When Public Relations Meets Militarisation
When Public Relations Meets Militarisation
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
Commentary / Asia

When Public Relations Meets Militarisation

Some recent moves by Sri Lanka meant to show it was finally confronting the country’s entrenched culture of impunity have been dramatically undone by two incidents this month. 

On 1 August, soldiers shot unarmed Sinhalese protestors demanding clean drinking water in a village outside the capital, Colombo, and on 10 August police failed to prevent a mob attack on a Muslim mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo or arrest those responsible. Both events illustrate the problems that have led to two critical resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC): the militarisation of governance, impunity for human rights violations and clear anti-minority bias in government policies.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, due to visit Sri Lanka at the end of August, and the Commonwealth heads of government, scheduled to meet in Colombo in November, should take note of Sri Lanka’s rising social tensions and press Colombo to end impunity, restore the rule of law and protect the rights of all ethnic and religious communities.

The government’s reform moves

In a series of announcements in June and July, the government attempted to paint a more positive picture in anticipation of the UN high commissioner’s visit. Pillay is due to report to the UNHRC in September on Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing the council’s March 2013 resolution calling for accountability and reconciliation. The government appeared to be hoping that, with proper stage-managing, Pillay’s visit, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year, might be used to highlight what it claims are steps to tackle impunity.

On 4 July, the government announced it was adding 53 new recommendations from the 2011 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to its 2012 National Plan of Action to implement the recommendations of the LLRC.

The next day, the government announced it had arrested twelve members of the police Special Task Force (STF) suspected of murdering five young unarmed Tamil men in the eastern city of Trincomalee in January 2006. The so-called Trinco 5 case has long been a focus of international human rights campaigning. It was mentioned specifically by the LLRC, and the government had promised action on the case in its national action plan.

On 26 July, the president’s office announced it would appoint a commission of inquiry into wartime disappearances, an issue highlighted by both the LLRC and the UNHRC. On 13 August, the names of the three commissioners – two of whom were also on the LLRC – and the commission’s terms of reference were released.

In late July, the attorney general’s department reportedly informed the British government that it would soon indict a number of people for the Christmas Eve 2011 murder of a British aid worker and the sexual assault of his girlfriend. Arrested for the murder, but now free on bail, are the chairman of the Tangalle town council and other members of the president’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Unfortunately, these latest gestures fit an established pattern of promises made for international consumption but unsupported by political will. There are many reasons for doubting the moves will provide justice in any of Sri Lanka’s many wartime and post-war atrocities.

The government’s actions in the Trinco 5 case, for example, were the most minimal action it could have taken: arrests at the stage of preliminary, non-summary, proceedings at a magistrate’s court. What the government did not do was issue indictments, despite the case having been investigated for years. It also chose not to establish an expedited trial-at-bar or arrest or indict any of the senior police commanders who are widely, and credibly, believed to have given the orders, including one person reportedly mentioned by the 2006-9 Udalagama commission of inquiry monitored by a group of international eminent persons. (The report of that commission has never been released.)

In the case of the murder of the vacationing British aid worker, his accused killers have remained free for eighteen months. Disciplinary action by the SLFP against the chief suspect, the town council chairman in Tangalle, was reversed within days, and he remains in office and politically influential in the area while free on bail.

Moreover, more than four years after the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war, there have been no independent investigations into any of the thousands of cases of alleged atrocities, including extra-judicial executions of surrendered fighters, shelling of hospitals and “no-fire zones” packed with civilians, and mass-scale disappearances. The military’s own investigation into some of these allegations — which, in February 2013, the government claimed had found no evidence of any government violations — has never been released.

There is also little cause for optimism in the announcement of a new commission of inquiry to investigate the thousands of wartime disappearances. It is almost certain to become another on the long list of commissions that have brought no justice in the cases they have investigated over the past 30 years. The commission’s terms of reference exclude it from considering the many post-war disappearances, and presidential commissions of inquiry have no powers of arrest or indictment. In criminal cases, they duplicate and delay the efforts of the police and the attorney general. Under previous governments less actively hostile to truth and justice, commissions have proved unable to dent Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity. No administration has yet implemented the many recommendations of the four commissions on enforced disappearances appointed by President Kumaratunga in the mid-1990s.

Commissions of inquiry have become so frequent and so ignored under the Rajapaksa administration that they may soon begin to lose any political effectiveness. The president has still not made public the findings of a whole series of commissions he has appointed over the past seven years. This includes the Udalagama commission, at least two commissions on disappearances headed by retired judge Mahanama Tillekeratne, commissions on the police killing of a protestor in Katunayake in June 2011, and a host of others. The situation has reached such a point that even the General Secretary of the ruling SLFP recently expressed his frustration at the lack of information on past inquiries. To expect anything different in the case of the latest disappearances commission is naïve.

