Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
sri-lanka-18may15
Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena (C) arrives for his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, 9 January 2015. REUTERS
Commentary / Asia

A new Sri Lanka?

Crisis Group Sri Lanka Senior Analyst Alan Keenan discusses how much President Sirisena, previously a minor figure in Rajapaksa’s government, has changed politics on the South Asian island.

Sri Lanka appeared to turn a new leaf with the election in January 2015 of President Maithripala Sirisena. This put an end to rule of this country of 21 million people by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is closely associated with a brutal 2009 victory over the Tamil Tiger insurgency and authoritarian government.

You recently returned from Sri Lanka. It’s now been four months since Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena came to office. Did the political atmosphere in the country feel different from before?

Alan Keenan: Absolutely. The most striking change is that people are no longer afraid to talk. Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, people were very careful in what they said publicly or even privately: they constantly felt that they were being monitored and feared the consequences. That has changed dramatically with the election of Sirisena. In public places, in cafés, in restaurants, people talk openly about corruption and war crimes, about the need to hold politicians, security forces and armed groups accountable for abuses of power. Academics and activists are publishing and speaking publicly again. In my view, this is Sirisena’s greatest achievement so far. The word that many people used when talking to me was that they felt “relief”.

Sirisena came to power in January with an ambitious 100-day agenda. We are now almost a month past those 100 days. How much progress has he made on his agenda?

Achieving Sirisena’s agenda – particularly the constitutional changes – was always going to be a challenge, given that his government doesn’t have a majority in parliament. Despite being the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa thanks to the support of the SLFP’s great rival, the United National Party (UNP) and a coalition of smaller parties. Even after bringing two-dozen SLFP members into his government in March, Sirisena’s government, headed by prime minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, had far less than the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. On almost every issue, Sirisena has struggled to gain the cooperation of the SLFP, with many opposed to his collaboration with the UNP, and a significant wing of the party wanting to see Rajapaksa return as prime minister of an SLFP government.

Sirisena is in a tricky position. He doesn’t want to be known as the person who took over the SLFP and investigated them all for corruption, only to have them be soundly defeated in the next election.

Sirisena is thus in a tricky position. He remains the head of the SLFP and he doesn’t want to damage his own party in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the very least, he doesn’t want to be known as the person who took over the SLFP, investigated them all for corruption, only to have them be soundly defeated in the next election. So he’s trying, in many ways, to find the middle path between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough, whether it is with respect to corruption, to ethnic issues, to war crimes allegations, or to relations with China, Western powers and India.

Nonetheless, after months of uncertainty and complicated negotiations with the SLFP, the late April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution – just a few days past the 100 days goal – allowed Sirisena to deliver on the most important promise on his agenda: to cut down the excessive powers of the Executive Presidency, which his predecessor Rajapaksa had expanded significantly. While the amendment that passed didn’t reduce powers as much as many of Sirisena’s supporters wanted – thanks largely to changes the SLFP insisted on – it was still a significant step. It re-imposes a two-term limit to the presidency and removes the president’s powers to dissolve parliament whenever he wants. It also removes some of his immunity, makes him answerable to parliament and, perhaps most important, significantly increases the power of the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers.

Another important promise – and one of Sirisena’s government’s first moves in office – was to pass a consumer and employee-friendly budget, lowering prices on food and increasing salaries for public servants. This was in response to the widespread sense that the cost of living was becoming unbearable, with even middle-class families under severe economic pressure.

Sirisena also promised to reform the electoral system within his first 100 days. How is he doing with that?

Sirisena’s plan – which he is struggling to implement, even if it has widespread acceptance as a general idea – is to eliminate the preferential voting system, seen as a major cause of election violence, and return to a largely first-past-the-post system, while preserving some degree of proportional representation. But the smaller parties and those representing geographically dispersed minorities, such as Sri Lanka’s Muslims, fear that the new model does not give enough emphasis to proportionality and will reduce their number of seats. Others, like the Tamil National Alliance, which represents the country’s Tamils in the north and east, are worried the delimitation of new constituencies will shrink the number of constituencies with Tamil majorities, given how many Tamils have left Sri Lanka the past thirty years. Sirisena hopes that all the major parties will be able to reach a consensus within a month, but given these complexities, that’s a very optimistic timeline.

