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President Wickremesinghe presented ambitious 2024 budget ahead of next year’s presidential polls, while Supreme Court ruled on former presidents’ economic mismanagement and anti-terrorism regulations.
Govt’s 2024 budget goals met with scepticism. Ahead of presidential elections set for late 2024, President Wickremesinghe 13 Nov presented to parliament 2024 budget. Extremely ambitious target of raising revenue by 47% was widely questioned given govt’s failure to make sufficient progress raising chronically low revenue, which fell about 15% below International Monetary Fund’s projections in 2023. Budget also boosts govt workers’ pay, increases state pensions and proposes new taxes and crackdown on tax avoidance.
Supreme Court issued landmark judgment on former presidents’ economic mismanagement. Supreme Court 14 Nov found former presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and other top officials, responsible for economic mismanagement between 2019-2022, which violated public trust and Sri Lankans’ constitutional rights. Judgment brought no immediate legal repercussions, though opposition called for Rajapaksas to be barred from holding office in future. In another important ruling, Supreme Court 14 Nov ordered state to pay 1mn rupees ($3,000) to Muslim social media activist Ramzy Razeek, whose detention for five months on charges of breaching often-abused International Convention on Civil and Political Rights Act violated his fundamental rights.
Calls mounted for new 2019 Easter bombings investigation. In interview with ABC Australia, former Deputy Inspector General of Police and head of Criminal Investigation Dept Ravi Seneviratne 16 Nov for first time publicly accused intelligence agencies of actively interfering with police investigations into 2019 Easter bombings; Sri Lankan Catholic Church next day repeated calls for new, independent investigation. Separately, Supreme Court 13 Nov ruled as unconstitutional anti-terrorism regulations on “religious extremism” introduced in 2021 but never applied, designed to process hundreds of Muslims arrested following 2019 Easter suicide attacks.
Tamils held commemorations. Thousands of Tamils across north and east took part in annual ceremonies in week leading to “Great Heroes Day” on 27 Nov, commemorating those who died in struggle for independent state; police disrupted or blocked numerous local gatherings, with at least one organiser arrested under anti-terrorism law.
Govt unlocked International Monetary Fund (IMF) support and introduced, then withdrew, controversial bills aimed at boosting executive powers; ethno-religious tensions simmered in northeast.
IMF and govt agreed next steps in economic reform program. Following three-week delay, govt and IMF 19 Oct reached new agreement to complete first six-month review of four-year Extended Funds Facility bailout program, paving path to further $330mn financial support pending approval of IMF’s Executive Board; deal came after China 11 Oct announced one of its two main creditors had reached tentative deal to restructure $4.2bn worth of debt (over half of what govt owes Beijing).
Govt pursued bills expanding executive power. Govt 3 Oct presented – but later in month quietly withdrew – new draft of Anti-Terrorism Act to parliament, which immediately drew domestic and international criticism for over-broad definition of terrorism and dangerously expansive powers afforded to executive and security agencies. Ten UN Special mandate holders 18 Oct argued that bill “does not go far enough to remedy the defects of […] draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act”. Govt 3 Oct also introduced Online Safety Act to parliament that generated strong criticism for its intent to create “Online Safety Commission”, appointed by and answering to president, with sweeping powers to determine that a statement is “false” and remove online content; more than 40 petitions were registered at Supreme Court challenging bill.
Ethno-religious tensions persisted in eastern province. Monk-provocateur Ampitiye Sumanaratna 15 Oct led small procession of Sinhalese to install Buddhist statue on disputed land in Batticaloa district, at site of long-running dispute over land used by Tamil dairy farmers now taken over by Sinhalese farmers. Police, on orders of president, 19 Oct removed Buddhist statue. Sumanaratna 25 Oct was filmed threatening to kill Tamils.
In other important developments. Wickremesinghe 21 Oct announced intention to hold presidential election in 2024, followed by parliamentary elections due by mid-2025; 16 Oct appointed controversial commission to advise on changes to electoral law. Wickremesinghe 3 Oct angrily rejected possibility of international commission to investigate 2019 Easter bombings after UK’s Channel 4 in Sept broadcast allegations that military intelligence facilitated attack and obstructed investigations.
New allegations of govt involvement in 2019 Easter bombings took centre stage, UN Human Rights chief lamented country’s poor accountability and ethnic tensions grew more severe.
New claims surfaced alleging govt involvement in 2019 attacks. UK news outlet Channel 4 on 5 Sept broadcast documentary with eyewitnesses alleging military intelligence officials were involved in organising 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings and obstructed police investigations before and after attacks, accusing current head of State Intelligence Service Suresh Salley of meeting directly with bombers. In response, Catholic Church reiterated calls for international investigation, while main opposition party called for international support to domestic probe; Salley, former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Defence Ministry rejected accusations, while President Wickremesinghe 10 Sept announced two separate committees to investigate claims.
Ethnic tensions escalated. Tamil district judge T. Saravanarajah 23 Sept resigned his position in northern district of Mullaitivu and fled country, after receiving threats apparently linked to recent rulings that had angered prominent Sinhala nationalist monks and govt parliamentarians. Stick-wielding Sinhala nationalists 17 Sept attacked Tamil parliamentarian Selvarajah Kanjendran in Trincomalee, Eastern Province, during march commemorating death of Tamil nationalist hunger striker; organisers cancelled another commemoration event in capital Colombo amid threats.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) criticized “accountability deficit”. UN Human Rights Council 11 Sept commenced session following High Commissioner’s 6 Sept report that found “lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental main human rights problem”; report urged international community “to play an important complementary role”. Govt reiterated its rejection of resolutions that set up OHCHR “accountability project” and criticised OHCHR’s “increasing mandate”. Govt 15 Sept published revised draft of Anti-Terrorism Act, followed on 19 Sept by release of draft Online Safety Act; activists and opposition politicians expressed strong criticism of both, arguing they posed major threats to democratic rights.
