Progress on implementing the Council resolution has been slow and often grudging, and there are growing doubts about the government’s political will and ability to see the complex process through. For Sri Lanka to stay on the path toward recovery, it needs sustained international support and engagement.

Speaking at this critical juncture, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein this week encouraged the government to prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice with “inclusive and meaningful engagement from all Sri Lankans”. As Zeid prepares to report to the Council on 29 June on progress toward implementation of the resolution, member states should send strong public and private messages to the Sri Lankan government, offering financial, capacity-building and other tangible support for its efforts – as well as clear suggestions for improvement.

The Reform Agenda

The government has adopted an ambitious reform agenda to address the many challenges the country faces: keeping a beleaguered economy afloat, strengthening the rule of law, tackling corruption, drafting a new constitution, promoting reconciliation efforts with the Tamil population in the north and east, and establishing a multi-pronged set of transitional justice mechanisms agreed with the Council.

Unfortunately, the entire program risks collapse unless new energy, focus and resources are brought to bear. A weakening economy and slow going on most other fronts have led to waning support from the key constituencies that brought the government to power – Tamils, Muslims and reform-minded Sinhalese. Belief in the possibility of meaningful progress is fading across the board.

Efforts of the national unity government – a coalition between President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) – have been weakened by a variety of factors. First, the government lacks technical capacity and trained personnel on key issues. Second, there is no unified strategy for advancing reforms – with the SLFP split between Sirisena’s wing and supporters of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and often at odds with the UNP, particularly on economic policy. Third, the administration has not mounted a coherent public relations campaign to sell its successes and build support for the more politically controversial aspects of its program, including transitional justice.

The most critical element of the reform agenda is how to tackle the entrenched culture of impunity, which has fed multiple bloody insurgencies over the past 40 years. Sri Lanka must seize this narrow window of opportunity to address the problem. Failure to succeed in this effort will undermine virtually all the other reforms the government says it wants to achieve. Progress toward ending impunity is essential to reestablishing the rule of law for all ethnic communities, reasserting civilian control over the military and building the trust needed for a lasting political solution.

Notable progress has been made toward a new constitution, as parliament has begun to meet as a constitutional assembly. The report of the Public Representations Committee, tasked with gathering ideas from the public, was issued at the end of May. It endorsed a range of bold reforms, including the incorporation of a bill of rights. The committee failed to reach agreement, however, on expanded devolution of power for Tamil-majority regions in the north and east, a key issue noted in the Council resolution. With parliamentary consensus likely to fall well short of long-standing Tamil demands for federalism and national self-determination, the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) could face a major challenge in winning Tamil backing in the referendum needed to approve the new constitution, with the pro-engagement leadership of the TNA weakened as a result.

Transitional Justice

Sri Lanka has made only halting efforts toward developing the four transitional justice mechanisms pledged to the Council – a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with international participation. The national unity government should be encouraged to design and sell its Council-mandated transitional justice efforts as part and parcel of its larger agenda to promote “good governance” and the rule of law, which has widespread public backing in all communities. Meanwhile, donors should deepen their support – through training, equipment and personnel – to build the Sri Lankan state’s capacity to establish effective justice mechanisms, strengthen criminal investigations and improve witness protection.

 

Transitional justice efforts should be sold as part and parcel of the good governance agenda.

In advance of this month’s Council sessions, the government has scrambled to finalise a package of reforms it can present as evidence of progress. At the top of the list is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), legislation for which was approved by the cabinet on 24 May and is expected to be presented to parliament in the coming days. While the proposed office would likely help thousands of families seeking information about their loved ones who went missing during the civil war, it has been criticised for lacking any effective link to criminal investigations and thereby potentially maintaining impunity for large-scale enforced disappearances. The government has also been criticised for its hurried and minimal consultation with victims’ families prior to finalising the proposed legislation. Council members should encourage the government to submit the draft bill, prior to parliamentary approval, to the national consultations process that is due to get underway by the end of June – both to improve the quality of the legislation and to win back flagging confidence among victims’ groups and civil society.

The government’s recent ratification, in May, of the UN Convention on Disappearances is a welcome move. Incorporating the treaty in domestic legislation, as promised to the Council, will be even more significant. These steps will mean very little, however, if the government remains unable or unwilling to prosecute cases of abduction and murder, particularly those for which they already have substantial evidence.

International participation is essential to the credibility of the special court.

Council members and the High Commissioner should press the government to follow through on its commitment to meaningful forms of international participation on the proposed special court for war crimes. The Council resolution specifies the importance of including “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism. Under domestic pressure, the president and prime minister backed away from promises to the UN and announced there will be no foreign judges. Given the decades-long failures of government commissions and judicial processes, international participation is essential to the credibility and effectiveness of the special court. Council members should insist that the government holds the line on the involvement of international judges, at least in observer roles, and devises concrete plans for outside experts to be included in investigations, prosecutions, forensics and witness protection.

Prosecution of military personnel, particularly with foreign legal involvement, was always sure to be the most controversial aspect of transitional justice for many Sinhalese. There needs to be a clear strategy to address Sinhala nationalist resistance, including by actively promoting the benefits of transitional justice for all communities. Instead, the president, prime minister and other key officials have regularly retreated when criticised by Rajapaksa and his nationalist supporters.