As on many issues, the Sirisena government and the diverse coalition of parties that brought him to power are split on the timing and sequence of electoral reforms, which will require another constitutional amendment. Many of his supporters, along with the SLFP, want the new electoral system approved and want the upcoming parliamentary elections – promised to be called after the conclusion of Sirisena’s first 100 days – to be held under the new system. With the process of drawing new electoral district boundaries expected take at least two or three months after passage of whatever new system is agreed, this would involve a considerable delay. The SLFP would be happy with this, as they see their election chances increasing with time.

On the other hand, the UNP and some of the smaller parties backing Sirisena want an election as soon as possible. At this stage, they’d prefer to address electoral reforms in a new parliament, but if reforms are to be agreed now, they want the elections to come immediately after, and to be held under the old voting system. The UNP’s hope is to come back in a new parliament with a majority and a strengthened political position. This is important if they are to face a number of difficult issues that the UNP and Sirisena have promised to tackle, including a domestic mechanism for investigating and prosecuting any crimes committed during the civil war, and making progress on reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the smaller Tamil population. But tackling these topics will generate a lot of resistance from nationalists and the supporters of former President Rajapaksa, who still enjoys considerable backing among Sinhalese voters and sections of the security forces.

In light of this, one of the Sirisena government’s first moves on coming to power was to request a six-month deferral of an upcoming UN report on atrocities committed during and after the war – from 2002 to 2011 – which was due to be released for the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. With the extra time, the government hoped it could have the elections behind them and be in a stronger position when it received the bad news expected in the report. The U.S., UK and EU supported the request for a deferral on this same basis, assuming that by September, the government would have had time to take measures and develop a plan that could win the approval of the Human Rights Council.

So, one of Sirisena’s key decisions over the next month is whether to call elections in time to get past them before the UN report is released in August and before the Human Rights Council session begins in September. Sirisena has promised to have unveiled by then a domestic “accountability mechanism”, to investigate and hold accountable anyone found guilty of war crimes and other serious human rights violations committed during the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers. While the new government has refused to cooperate with the ongoing UN inquiry, it has expressed a willingness to accept “technical assistance” from the UN when conducting its own domestic process. It remains to be seen how large a role the UN or other international expertise will be invited to play.

How are these frictions between Sirisena’s government and the country’s former leaders affecting reconciliation with the country’s 12 per cent Sri Lankan Tamil population?

During his first months in office, Sirisena has made a number of small but positive moves to address longstanding grievances of Tamils in the north and east where they are the majority. His government has returned some military-occupied land to its long-displaced owners. And although the military has not withdrawn any troops, it is keeping a lower profile than before and interfering less in civilian affairs. Sirisena also appointed two new governors in the north and east, both of whom are well-respected former civil servants, to replace the retired generals that Rajapaksa had appointed. And he has released some detainees held under the prevention of terrorism act.

Nonetheless, Sinhala nationalism remains strong. According to its vision, Sinhalese and Buddhists have been historically – and remain today – under threat from various outsiders, whether those are Muslims, Tamils, Westerners or Christians. Under Rajapaksa, this vision was encouraged as de facto state policy, and it remains a very powerful element in Sri Lankan politics, courted by Rajapaksa and his supporters. Now, given the tensions within the SLFP and the popularity that Mahinda Rajapaksa still enjoys, it’s clear that Sirisena is being forced to pick his battles. The recent decision to ban Tamil commemorations of their war-dead in the north, and the appointment of General Jagath Dias, one of top commanders in the final months of fighting in 2009 and almost certainly to be cited as a key perpetrator in the forthcoming Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, as army chief of staff, were popular with Sinhalese nationalists but outraged the Tamils, for example. I don’t think we can expect any big moves on reconciliation, meaning either more releases of land to Tamils or a real scaling back of the military, until after the parliamentary elections.

Sirisena has made clear he won’t tolerate the violent campaigning against Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished under Rajapaksa.