In another important development. International Monetary Fund officials 27 Sept announced they had failed to reach agreement with govt to unlock next $330mn tranche of funding; officials expressed concern at lower-than-projected govt revenue and announced completion of first six-month review also depends on foreign debt restructuring.
Economic hardship continued amid severe drought and looming debt restructuring, while inter-ethnic tensions spilled over from north east as govt unveiled new measures aimed at reconciliation.
Inflation diminished but concerns grew over drought’s impact. Reports in Aug showed inflation in July fell to under 7%, but relief for average citizens remained limited given high prices of many essentials. Drought conditions during month affected large parts of island, threatening drinking water supplies and farming and possibly reducing hydroelectric power. Meanwhile, govt’s flagship anti-poverty program continued to face serious administrative delays.
Domestic debt restructuring took centre stage. Govt attempted to fend off legal and political criticism of its decision – endorsed in motion by parliament on 1 July – to impose losses on contributory govt and private sector pension schemes while sparing banks. Supreme Court 4 and 11 Aug dismissed lawsuits that sought to block restructuring of debt held by pensions. After parliament speaker argued courts do not have power to rule on parliamentary resolution, opposition leaders 11 Aug criticised alleged blow to separation of powers, arguing parliamentary approval had taken form of non-binding motion.
Inter-ethnic relations faced pressure. Significant tensions surfaced at contested site known in Tamil as Kurunthurmalai, and in Sinhalese as Kurundi in Mullaitivu district (Northern Province), where newly built Buddhist temple sits in close proximity to Hindu Athi Aiyanar temple. Eyewitnesses said Sinhala Buddhist monk and followers 18 Aug attempted to disrupt Tamil Pongal celebration at Hindu temple, despite permission from local magistrate. Sinhala nationalist legislator 22 Aug denounced magistrate in parliament, while second Sinhala nationalist MP 26 Aug led protest outside residence of Tamil MP for his role in supporting Hindu worship at Kurunthurmalai. In separate dispute, Buddhist monks 28 Aug disrupted govt meeting and threatened Eastern Province governor for his decision to halt construction of new temple in traditionally Tamil village in Trincomalee district.
Govt unveiled new policies aimed at inter-ethnic reconciliation. President Wickremesinghe 9 Aug announced series of moves to strengthen provincial devolution of power within terms of existing constitution. Wickremesinghe rejected opposition demands to hold provincial elections, now years overdue, proposing instead to first amend Provincial Council Elections Act.
Govt hoped to show commitment to inter-ethnic reconciliation with new policies, which Tamil leaders, families of disappeared and rights groups criticised; govt pursued economic reforms.
Govt unveiled policies purportedly to resolve country’s ethnic conflict. Ahead of President Wickremesinghe’s official visit to India 20-21 July, govt announced series of mostly repackaged policies designed to demonstrate its commitment to inter-ethnic reconciliation and lasting political solution to ethnic conflict. In meeting with Tamil parliamentarians on 18 July, Wickremesinghe presented 15-page document listing policies on land, detainees, missing persons, reparations and development initiatives for Northern and Eastern provinces; govt also included plan to strengthen provincial powers, established in Thirteenth Amendment that was drafted in 1987. Tamil leaders, who have almost universally criticised Thirteenth Amendment as inadequate, 18 July rejected proposal, which fell short of full implementation. Discussions at all-party meeting convened by president 26 July indicated lack of parliamentary consensus for his plans. Meanwhile, govt held series of meetings on proposed National Unity and Reconciliation Commission; families of forcibly disappeared and human rights organisations denounced plan as designed to win international support without addressing underlying factors that generated civil war. Sinhala nationalist activists 23 July disrupted peaceful commemoration of 40th anniversary of anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo, which riot police later violently dispersed.
Parliament endorsed govt’s debt plan and economic reforms. Parliament 1 July approved govt’s Domestic Debt Restructuring plan, designed to complement and encourage debt restructuring with international creditors that is needed to meet International Monetary Fund (IMF) target for debt reduction; plan has generated widespread criticism for effectively imposing losses on workers’ retirement funds while leaving banks and their shareholders untouched. In brief visit 28 July, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated support for expedited debt restructuring and economic recovery, a message echoed by Japanese FM Hayashi Yoshimasa during 29 July meeting with Wickremesinghe. Further progress was made in achieving reforms required by IMF’s bailout plan as parliament 19 July passed anti-corruption bill and bill to guarantee independence of Central Bank.
Tentative signs emerged of economic improvement, UN Human Rights Council reviewed govt’s accountability progress, and tensions surfaced in Tamil-majority Northern Province.
Economic and humanitarian suffering eased slightly. Figures late month showed inflation in June fell to 12% from 25.2% in April. With rupee’s value rising, Central Bank 1 June cut interest rates by 2.5%. UN and World Food Programme assessed that number of citizens who were “moderately acute food insecure” fell from 6.2m to 3.9m. Following brief visit, International Monetary Fund deputy managing director 2 June announced “economic recovery remains challenging” notwithstanding “tentative signs of improvement”. World Bank 28 June approved $700mn in budgetary and welfare support. Main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) 29 June announced it would vote against the govt's proposals for domestic debt restructuring, made public same day.
