Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
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
Op-Ed / Asia

Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka

The bloody end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has been marked across the country this month in very different ways, highlighting both the tentative progress made over the past year and the profound divisions still be overcome seven years into peacetime.

Across the north and east, Tamils held public events to remember the victims killed during the final weeks of the government offensive in May 2009. While officially sanctioned on a much wider scale than last year, these commemorations often took place under the watchful, often intimidating, eyes of the military or police.

In Colombo, meanwhile, president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sponsored a War Hero commemoration alongside the armed forces, police and civil security. But the commemoration’s cultural program, the Reminiscence of Reconciliation, represented a notable shift from the triumphalist, military-led Victory Day celebrations presided over by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose administration criminalised all Tamil remembrance activities.

Despite the welcome change in tone and moves to improve relations between the majority Sinhalese community and Tamils, who represent 15 per cent of the country’s population, the “national unity” government needs to redouble its efforts to promote reconciliation. In fact, much more work remains to reverse the damage done to all communities in Sri Lanka by the decade of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule.

Addressing the painful legacy of the war is just one aspect of an extremely ambitious agenda that includes drafting a new constitution, strengthening the rule of law and rebuilding democratic institutions. But it remains unclear how far the government is willing and able to go to tackle the hardest reforms, particularly justice for wartime abuses and greater devolution of political power to deal with the ethnic conflict.

Worryingly, the government appears to be backtracking on vital plans for transitional justice. The enormity of the crimes committed makes them impossible to ignore, yet difficult for the military, and most Sinhalese, to accept responsibility for.

Both sides committed atrocities throughout the many years of war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. In September 2015, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a detailed report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, documenting a “horrific level of violations and abuses” by government forces, pro-government paramilitaries and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The long list of crimes included indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children, and denial of humanitarian assistance. The report confirmed victim and survivor accounts of systematic war crimes committed during the final months and immediate aftermath of the civil war.  

The new government – brought to power by elections in January and August 2015 – was prepared for these explosive findings, and announced its ambitious reform agenda at the start of the Human Rights Council session. It agreed to the Council’s groundbreaking resolution on promoting reconciliation and accountability, which was adopted by consensus. Key commitments included the creation of a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with “participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”

The resolution was potentially transformative, yet the government has missed a series of deadlines for its implementation and is sending mixed messages about its overall strategy for justice and reconciliation. Doubts about the government’s political will are growing domestically and internationally.

Dealing honestly with the legacy of the civil war is hard and painful work, complicated by Sri Lanka’s internecine political rivalries. President Sirisena is struggling to counter a faction of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party that remains loyal to his predecessor. Meanwhile, strains are growing within the unity government coalition.

The government is also fearful of angering the military and security services, which maintain a dangerous degree of autonomy. Recent arrests of Tamils under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act – which the government promised the UN it would repeal – and continued reports of the torture of detainees have sown concern about the government’s ability to rein in abuses. Many Tamils and rights activists are growing increasingly discouraged by what they see as slow progress.

Changing attitudes on all sides will be difficult. Sinhala nationalism remains entrenched within the state and society, and this in turn feeds Tamil nationalism and, for some, continued dreams of a separate state. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform, there is little public acknowledgement by Tamil political activists of the lasting pain caused by Tamil Tiger atrocities.

Despite the deep obstacles, though, now is the best opportunity in Sri Lanka’s recent history for the country to work together to build a lasting peace. To seize the moment, the government must reinvigorate the “good governance” agenda that won it popular support in the first place.

Measures to address the war’s legacy need to be pursued and presented as an essential aspect of the broader agenda to strengthen the rule of law, end impunity and tackle corruption and abuse of power. These issues resonate across the country, from the Tamil-majority areas of the north to the Sinhalese heartland in the south. The government should launch a coordinated outreach campaign to educate communities about the value of transitional justice and its links to other reforms, while giving stronger backing to the nationwide public consultations on designing reconciliation and justice measures.

Continued international support is essential to keep the reform process on track – both by building Sri Lanka’s technical capacity for reforms and reminding the government of its promises when politics threaten to win out over principle.

In the end, though, it is Sri Lankans who will lead the ongoing effort to make a more durable peace. There is no better place to start than by acknowledging the suffering and injustice experienced by all communities – and the equal right to remember and mourn.

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.

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