On a more clearly positive note, Sirisena has made clear he won’t tolerate the violent campaigning against Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished under Rajapaksa. Muslims faced particularly intense pressure in 2013 and 2014 from militant Buddhist organisations that clearly had the backing of the former regime. The organisations burned out their businesses, attacked people on the street, and pressed for legislative changes to weaken the Muslim community. All this was done in the name of opposing “Islamic extremism”, which does not really exist in Sri Lanka. All of that has come to an end under Sirisena, though some of the issues raised by militant Buddhists remain potential flashpoints that will require careful management by the government and community leaders.

How do you see the government’s relations with other countries in the region and internationally?

The new government, with its major shift in priorities, has been welcomed by most world powers, with the exception of the Chinese. Indian Prime Minister Modi visited soon after the election, the first visit of an Indian prime minister in 28 years. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was just in Colombo in early May. Senior EU and UN officials arrived before that. All have issued very positive statements. The reason Beijing is less thrilled is that the Sirisena-UNP government has deliberately distanced itself from the very close ties that Rajapaksa had cultivated with China. Rajapaksa had relied on China for political support on the Security Council and Human Rights Council against investigations into alleged war crimes. But he also depended economically on China, which has pumped billions of dollars in loans, investments and development assistance into Sri Lanka over the past decade. The new government has made clear it doesn’t want to cut its ties with China but is instead trying to recalibrate them, not least because of worries that the country’s growing dependence would bring strings that could be dangerous for Sri Lankan sovereignty. In the coming years, Sri Lankans will certainly still need Chinese money and support, but will want to have it along with support from India and the West. This will be a challenging balancing act, but shouldn’t be impossible to pull off.

Who is winning the political tug-of-war between President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa?

Sirisena wasn’t a non-entity under Rajapaksa, he was the general secretary of the SLFP, but he didn’t have a high public profile. His personality and demeanour are very quiet, unassuming, modest, and he remained a bit of an unknown even in the initial months of his presidency. Over time, though, we’ve seen Sirisena emerge with a particular leadership style which is much more consultative, modest, not about increasing his power but about getting as many people to sign on as possible. This is quite unusual in Sri Lankan politics. Many find the change refreshing and encouraging; others criticise Sirisena as weak and say his “national government” experiment is beginning to unravel.

Gradually, though, Sirisena appears to have put Rajapaksa in an increasingly tight spot: through the eventual passage of the nineteenth amendment; his moves to weaken pro-Rajapaksa forces in all kinds of intra-SLFP and intra-Sinhalese political battles; and continued legal pressure on the former ruling family and its close associates. These include investigations and arrests of former Rajapaksa government officials like the former president’s brother, the ex-minister for economic development, Basil Rajapaksa. Mahinda and another very powerful brother, the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have both been summoned for questioning by the bribery commission. These moves triggered street demonstrations and an uproar in parliament from the pro-Rajapaksa wing of the SLFP that succeeded in delaying debate on the nineteenth amendment. But it failed to stop the passage of the amendment by an enormous majority, once the pro-Rajapaksa camp realised it didn’t have the votes to defeat it.

Most positively, the tradition of robust debate and challenging authority in Sri Lanka has returned. One of the most striking things about the election campaign was that suddenly all these voices were speaking out against Rajapaksa because they had a vehicle, finally, to challenge him. People were willing to take the risk of writing letters critical of him, of working for his defeat. Because they thought there was a chance of change. Crucially I think many people thought it was their last chance, since most people believe many of those who opposed him would have been arrested or faced worse outcomes had Rajapaksa won. President Sirisena himself speaks of how he was risking his life running against Rajapaksa, saying it was like jumping into the sea with my family, “would we sink or swim, would we find land again”? Now, the changed environment is tangible.

Still, the aggrieved and potentially violent streak in Sinhalese nationalist politics is being actively courted by former President Rajapaksa and his supporters. Among the big questions about the upcoming parliamentary elections are: who will champion this constituency? Will Mahinda Rajapaksa himself join the campaign? Or will it be his proxies? How strongly will they push the classic fears of Sinhalese nationalism: Tamil separatism, Muslim extremism, Christian evangelicals, a Western-led global conspiracy? All these remain very potent ideologically within Sri Lanka, and the country still has some way to go to consolidate its democratic transition.