Human Rights Council continued accountability oversight as govt pledged further progress. In oral update to 53rd session of UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) on 21 June, Deputy High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif called on authorities to “directly acknowledge past violations and undertake credible investigations and prosecutions, alongside other accountability measures”, with “the international community play[ing] a complementary role”. Ahead of meeting, President Wickremesinghe 8 June reviewed “progress of initiatives” on govt’s “Reconciliation Action Plan”. Justice Minister 18 June signalled Truth and Reconciliation Commission draft will be circulated in July. Eight prominent international human rights and rule of law NGOs 16 June strongly criticised “ongoing violations of fair trial rights” of lawyer and human rights defender Hejaaz Hizbullah, who was arrested in 2020 under Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Inter-communal tensions rose in Tamil-majority Northern Province. Tensions rose to dangerous levels over disputed area in Northern Province where Buddhist stupa – known as Kurundi Vihara – has recently been built with military assistance and against court orders, reportedly blocking access to long-standing Hindu pilgrimage site. Prominent Buddhist nationalist organisations 21 June gathered “in defence of” Kurundi Vihara. Police 7 June arrested Tamil legislator and Tamil National People’s Front Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam at his Colombo residence on charges of “obstructing police duties” following altercation on 2 June with plainclothes police in Jaffna, in Northern Province.
Govt continued engagement with international lenders for economic recovery and promoted initiative to end ethnic conflict, as country marked 14 years since end of civil war.
Dialogue with International Monetary Fund (IMF) and creditors continued. After parliament late April approved in non-binding resolution govt’s agreement with IMF for $3bn fund, senior IMF staff 15-23 May held meetings to review progress, praising govt for having “already started implementing many of the challenging policy actions” but forecasting 3% contraction in economy this year. Members of Paris Club of bilateral donors 9 May held their first formal debt-restructuring negotiations co-chaired by Japan, France and India, which was attended by 26 nations, including Chinese govt observer.
Amid widespread scepticism, govt pursued initiatives to address decades-old ethnic conflict. President Wickremesinghe 1 May reiterated his determination “to address the ethnic problem”, adding, “I hope to reach a mutually agreeable solution by the end of this year”. After meeting Wickremesinghe, Tamil leaders 15 May expressed disappointment at lack of progress on devolution of power and failure to call long-overdue elections for provincial councils, with one parliamentarian describing talks as “nothing but a time-wasting tactic”. Cabinet 29 May approved proposal for Truth-Seeking Commission, drawing on experience of South Africa’s truth commission. Following series of controversies – including arrest of prominent comedian – over statements allegedly insulting Buddhism, Wickremesinghe 29 May ordered police to establish special police unit to “investigate into and act on persons or groups that disrupt religious harmony”.
Activists commemorated 14th anniversary of civil war’s end. Organisers mid-May held events across north and east to mark end of civil war on 18 May and remember tens of thousands of Tamil civilians believed to have been killed in final months of conflict. Sinhala nationalist activists 18 May violently disrupted low-key, multi-ethnic and multi-religious ceremony in capital Colombo to commemorate all those killed in war. In response to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s “Statement on Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day” on 18 May, foreign ministry summoned Canadian high commissioner to condemn Trudeau’s “arbitrary and erroneous” remarks.
Govt engaged international lenders on economic recovery amid strikes against austerity, while govt’s new “anti-terrorism” powers provoked widespread opposition.
Govt discussed plans for economic recovery with international stakeholders. International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank 10-16 April held annual meetings in Washington, U.S., where govt and Central Bank officials met wide range of international lenders and development agencies. Finance ministers of Japan, India and France 13 April announced formation of committee of bilateral creditor govts to pursue debt restructuring negotiations with Sri Lanka; Japan said negotiation platform was open to all creditors and expressed hope China – Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor – would join amid concern over its absence. Private bondholders met officials on reworking over $12bn in outstanding bonds.
Parliament approved IMF recovery plans amid strike action. Parliament 26-28 April debated and approved non-binding resolution to support implementation of IMF’s Extended Fund Facility; largest opposition party abstained. In response to possible strike action by teachers, President Wickremesinghe 19 April threatened to use emergency powers to declare education essential service, where strikes are banned, and initiate legal action against teachers; Wickremesinghe 17 April declared power, fuel, postal and health as essential public services.
Govt paused controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, following strong domestic and international reaction. Govt postponed bill’s introduction and promised consultation on legislation that would establish exceptionally broad definition of terrorism and grant executive and security agencies unprecedented powers of arrest and proscription; bill has been denounced as attack on democratic rights by international and national human rights groups and faced reported diplomatic backlash from Western govts. Tamil political parties 25 April organised one-day general strike in Tamil areas to protest bill as well as “Sinhalisation” of Muslim and Tamil-majority areas in north and east, amid increasing allegations of govt-supported land grabs.
In other important developments. U.S. State Dept 26 April sanctioned former navy commander W. Karannagoda for his alleged role in abduction and murder of 11 Tamil and Muslim men in final years of civil war. Country 21 April commemorated fourth anniversary of Easter Sunday suicide bombings amid widespread protests and senior Catholic officials criticising perceived lack of justice and proper investigation.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) authorised bailout loan, granting govt access to international lines of credit, while postponement of local polls continued to fuel political tensions.
IMF approved bailout loan amid strikes and protests over hardship. Executive Board of IMF 20 March formally approved Extended Fund Facility bailout package, paving way for release of first of nine tranches totalling $3bn, and additional lending from World Bank, Asian Development Bank and bilateral donors; decision followed debt-restructuring assurance given by China on 6 March. President Wickremesinghe 22 March presented agreement to parliament and discussed difficult debt-restructuring negotiations. Austerity policies mandated in part by IMF continued to provoke strikes and protest during month. Notably, public sector staff at hospitals, banks and ports 1 March walked out in protest of newly enacted income tax hikes amid soaring living costs. Nationwide strike reportedly backed by opposition National People’s Power took place 15 March.