Finally, adding more LLRC recommendations to the national plan of action means little when the government continues to resist implementing the LLRC’s core recommendations. None of the newly added recommendations address the central questions of impunity and concentration of power, and the list even includes promises – such as issuing receipts for anyone arrested by the police – already made repeatedly by the government but never implemented.

The August events

The army rampage in the village of Weliweriya resulted in at least three unarmed protestors shot dead, scores injured, journalists searched out and assaulted and protestors shot at and beaten by soldiers while they sought refuge in the local Catholic church. The incident was a particular shock for the many Sinhalese who have been convinced by years of government propaganda, and the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, to view the army as the unquestionable saviour of the nation. The full extent of casualties, and possibly of deaths, is still not known, as doctors and hospitals have reportedly been pressured by the military not to release details of the wounded. The Catholic archbishop of Colombo, generally reluctant to criticise the government, issued a strong statement condemning the “desecration” of the church.

The government responded according to its now typical pattern: a senior official suggested “external forces” had deliberately provoked the army, and the military announced an inquiry, to be headed by General Jagath Dias, against whose troops UN experts found credible allegations of serious violations of international law during the final months of the civil war. No arrests have been made to date, and it is doubtful the investigation will reveal who ordered the troops to fire. Few in Sri Lanka expect anyone to be held accountable.

The attack on the mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo was less of a surprise, coming as it did after months of anti-Muslim campaigning by militant Buddhists whose violent attacks and acts of intimidation have proceeded with impunity and the clear support of important parts of the government. A controversy over the mosque had been simmering for months – fuelled by unfounded allegations that it was constructed illegally in a “Buddhist area” – but things appeared to be under control at the time of the attack. On the evening of Saturday 10 August, a mob of protestors, including Buddhist monks, attacked the mosque as prayers were being conducted, breaking windows and damaging the building. Police are accused of failing to stop the attack until significant damage had been done. Again, no-one has been arrested to date, despite the existence of photographs and video of the attacks. A number of Muslims and Sinhalese protestors were injured in the attack and in communal clashes that followed later that weekend.

Many have expressed suspicions about the timing of the Grandpass attack, coming as it did just after the Weliweriya killings, which were an unprecedented public relations disaster for the president, particularly among his core constituency of Sinhalese voters. Most independent observers believe the recent upsurge in anti-Muslim hate speech and political campaigning, which has involved earlier attacks on mosques, is being used by the Rajapaksas to shore up their political base among Sinhalese. The Grandpass attack prompted an unusual statement from senior Muslim politicians in the government. They condemned the inaction of the police and called for the perpetrators to be arrested and for the president to take action to halt the months-long anti-Muslim campaign.

The need for deeper change

The value of the steps announced by the government was always questionable, given the active efforts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family to remove all independent checks on their power, as detailed in Crisis Group’s February report on Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action. The recent events in Weliweriya and Grandpass reveal more clearly than ever that what Sri Lanka needs is not more commissions, or even arrests. The country needs legal and institutional changes to the system of policing and justice designed to reverse the militarisation and concentration of power that has deepened so dangerously under the Rajapaksas. These changes would include many of the reforms recommended by the LLRC, as well as others outlined in Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn. At a minimum, the president should end his grant (renewed monthly) of police powers to the army and return soldiers to barracks in north and south, remove the police from the control of the ministry of defence and Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and restore the independence of the attorney general’s department by removing it from presidential control. The president should also agree to re-establish the independence of commissions that control the police, the judiciary, elections, and the civil service by reinstating the constitutional council.

Unfortunately, without increased international pressure, there is little chance the government will take these or any of the other necessary steps to restore the rule of law. Fed by the Rajapaksas’ attachment to centralised and militarised rule, Sri Lanka’s decades-long problem of impunity is getting worse, not better. While the government may have stepped up its public relations game in response to international pressure, the recent events at home show the risk of more serious violence, especially along religious and communal lines, is increasing.

An effective international response to Sri Lanka’s deepening crisis of governance should include the following steps:

  • Members of the UNHRC should support an international mechanism empowered to investigate the many credible allegations of violations of international law by both sides in Sri Lanka’s civil war and to monitor ongoing human rights violations and attacks on the rule of law. The human rights council should move to establish this mechanism during its March 2014 session.
  • Commonwealth leaders – both before and during the November heads of government meeting – should publicly challenge ongoing impunity for government abuses and for attacks on Muslims and the deliberate undermining of the rule of law, and assert the continued need for accountability for events at the end of the war. The government should not be allowed to use CHOGM to showcase a false picture of a democratic country at peace and on the road to reconciliation.
  • All governments and international organisations with significant relationships with Sri Lanka should send clear messages that to be accepted as a full member of the community of nations, the government must face up to the past, reform its damaged public institutions, and work actively to rebuild peaceful relations between all communities.
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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