Protestors celebrate after entering the building of Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 13, 2022. REUTERS / Adnan Abidi
Q&A / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis

Crowds of ordinary Sri Lankans stormed the presidential residence on 9 July, compelling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Alan Keenan lays out the background of these events and looks at what the immediate future may hold.

Sri Lanka has been through a tumultuous ten days. What exactly has happened?

In a stunning display of “people power”, massive crowds overcame large deployments of police and soldiers and other obstacles to storm the official residence and offices of the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on 9 July, leading the former to flee the country and both to agree to resign. Gotabaya’s eventual resignation on 14 July constitutes a major victory for Sri Lanka’s unprecedented island-wide protest movement. But these events leave an economy in freefall and a dysfunctional political system where the Rajapaksa family retains considerable influence. More political turbulence is to be expected.

For more than four months, citizens had been mounting constant, and almost entirely peaceful, protests demanding that Rajapaksa and his inner circle, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades, step down for mismanagement of the economy and alleged corruption. In April and May, they succeeded in compelling Gotabaya’s nephew and three brothers – including Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then prime minister, and Basil Rajapaksa, then finance minister – to leave their official positions. On 9 July, hundreds of thousands of people came together from all over Sri Lanka – walking long distances, commandeering trains and receiving free trips by bus – for what organisers had promised would be the “final push”. Gotabaya and Basil reportedly fled the presidential secretariat just minutes before the crowds entered.

The takeover of the presidential residence and office produced astonishing scenes, widely circulated on social media and global television, of huge, festive crowds of average Sri Lankans exploring luxurious spaces that until recently had been out of reach. Their playful, at times mocking, behaviour was generally tempered by respect for the properties as belonging to the people themselves.

Still, the culminating phase of the uprising saw increasing tensions between protesters and security forces and some violence. In the final hours of 9 July, someone set Wickremesinghe’s private residence on fire, largely destroying it. Police held protesters responsible, but conflicting reports from the scene make it hard to determine the fire’s source. The arson attack came soon after police officers were filmed brutally beating journalists covering protests near the prime minister’s house.

The demonstrators had been directing their anger at Wickremesinghe for some time. He had accepted the prime minister’s post on 11 May, when all others had turned it down following Mahinda’s resignation, a move widely seen as extending a lifeline to Gotabaya. Criticised for short-circuiting popular demands for Gotabaya’s removal and deep constitutional change, the new prime minister’s failed to deliver on his promise of political stability and efficient economic administration.

Following the takeover of his office and residence, Gotabaya’s grip on power became increasingly tenuous,.

Following the takeover of his office and residence, Gotabaya’s grip on power became increasingly tenuous, but it remained unclear how the situation would resolve itself. On the evening of 9 July, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, speaker of parliament and a Rajapaksa ally, announced that the president had agreed to resign in four days’ time, citing the need for a short transitional period. Meanwhile, Gotabaya’s whereabouts were shrouded in secrecy. Some local observers suggest that he and other family members found refuge at various military bases while they planned an exit from the country. They sought to leave by plane on 12 July but decided not to do so when immigration officers refused to allow Gotabaya, Basil and family members to use a private VIP entrance at Colombo’s main airport. Gotabaya and his wife ultimately flew out on a Sri Lankan air force jet early on 13 July, alighting briefly in Maldives (where their arrival brought protesters into the streets) before proceeding to Singapore the next day. From Singapore, Gotabaya sent his letter of resignation to the speaker of parliament at last.

The ultimate destination for Gotabaya and his entourage continues to be up in the air. The U.S., India and the United Arab Emirates all reportedly rejected Gotabaya’s travel requests. It is unclear where he will eventually settle, though he appears to be looking for a safe haven where he feels secure that he will not be extradited or prosecuted now that he has lost the protection that comes with being a head of state. Former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his son Namal and his brother Basil remain in Sri Lanka. On 15 July, the Supreme Court barred Mahinda and Basil from leaving the country while it hears a civil suit against them.