Dispute over local polls’ postponement prompted opposition. After local polls initially scheduled for 9 March were postponed last month due to govt’s refusal to provide funds, Supreme Court 3 March issued restraining order preventing treasury chief and Wickremesinghe in his capacity as finance minister from “withholding funds allocated in the 2023 budget for the purpose of conducting local government polls”; multiple court challenges followed as govt failed to comply with Supreme Court’s order. Bar Association of Sri Lanka 11 March expressed “grave concern” over undermining judiciary’s independence. Responding to protests against postponement last month, Core Group members of UN Human Rights Council 7 March expressed “concerns over heavy-handed responses to peaceful protests”.
Govt unveiled alternative to controversial prevention of terrorism act. Govt 22 March published “Anti-Terrorism Act” – long-awaited draft law designed to replace much-criticised Prevention of Terrorism Act – that was quickly condemned by local and international human rights organisations for over-broad definition of terrorism and expanded executive powers of detention and proscription. FM Ali Sabry and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe 21-25 March undertook “fact-finding” visit to South Africa to study country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, amid rising expectations govt will initiate its own process in coming months.
Tensions spiked as govt claimed funding shortfall, forcing indefinite postponement of local elections; police crackdown on pro-election protesters killed opposition politician and injured over dozen.
Govt invoked financial crisis, forcing election commission to postpone local polls. Ahead of local elections scheduled for 9 March, cabinet 13 Feb approved President Wickremesinghe’s proposal to limit govt expenditure on credit to five “essential” categories, which excluded election expenses. Election Commission next day was forced to suspend postal voting and 24 Feb announced vote’s indefinite postponement. Election monitoring groups, Bar Association and opposition parties condemned govt’s decision, while Wickremesinghe 23 Feb confirmed “we have no money” for elections and denied vote was ever properly scheduled. Police 20 Feb dispersed people protesting move in capital Colombo led by main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party; opposition National People’s Power member 26 Feb died from injuries sustained in police attack on protest previous day that injured over dozen.
Govt marked Independence Day amid dissent and widespread strife. Amid high inflation and severe recession, govt was roundly criticised for spending $500,000 on military parade to mark 75th anniversary of independence on 4 Feb; police violently dispersed Colombo sit-in protesting cost. Tamil communities in north and east same day held demonstrations demanding end to “occupation of the Tamil homeland” and began four-day march from northern city Jaffna to eastern town Batticaloa. Govt employees continued protests over income tax hikes. Further compounding hardship, Ceylon Electricity Board 15 Feb announced increase in electricity prices by average of 66%, which threatens collapse of small and medium-sized businesses. Efforts to secure financial bailout continued: notably, media reports 17 Feb claimed International Monetary Fund was considering approving bailout before China agrees to join debt restructuring deal.
Protest leader released amid UN Human Rights Council session. Authorities 1 Feb released on bail student activist and protest leader Wasantha Mudalige after five and a half months of detention under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and other laws. UN Human Rights Council same day began scheduled Universal Periodic Review; many states praised govt for its commitment to reform and reconciliation, while U.S., UK, Canada, New Zealand and Norway urged govt to repeal PTA.
Govt slashed spending amid economic strains and efforts to secure international bailout loan, while continuing initiative to address decades-old ethnic conflict.
Govt cut back spending amid deep recession. Amid falling govt revenues, President Wickremesinghe 10 Jan instructed all ministries to cut 5% of their allocated budgets for 2023, with priority given to salary and pension payments to public sector employees. State Minister of Defence Premitha Bandara Tennakoon 13 Jan made surprise announcement that army personnel would be reduced by one third over 2023, falling to 135,000 from 200,000. In positive step, India 16 Jan informed International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it will support debt restructuring process, marking progress toward finalising bailout loan. Chinese Vice Minister Chen Zhou 16 Jan indicated “some good news soon” regarding debt restructuring. Wickremesinghe 27 Jan prorogued parliament until 8 Feb, when new policy program is due to be announced.
Govt continued discussion of initiative to address ethnic conflict. Wickremesinghe 15 Jan reiterated govt’s “hope to fully implement the 13th Amendment of the constitution”; successive governments have failed to implement key provisions since amendment was made law in 1987. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran 16 Jan said, “Nobody takes it with any seriousness because it has been constantly promised.” Wickremesinghe also said govt was “discussing appointing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)”. Talks between govt and TNA, however, appeared stalled following former’s failure to meet deadlines for releasing Tamil prisoners held under Prevention of Terrorism Act and releasing private land held by military.
Local elections preparations resumed, Supreme Court ruled on 2019 bombings. Following govt attempts to delay local govt elections, Election Commission 21 Jan announced polls will be held on 9 March. In landmark ruling, Supreme Court 12 Jan ruled that former President Maithripala Sirisena and four other senior officials had violated fundamental rights of petitioners by failing to act on warnings received in advance of 2019 Easter bombings. In first by foreign govt, Canada 10 Jan imposed sanctions on former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa for “gross and systematic violations of human rights during armed conflict in Sri Lanka”.
Govt pursued plan to exit near-unprecedented economic hardship facing millions, and renewed calls to political parties to endorse plan to address decades-old ethnic conflict.
Govt sought relief amid acute economic and humanitarian crises. Inflation fell from record levels but remained high at 57% in Dec; govt 15 Dec reported economy shrank 11.8% in July-Sept quarter, marking second-worst quarterly contraction ever. World Food Programme and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation early Dec reported that 6.3mn people (30% of population) were food insecure, while over 60% of families were eating less, and eating cheaper, less nutritious food. World Bank 6 Dec confirmed its decision to renew govt’s eligibility for concessional loans from International Development Association; President Wickremesinghe same day presided over roundtable discussion with World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, who were later reported to have endorsed a “coordinated assistance program” to address economic crisis. Central bank governor 20 Dec confirmed debt restructuring negotiations with bilateral creditors were progressing more slowly than hoped. Meanwhile, parliament 8 Dec approved budget with comfortable majority of 123 votes (out of 225), winning support from most of now-fragmented Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party led by Rajapaksas.