Even the most optimistic assessments of the government’s transitional justice policies suggest the government intends to postpone any moves to establish the promised special court until after March 2017, when the High Commissioner is due to issue his final report on implementation of the Council’s 2015 resolution. While justice for crimes committed by both sides during the war will necessarily take a long time to achieve, further delays in even initiating the process will only confirm suspicions that the government is merely buying time until the international community loses interest.

Legislation to establish transitional justice mechanisms must be on the books by next year.

Council members should press the government to begin building the legal, institutional and staffing capacity needed for all the promised transitional justice mechanisms. The High Commissioner should insist that legislation needed to establish these mechanisms must be on the books by March 2017, in advance of that month’s Human Rights Council session. These measures should include legislation to criminalise war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to establish command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability.

Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption

Confidence is faltering in the government’s commitment to restore the rule of law, a pledge that was central to the January 2015 election of Sirisena. Investigating complex financial crimes and political killings under the former regime is undoubtedly a slow, difficult and dangerous work. The challenges are made more acute by the involvement of key figures from the old regime still serving as ministers, bureaucrats and law enforcement officials, some of whom are known to be actively obstructing progress. There is increasing evidence that senior officials in the Attorney General’s department and in the military have blocked important criminal investigations.

Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

The government must take steps to dismiss or discipline obstructionists. Officials who lobbied to undermine UN efforts to support justice and accountability under the Rajapaksa regime should also be removed from policymaking positions. In order to address long-criticised conflicts of interest in the Attorney General’s department, it is necessary to establish a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators.

It is necessary to establish an independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases involving state officials.

Meanwhile, credible reports indicate that witnesses in criminal cases implicating the security forces are facing serious threats. The government has yet to establish an effective witness protection program or revise its weak witness protection law, in compliance with a clause in last year’s Council resolution promising to do so.

Progress on key criminal cases is needed to reverse the growing sense that the national unity government is not substantially different from previous corrupt and inefficient governments. Progress on less politically controversial cases is also essential to rebuild confidence that the government is willing to tackle impunity and can establish a credible process of accountability for war-related crimes.

Adoption of some important legal and institutional reforms is said to be very close – including legislation to replace the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with new laws consistent with human rights standards, as required by the Council resolution. However, recent arrests under the PTA have violated due process and reawakened fears of a return to “white van” abductions, which were a primary means for hundreds of enforced disappearances under the Rajapaksa government. Detainees are still being held under the sweeping provisions of the law.

The government should not wait for repeal of the PTA before ending violations.

Council members need to press the Sri Lankan government to end abuses by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the police (TID), which continues to detain suspects without charge, often in aggressive and humiliating ways. TID must be made to follow established procedures – recently reiterated by Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission – on detentions, and personnel suspected of involvement in serious abuses must be suspended, investigated and prosecuted. The government should not wait for repeal of the PTA and the establishment of a new system before acting to end current violations.

Confidence Building and Military Reform

On ethnic issues and the legacy of the war, the president and other senior officials have set a more conciliatory tone – seen most recently in the much less triumphalist commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the end of the civil war. Nonetheless, the past six months have seen very little progress on the key issues of concern to Tamils in the north and east – concerns reflected in the text of last year’s Council resolution: the release of hundreds of detainees held under the PTA, the return of land held by the military, investigations into the tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared people, and the removal of the military from civilian affairs in the north and east. Indeed, progress has been so slow and grudging that what were intended to be confidence-building measures have become confidence-weakening measures.

Trust in the government’s good intentions has also been damaged by the tight and often intimidating surveillance of Tamil civil society activists by military and police, and by unwarranted arrests. The president and prime minister appear wary of asserting their authority over the military, and there has been little movement toward developing a longer-term plan for security sector reform. The inability to gain effective civilian control over the military is one factor behind the government’s slow implementation of its other Council commitments. This in turn undermines public confidence, especially among Tamils, in the government’s political will to guarantee justice for all.

Donors should use their leverage to encourage the long hard work of restructuring the military for peacetime duties.

The government should be encouraged to start developing a comprehensive plan for security sector reform. Such a plan should aim to reduce the military’s social, political and economic footprint in the north and east, as well as to include job training, re-employment programs and psycho-social support for demobilised soldiers. Many ex-soldiers are severely traumatised and caught in continued cycles of violence – in the home and on the street, sometimes as hired thugs for politicians. Foreign militaries now working more closely with Sri Lanka should make offers of technical support for security sector reform a central component of their re-engagement. Donors should use their leverage – including the prospect of additional deployments of Sri Lankan troops as UN peacekeepers – to encourage the long hard work of restructuring the military for peacetime duties.

As the past nine months of fitful and partial implementation of last year’s consensus resolution make clear, the political challenges ahead in Sri Lanka are considerable. For there to be a realistic chance of ending the culture of impunity and establishing effective forms of transitional justice, the Human Rights Council and other UN mechanisms will need to remain engaged beyond March 2017. Consideration of Sri Lanka by the Council remains one of the primary factors driving action – as is evident by the flurry of activity in recent weeks.  Member states should begin discussions now about what form continued engagement can take. Among other options, Council members should encourage the Sri Lankan government to invite an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose resources in Sri Lanka remain insufficient to meet the many pressing demands.

Sri Lanka’s much-improved engagement with UN agencies and human rights mechanisms is to be welcomed. But it is not enough. What all of Sri Lanka’s communities need and deserve now are tangible changes in legislation and concrete implementation of its international promises and obligations on the ground.

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.