Gotabaya’s departure left behind a messy political situation with unresolved questions about the succession process. At first, these were exacerbated by the fact that he fled the country without either himself or Wickremesinghe having tendered their formal resignations. Tensions rose sharply when, on 13 July, the speaker of parliament – who had become Gotabaya’s de facto spokesperson – announced that Rajapaksa had designated Wickremesinghe to be acting president during his absence from Sri Lanka. Protesters and opposition parties decried the move as illegitimately exploiting a constitutional loophole.

Even before the formal appointment letter was issued, Wickremesinghe took a hard line. He declared a state of emergency and a curfew. He also proclaimed his intention to “eliminate the fascist threat” posed by the protesters, and later said the military should do “whatever is necessary to restore order” following the occupation of the prime minister’s office. With the security situation increasingly fraught, and clashes between security forces and protesters outside parliament, there were credible reports indicating that the government had authorised the military to use live ammunition to quell protests. Although the military – which to date has been remarkably restrained – appeared reluctant to cross that line, Sri Lanka seemed to be on the brink of a dramatic escalation in violence.

Fortunately, with Gotabaya’s resignation on 14 July, the danger of an extended leadership crisis was removed. Protesters ended their occupations of government buildings, and crowds across Sri Lanka celebrated the success of the aragalaya, or people’s struggle. On 15 July, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president, a position he can hold only until parliament votes on a replacement. That vote must happen within 30 days; it is now scheduled for 20 July.

Parliament remains dominated by members of the Rajapaksa-controlled Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, and Wickremesinghe, widely viewed as protecting the Rajapaksas’ interests, will contest with SLPP support. Should he win, it remains questionable whether any new government he forms will have the credibility with the public and protest movement to restore calm in a lasting way.

What has driven such a sustained protest movement and such large crowds to take direct action?

The protest movement is most directly a response to what Wickremesinghe has called an economic “collapse”, rooted in unprecedented tax cuts, a sudden ban on chemical fertiliser that devastated crop yields and widespread corruption, all further aggravated by the loss of tourism due to COVID-19 as well as rising fuel prices resulting from the invasion of Ukraine. With foreign currency reserves nearing zero in mid-April, the government announced it was suspending repayment of foreign debt totalling more than $50 billion. Since this default, Sri Lanka’s first ever, the economy has ground to a virtual halt. Lack of hard currency has led to severe shortages of petrol, cooking gas and other essential supplies; lines of cars, motorcycles and three-wheeled taxis waiting two or three days for fuel have become routine features of life across the island. Inflation is running at more than 50 per cent, with high food prices forcing 70 per cent of Sri Lankan households to reduce food intake and nearly half the country’s children requiring emergency assistance. Medicines and medical supplies are running out, and patients are now dying of easily treatable causes. With imported fertiliser in short supply, the next harvest of rice and other vegetables, as well as the major currency earner tea, is expected to be down by as much as half. The UN and Red Cross have both launched urgent appeals to fund food and other humanitarian assistance, with UNICEF warning of a “full-blown humanitarian emergency”.  

The economic and humanitarian situations are certain to get worse before they get better. The country is, in effect, bankrupt, and key economic activities needed to generate hard currency, such tourism, tea production and foreign remittances, are virtually absent or much reduced. Since inviting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assist, the government has held multiple rounds of negotiations for an Extended Funds Facility. The most recent talks in Colombo in late June saw the IMF announce “significant progress” but failed to reach a so-called staff-level agreement.

July’s political turmoil will likely add further delay. Even if the IMF persuades a new government to make the reforms needed to win the requested $3 billion bailout, it will disburse no funds until it deems Sri Lanka’s external debt to be “sustainable”. For that to happen, Sri Lanka must reach a deal to restructure the debt held by international creditors, who will have to accept a lesser payout on bonds, lower interest rates or extended terms of repayment. The earliest likely date for the IMF to release funds would be early 2023. In the meantime, Sri Lanka is urgently seeking “bridge financing” to allow it to pay for the fuel and other essential supplies needed to get the economy running again and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. In June, Wickremesinghe floated the idea of a donor conference that would see India, China and Japan, as well as other countries, pledge support. It will take a massive infusion of humanitarian support to prevent the kind of mass desperation that would threaten much worse political instability and violence.