Govt provided accelerated initiative to address ethnic conflict. At All-Party Conference held 13 Dec, Wickremesinghe reiterated his appeal for all political parties to agree on solution to ethnic problem by country’s 75th anniversary on 4 Feb, specifically by: addressing immediate concerns of Tamils, especially in north and east; establishing “truth-seeking” process to address legacy of war and conflict-related violence; and constitutional reforms to strengthen devolution of power to provinces. Despite positive responses from party leaders in attendance, scepticism is high they can achieve consensus so quickly on issue that has violently riven Sri Lankan politics for decades. Wickremesinghe 21 Dec met Tamil National Alliance leaders for follow-up discussions on release of prisoners and land.
Local election preparations continued. Elections commission chief 28 Dec announced that nominations for local govt elections would be called before 5 Jan, with vote held before 10 March.
Govt maintained harsh response to dissent, expressed willingness to address Tamil demands and introduced new budget amid ongoing economic strains.
Govt continued hard line on protests and rejected early elections. Police 18 Nov used water cannons and tear gas to disperse large crowd of students attempting to deliver petition to UN, protesting detention of two student leaders under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); court previous day extended leaders’ detention, which Amnesty International 18 Nov denounced as “targeted persecution” that has “chilling effect on civil society”. President Wickremesinghe 23 Nov rejected widespread calls for early elections, telling parliament he would “impose emergency law and deploy the military” if protesters try to “topple the government”.
Govt made some overtures to civil society groups and Tamil politicians. Govt during month held ministerial meetings and consultations with civil society groups on revised draft of proposed “anti-corruption act” aimed at including provisions of UN Convention against Corruption and other international norms. Wickremesinghe 10 Nov invited Tamil leaders for discussion, pledging to address their decades-long demands ahead of 75th independence day on 4 Feb 2023; Tamil politicians expressed scepticism at initiative but did not reject it. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe 20 Nov confirmed govt was drafting new counter-terrorism law to replace PTA.
Amid ongoing economic hardship, govt introduced budget. Wickremesinghe 14 Nov presented 2023 budget to parliament – approved by wide margins in initial votes – aimed at reducing fiscal deficit in line with preliminary deal struck with International Monetary Fund in Sept; budget primarily relies on tax hikes, while maintaining high spending on police and military. Govt statistics released 21 Nov showed inflation slowing slightly to 70.6% in Oct, following record 73.7% in Sept. Meanwhile, debt restructuring talks appear to have made little headway, imperilling govt’s ambition to finalise restructuring by year’s end; govt postponed another round of talks with creditors scheduled for 17 Nov reportedly to allow officials time to prepare. UK Parliament 9 Nov adopted resolution expressing concern over “reports of increased militarisation and human rights violations” and urged govt to reduce high defence spending.
Govt maintained crackdown on protests and sought international support with goodwill gestures and constitutional amendment, as UN Human Rights Council passed critical resolution.
Govt repressed dissent and adopted measures to signal liberal credentials. Inter University Student Union 18 Oct held large, peaceful and legal march to protest detention of three of its leaders held for two months under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); police dispersed marchers with tear gas and water cannons and arrested eight activists. President Wickremesinghe 1 Oct revoked his previous order declaring large area in capital Colombo “High Security Zones” and 19 Oct pardoned eight Tamils convicted of terrorism charges. Supreme Court 20 Oct ruled govt’s “Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill” – permitting compulsory detention in “rehabilitation” centres – unconstitutional.
Parliament passed govt’s constitutional reforms. In vote seen as political win for Wickremesinghe, two-thirds of parliament 21 Oct approved 21st constitutional amendment, which slightly increases independence of various oversight commissions, establishes new parliamentary committees and “National Council”, and reimposes ban on dual citizens holding public office; while govt advertised proposal as reducing presidential powers enshrined in 20th amendment, amendment does not constitute significant revision of governance structures demanded by protest movement.
UN Human Rights Council called on govt to address past abuses. In 6 Oct vote, 20 member states of Human Rights Council passed resolution urging govt to adopt wide range of reforms related to past abuses and “economic crimes” to prevent further deterioration of democratic and human rights; seven states, led by China and Pakistan, voted against, while 20 abstained. Notably, resolution extended and reinforced “capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes” related to rights or international law violations.
In other important developments. World Bank early Oct estimated country’s poverty rate doubled to 25% of population in 2022, with urban poverty tripling to 15%. Govt 11 Oct announced revisions to tax code – designed to expand very small tax base and generate desperately-needed revenue – which were widely criticised for placing most of burden on middle class taxpayers.
Authorities struck preliminary deal to address worsening economic crisis amid food insecurity and continued crackdown on dissent, while UN rights body spotlighted govt’s poor record.Amid dire economic conditions, govt struck initial deal with International Monetary Fund (IMF). In positive news, IMF 1 Sept announced long-awaited staff level agreement, enabling $2.9bn loan; dispersal of loan requires govt winning parliamentary approval for unpopular measures and securing debt relief from foreign govts and international bond holders, talks about which began 23 Sept. UN World Food Programme 12 Sept warned “food and nutrition security situation in Sri Lanka continues to deteriorate by the day’’, noting that based on surveys in June, 8.7m people (39.1% of population) did not have adequate diet, while one in every four households was reducing number of daily meals and 6.2m (28% of population) were estimated food insecure. Report flagged likelihood of further deterioration from Oct-Feb 2023, citing low crop yields.Authorities continued crackdown on dissent and consolidated power. Police 10 Sept arrested prominent protest leader and authorities continued prosecutions of numerous others, including three student leaders detained last month under PTA. Authorities 24 Sept arrested 84 peaceful protesters, day after President Wickremesinghe invoked rarely-used Official Secrets Act to ban protests around key govt buildings covering large parts of capital Colombo; Bar Association and others denounced moved and immediately challenged it in court. Disgraced former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa 2 Sept returned to country after six weeks abroad. Wickremesinghe 8 Sept appointed 37 new ministers, mostly members of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and aligned parties.Govt faced condemnation of rights record at UN Human Rights Council. In strongly worded report to Council on 6 Sept, UN High Commissioner criticised systematic impunity for human rights violations, failure to pursue effective transitional justice, militarisation of civilian administration, and ongoing surveillance, harassment and arbitrary arrests under draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), calling for moratorium on act’s use; for first time, report linked impunity and authoritarian governance with ongoing economic crisis. FM Ali Sabry 12 Sept rejected much of report and reiterated promise to replace PTA.
Govt continued repression against protesters despite international pressure and sought International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance as way out of deepening economic crisis. Government’s crackdown on protest movement continued as police arrested dozens of political activists, including key protest leaders, charging them with range of mostly minor offences. Notably, security forces 18 Aug dispersed peaceful march by students, whereby police used water cannons and tear gas and arrested 20, including three well-known student leaders; decision to detain student leaders under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was strongly criticised by western diplomats, UN and human rights groups and indicates importance attached to eliminating political opposition from streets prior to implementation of painful economic policies in coming months. Ambassadors from EU countries 10 Aug jointly reiterated that “protection of civil & human rights, above all freedom of expression & right to dissent, is of utmost importance”. President’s office 16 Aug announced that state of emergency would be allowed to lapse at end of Aug. On economic front, financial reports mid-month showed inflation hit 60.8% year-on-year in July and food costs had risen 90.9%. IMF visit 24-31 Aug appeared to finalise “staff level agreement” on policy reforms needed for estimated $2.9bn “extended funds facility” bailout. Earlier, IMF 19 Aug reiterated that disbursement of funds “would require adequate assurances by Sri Lanka’s creditors that debt sustainability will be restored”, as worries grew about China’s willingness to accept losses on its loans. President Wickremesinghe 30 Aug announced interim budget with tax increases and other policies designed to reduce budget deficit. Meanwhile, Chinese Navy research vessel Yuan Wang 5 with sophisticated capabilities 16 Aug made delayed call on Hambantota port, despite strong objections by U.S. and India. Chinese ambassador 26 Aug criticised “external obstruction” based on so called “security concerns”, alleged history of “aggression [against Sri Lanka] from its northern neighbor” and pledged to defend country’s “national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity”; Indian high commissioner next day criticised Chinese counterpart’s “violation of basic diplomatic etiquette” and alleged “debt driven agendas”.
Protesters compelled President Rajapaksa’s resignation after storming official residence; newly-appointed President Wickremesinghe authorised violent clampdown in capital Colombo. In unprecedented display of “people power”, crowds gathered for massive protests 9 July stormed presidential residence in capital Colombo in bid to force President Rajapaksa to resign; Rajapaksa 13 July fled country and next day resigned. Rajapaksa 13 July appointed PM Wickremesinghe as acting president, which provoked outrage among protesters who stormed and occupied PM’s office in effort to force his resignation. In response, Wickremesinghe same day declared state of emergency and curfew, and proclaimed his intention to “eliminate the fascist threat” posed by protesters, whom he accused of 9 July arson attack that destroyed his private residence. With security situation increasingly fraught amid clashes between security forces and protesters outside parliament in following days, credible reports indicated govt had authorised military to use live ammunition to quell protests; tensions, however, somewhat eased by 15 July when Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president. Wickremesinghe 20 July won parliamentary vote to become president and 22 July appointed new PM and cabinet dominated by Rajapaksa loyalists, appearing to have brought country full circle. Tensions 22 July reignited following Wickremesinghe’s decision to send in heavily armed soldiers and police commandoes to forcefully clear away Colombo’s main protest encampment and oust protesters from nearby presidential secretariat, resulting in some 50 people injured and nine arrested; govt use of force was condemned by Sri Lankan Bar Association and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, while U.S., British and Canadian ambassadors expressed deep concern. Final week of month saw police arrest key protest leaders and parliament 27 July ratify state of emergency. Meanwhile, economic crisis continued to worsen amid inflation running at more than 60% during month, and UN surveys indicating more than quarter of population, and nearly half of children, required emergency assistance; lack of fuel continued to cripple economy. Talks with International Monetary Fund had made progress last month but final deal likely hampered by political instability, while actual disbursement of funds will await successful outcome of debt restructuring negotiations with international creditors.