What steps are needed to establish a new government and restore the political order needed to address the economic crisis?

The forced departure and resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa could augur a political sea change for Sri Lanka, but with Rajapaksa loyalists still appearing to control parliament and with Rajapaksa ally Wickremesinghe having a good chance of being chosen to serve out Gotabaya’s term, it is unclear how deep the change will be. Disappointed hopes for change, amid extreme economic hardship, could yet produce further instability. The coming days and weeks will test the ability of Sri Lanka’s political class to act in the collective, rather than party or personal, interest, by adopting political reforms essential to meeting popular aspirations.

The swearing-in of Wickremesinghe on 15 July as acting president begins the constitutionally mandated process of selecting Gotabaya’s successor. Parliament has 30 days to choose, from its own ranks, someone to assume the presidency for the remainder of the current president’s term, which in this case runs until November 2024, unless there is an agreement to hold fresh elections sooner. That president will then need to appoint a prime minister and cabinet that has parliament’s confidence. The current parliament is widely detested, but there is no constitutional way around the fact that it is the current 225 parliamentarians who will determine the country’s next group of leaders.

Wickremesinghe is currently the front runner for the presidency. The SLPP has suffered defections since March, but appears to still have a parliamentary majority, and on 15 July the party’s secretary-general announced that it was backing Wickremesinghe. Scarred by arson attacks on government politicians’ houses on 9-10 May, feeling vulnerable without the Rajapaksas in power and knowing they are deeply unpopular, many SLPP members see Wickremesinghe, who has proven his loyalty to the family, as their best protection. Running against Wickremesinghe are SLPP defector and former Rajapaksa loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, and Anura Kumara Dassanayake, leader of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. With an absolute majority required to win, a first-round victor is unlikely, and, Alahapperuma is believed best placed to pick up additional support in the later rounds of voting that most expect to see. The fact that the vote will, unusually, be by secret ballot, adds an additional element of unpredictability.

As in May, when his appointment as prime minister was welcomed by some – including Western governments – as a possible source of stability, Wickremesinghe might appear to some to offer a similar chance for a new start if he were to become president. Yet his presidency would also bring major risks: the quintessential career politician, with cases of alleged corruption by close associates during his 2015-2019 premiership receiving wide publicity, and his close association with the Rajapaksa family now well established, Wickremesinghe is hardly an obvious vehicle for the kind of change protesters, and much of the population, demand. His assuming the presidency threatens to tarnish for many the sense of victory felt with Gotabaya’s resignation and could raise doubts about whether the needed change is possible within the current political system.

To reduce the risk of renewed instability, ... any new government must address the political factors behind the economic collapse.

To reduce the risk of renewed instability, a Wickremesinghe government – or indeed any new government – must address the political factors behind the economic collapse and respond to popular demands for meaningful reform. Three steps in particular would go a long way to proving the new government has listened to the people and is serious about change.

First, the new government should agree from the beginning that it is serving on an interim basis and commit itself to fresh elections before the end of 2022, as many in the opposition and in the protest movement have been calling for. Fresh, and relatively quick, polls appear essential to restoring the legitimacy of the presidency, parliament and political order as a whole. The risk is considerable that a new president and prime minister will not agree to new elections, instead trying to stay in power through the duration of current terms – though this may be tempered by the knowledge that any government that hopes to rule for very long will have to take responsibility for extremely difficult and likely unpopular economic reforms.

Secondly, to address popular demands for change, the next government should also commit to amending the constitution to abolish the executive presidency, which since 1978 has concentrated an extraordinary amount of power in the president, weakening all other institutions of government and doing enormous damage to Sri Lankan democracy and the country’s well-being. The 20th amendment, pushed through by Gotabaya and the SLPP in October 2020, further turbo-charged presidential powers. According to a Supreme Court judgment in June, any amendment that returns executive power to the prime minister and cabinet will need approval at a referendum. Such a referendum could be held on the same date as a general election, ideally by the end of 2022. In a statement on becoming interim president, Wickremesinghe promised to return to the 19th amendment, which had reduced but not eliminated the president’s executive powers before it was repealed by the 20th amendment’s passage.