Amid risk of “full-blown humanitarian crisis”, tensions mounted as authorities sought to address widespread hunger and shortages and Supreme Court dashed opposition’s hopes for root-and-branch political reform. Economic prospects worsened during month as lack of hard currency to purchase fuel increasingly strained productivity across country, raising risk of economic depression on top of skyrocketing inflation. UN 9 June launched global appeal to raise $47.2mn in assistance by Sept 2022; UN’s humanitarian office next day warned economic crisis is deteriorating rapidly and is at risk of tipping into a “full-blown humanitarian crisis”, while UN Resident Coordinator in capital Colombo same day said estimated 4.9mn people, or 22% of population, were currently in need of food assistance. Govt closed schools and ordered workers to stay at home for two weeks beginning 20 June, while queues for cooking gas and petrol extended miles in many places, leading to violent incidents at gas stations. Notably, army 18 June fired live ammunition over heads of Tamils waiting in line in northern town of Vishvamadu. Sri Lanka Bar Association 18 June called on police to “act with restraint and caution in dealing with the public”. Police made series of arrests of protest leaders and social media activists throughout month. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe 7 June urged citizens to be patient and not hoard fuel or essentials; said govt would request $6bn in support from International Monetary Fund (IMF), including $5bn for daily needs in next six months, along with another billion to stabilise rapidly depreciating rupee. IMF representatives 20 June visited Colombo in effort to complete staff level agreement on economic reforms and bailout. On political front, hopes for passage of opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB)’s proposal for 21st Amendment to constitution to abolish executive presidency were dashed after speaker 21 June announced amendment would require both two-thirds parliamentary majority and approval through referendum. Cabinet 20 June approved separate amendment proposed by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, which would reportedly limit president’s power only modestly. SJB and opposition National People’s Power (NPP) 21 June announced boycott of parliament in protest at govt’s failure to address crises.
Deadly clashes erupted between pro- and anti-govt protesters, forcing PM Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign as country faced possible extended period of political stalemate and instability. Mahinda Rajapaksa 9 May resigned as PM after hundreds of his supporters violently attacked peaceful protesters stationed outside his official residence and at main “GotaGoGama” protest camp in capital Colombo; notably, pro-Mahinda supporters beat protesters and burned GotaGoGama site, injuring scores. Attack triggered large-scale counter-reprisals, first in Colombo and then across island, from groups aligned with anti-govt protest movement; anti-govt attackers 9-10 May torched over 100 houses and properties mostly owned by Rajapaksa family and ruling party members, resulting in eight killed and over 200 injured. Amid island-wide curfew next day, protests continued. In following days, police arrested scores for alleged role in violence, including activists reportedly not involved. President Rajapaksa 12 May appointed five-time prime minister and leader of United National Party Ranil Wickremasinghe as PM; protesters and political observers widely condemned move as Wickremasinghe seen as quintessential insider close to Rajapaksa family. Wickremasinghe 16 May told country “next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives” and 19 May warned of risk of major food crisis in few months due to lack of fertiliser for current planting. Economic and humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as foreign reserves remained near zero. Prices of essentials continued to rise rapidly, with official figures showing inflation at record 39 per cent and unofficial estimates indicating much higher increase; medicine grew increasingly scarce. Preliminary negotiations with International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank took place, with IMF virtual mission 9-23 May leading “discussions at the technical level”. World Bank 24 May announced no new financing “until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place”. Wickremasinghe 25 May named finance minister, 31 May announced series of tax hikes. Wickremesinghe 29 May proposed series of major governance reforms granting more powers to parliament, as new cabinet - dominated by Rajapaksa supporters - 23 May discussed draft 21st amendment to constitution trimming president’s powers; draft fell short of including protesters and opposition’s demands to abolish executive presidency.
Unprecedented multi-class, multi-ethnic protest movement demanded Rajapaksa govt’s resignation, as fears rose over prolonged political standoff and Central Bank announced first ever default. Following unrest late March when crowds attempted to storm President Rajapaksa’s private residence, govt 1 April declared state of emergency followed by two-day island-wide curfew and shutdown of social media networks; moves triggered fierce resistance to orders, forcing govt to reverse course. Tens of thousands 4 April took to streets in multiple locations. Thousands since 9 April peacefully camped outside president’s offices in central Colombo, with daily protests across island. In coordinated tactical retreat designed to restore govt credibility, all govt ministers 3 April resigned. President Rajapaksa next day appointed new four-member cabinet, headed by brother Mahinda as PM; move failed to quell unrest, as parliamentary opposition 4 April rejected president’s offer to form unity govt. Over 40 allied lawmakers 5 April withdrew support from govt, putting ruling party’s parliamentary majority in doubt. Main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) 21 April tabled bill with constitutional reforms, including to end system of executive presidency and return to full parliamentary system; parallel efforts to gain majority for no-confidence vote against govt were unsuccessful. President Rajapaksa 18 April appointed new cabinet, which failed to placate protesters. In 29 April meeting with 11-party group of former govt allies, president reportedly agreed to form interim govt with new PM. Police 19 April fired on crowds protesting fuel price increases, killing one and wounding two dozen. President Rajapaksa, under domestic and international pressure, 20 April promised impartial inquiry; incident renewed fears president and his allies in security forces may turn to widespread repression as means to retain power. Govt efforts to secure international financial relief continued. Central Bank 12 April announced suspending repayments of foreign debt, effectively declaring country’s bankruptcy and first-ever default. Govt 18-19 April held first substantive talks with International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and 20 April indicated talks were at early stage. India 20 April announced willingness to supply additional $500mn credit line for fuel purchases.
Economic crisis worsened and triggered unprecedented outburst of public anger in capital Colombo, placing govt under increasingly severe pressure. On economic front, month witnessed thousands in long queues to purchase dwindling supplies of petrol, food, medicine and other essential imported products; govt 23 March deployed soldiers to oversee distribution at fuel stations. School postponed exams and newspapers suspended print editions for lack of paper. Daily power cuts grew more frequent and as long as 10 hours due to inability to purchase oil needed for electricity plants. Govt 9 March removed dollar-peg of rupee that had depleted hard currency reserves, leading rupee to fall from 200 to nearly 300 against one U.S. dollar, adding to already rampant inflation. Govt same day limited imports in bid to save hard currency. In long-awaited U-turn, cabinet 14 March formally approved “discussions” with International Monetary Fund (IMF) to address currency and debt crises; IMF delegation 14-15 March met President Rajapaksa and senior officials and agreed meeting next month; financial support unlikely to materialise before further economic and political damage. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa 17 March secured $1bn credit line from India, reportedly in exchange for agreeing to Indian-led energy projects in north and east and maritime security arrangements that have drawn criticism from opposition parties. Economic strains led to protests. Main opposition Sama Jana Balawegaya party 15 March held large protest outside president’s office in capital Colombo. Daily street protests against political class in middle class and upscale sections of capital Colombo grew larger. In unprecedented show of defiance, hundreds of protesters 31 March gathered outside president’s residence demanding his resignation; rally was largely peaceful until police used teargas and water cannons to clear protests; over 50 arrested, some reportedly beaten and tortured. Meanwhile, at 49th session of Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet 4 March bluntly criticised govt, noting “surveillance, harassment and intimidation of civil society”, “deepening” “militarisation of civilian government functions”, and “unwillingness to pursue accountability”; India beseeched govt to “fulfil its commitments … to protecting the interest of Tamils”, while Catholic Archbishop of Colombo 7 March called 2019 Easter Bombings “part of a grand political plot”.