Thirdly, the incoming government should prove it is serious about criminal investigations into alleged corruption by previous regimes. It should re-establish the kinds of specialised police investigative units that were active from 2015 to 2019, give full support to an independent anti-bribery commission, cooperate fully with parliamentary oversight committees, support legislation to establish an independent Public Prosecutor’s office in the Attorney General’s Department, and renew previous cooperation with the UN and World Bank’s Stolen Assets Recovery program investigating major cases of corruption.

The sooner a broadly acceptable government is established to replace the Rajapaksa administration, the greater chance there is that it can begin to take up the herculean task of finding solutions to the country’s urgent economic and humanitarian needs. This will require finalisation of an economic reform package that the IMF can accept, which in turn will strengthen negotiations with Sri Lanka’s multiple international creditors, whose agreement to accept losses on their investments is essential to Sri Lanka’s debt being declared “sustainable”. The more consensus can be reached in parliament on the necessary policy reforms, the more credible they will be internationally. The IMF, in turn, must be careful not to press for austerity measures that will too deeply undercut popular acceptance and fuel further political unrest. Prior to finalising an IMF bailout, the government will face the enormous challenge of working with donors to find billions in short-term financing to pay for the fuel needed to get the economy running again and will need to devise a plan for feeding its population as the agricultural economy collapses and harvests shrink. 

What can Sri Lanka’s international partners do to help manage the crisis?

Once a new president is selected by parliament and a new government is established, international donors should be generous with short-term humanitarian and food aid but more demanding with regard to the governance reforms that would need to accompany a long-term bailout. On humanitarian relief, donors interested in preventing Sri Lanka from collapsing further should make available funding well beyond the modest amounts in both the UN humanitarian and Red Cross emergency appeals.

At the same time, influential states should directly, and through the IMF, urge the new government to put in motion the process described above to amend the constitution to abolish the executive presidency and establish the independent oversight institutions that are needed to prevent large-scale corruption and gross economic mismanagement. Sri Lanka’s crisis is to a significant degree the result of a political system without meaningful checks on, or accountability for, economic decision-making. The window of opportunity to escape the executive presidency’s dead ends and re-establish a fully parliamentary system should not be lost. The country’s foreign partners should also encourage the IMF to insist on meaningful anti-corruption policies and strengthened rule-of-law institutions as part of its conditions for approving a bailout.

The emergence of a broad popular movement demanding deep political reforms, an end to corruption, and accountability for theft and other alleged crimes by the Rajapaksas and other politicians has created an opening for Western governments and the UN Human Rights Council to reframe their longstanding calls for “accountability” in ways that are more clearly in sync with public opinion, especially among the Sinhala majority. Framed in its broadest sense, the principle of accountability can connect widespread demands – from all of Sri Lanka’s communities – for accountability for economic mismanagement, theft and other abuses of power, with more difficult aspects of the Human Rights Council’s agenda, including accountability for alleged crimes committed during the country’s 26-year civil war, an idea that remains controversial among Sinhalese and politically challenging for Sri Lankan governments.

Whatever government is in place when the Council meets next in September, a new resolution will be needed that reaffirms the ambitious reform scheme laid out in 2021 and extends the mandate, with proper funding, of the important Sri Lanka Accountability Project managed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Should a future Sri Lankan government emerge that is committed to tackling impunity, pursuing the recovery of stolen assets and supporting a restructured state with more inclusive governance, the UN and foreign governments should offer targeted forms of support. These can include technical support for domestic anti-corruption initiatives and assistance to relaunch the assets recovery effort begun by the coalition government of 2015-2019, under the auspices of the program run by the World Bank and UN. Support of this nature stands the best chance of domestic acceptance and could help the country begin to work its way out of the persistent political and economic crisis from which it has struggled to emerge.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.