Economic strains worsened, pressure rose to repeal controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and new allegations surfaced of intelligence agencies’ involvement in 2019 Easter bombings. On economic front, hard currency shortages limited importers’ ability to buy goods and contributed to inflation; foreign reserves fell to $2.3bn during month, with $1.8bn due to be repaid between Feb and April and $1bn in July. Power cuts grew longer and more frequent amid growing fuel shortages. President Rajapaksa 12 Feb invoked emergency powers to ban strikes in health and electricity sectors, ending nearly week-long strike by health workers. FM GL Peiris 6-8 Feb visited Indian capital New Delhi to secure additional emergency financial support; visit followed 2 Feb signing of $500mn line of credit for gasoline purchases from Indian Oil Corporation, latest in series of Indian loans totalling $1.4bn designed to keep economy afloat; further $1bn under negotiation. Ahead of March session of UN Human Rights Council, Court of Appeal 7 Feb agreed to release on bail Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah, held under PTA for almost two years. After cabinet late Jan approved draft bill to amend PTA, EU 8 Feb welcomed amendments but “noted that important elements had not been included in the Amendment Bill”. Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka 15 Feb announced support for complete abolition of PTA, while Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, 17 Feb signed petition for act’s repeal. Meanwhile, former most senior police investigator Shani Abeysekara 17 Feb filed petition in Supreme Court that appeared to confirm claims made by opposition parliamentarians in 2021 that intelligence services loyal to Rajapaksas had actively obstructed and misdirected pre- and post-attack police investigations into jihadist network responsible for 2019 Easter bombings. Three-judge High Court panel 18 Feb unanimously dismissed all 855 charges against Hemasiri Fernando, then secretary to ministry of defence, and Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara, on trial for allegedly failing to act on early warnings of the bombings from Indian intelligence agency.
Financial and economic crises grew increasingly acute, parliament reconvened after prorogation, and tensions came to fore between govt and Catholic leaders. Prices of food and other essentials continued to rise amid widening shortages and increasingly frequent power cuts, as govt currency reserves dwindled and risk of default rose. Bar Association of Sri Lanka 14 Jan issued unprecedented statement expressing grave concern over economic crisis’s “possible impact on the Rule of Law and Democracy and on the living conditions of the people”. Central bank 18 Jan repaid $500mn due on international sovereign bonds, despite prominent economists and business leaders urging govt to postpone repayment and use its scarce currency to purchase food and medicine. After late Dec currency swap with China, and China’s promises of further support to Sri Lanka during 8-9 Jan visit to capital Colombo by Chinese FM Wang Yi, India offered more than $1.5bn in stop-gap loans to support Sri Lankan govt, including 18 Jan announcement of $500mn credit line to allow fuel importation from India. After suspending parliament in Dec, President Rajapaksa 18 Jan opened new parliamentary session with speech that confirmed govt is “preparing to make relevant amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act”; govt 27 Jan released text of proposed amendments. Delegation of Tamil parliamentarians, led by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan, 18 Jan met Indian high commissioner in Colombo, and handed over letter addressed to Indian PM Modi; letter appeals for renewed Indian efforts to press Colombo to negotiate lasting political solution to “Tamil national question” based on federal model. Discovery 11 Jan of live grenade in Catholic Church in Colombo deepened bitter conflict between govt and Catholic leaders as Church officials challenged police arrest of long-time church employee and initial disregard for Church CCTV footage. Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith 13 Jan publicly criticised police investigations into incident and noted possible political motives behind it, next day alleged authorities are suppressing truth over 2019 Easter attacks, claiming existence of conspiracy to allow attacks to take place for political reasons ahead of presidential election.
President suspended parliament for one month amid growing tensions within ruling coalition, as debt crisis, inflation and looming food shortages led to rising popular discontent. President Rajapaksa 12 Dec prorogued parliament until 18 Jan 2022 without giving clear reasons, triggering claims from opposition suspension was designed to prevent publication of reports by parliamentary corruption oversight committees; move comes after parliament 10 Dec approved govt’s budget with two-thirds majority, despite signs of increasing tensions within ruling coalition. Economic hardship deepened. Fitch Ratings 17 Dec became latest credit ratings agency to downgrade country, citing “increased probability of default’’; agency downgraded govt’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to ‘CC’ from ‘CCC’, lowest tier before default. Inflation hit record level of 11%; vegetable prices continued to rise sharply during month, as key food items, especially imports, proved increasingly hard to find and beyond large numbers of citizens’ income, raising concerns about rising malnutrition. Concerns also persisted over size of upcoming rice harvest and future yields on tea, following six-month ban on import of chemical fertiliser. President Rajapaksa 22 Dec replaced chief civil servant in agriculture ministry, one day after he warned publicly of impending food crisis. Sinhalese prisoners in Badulla 17 Dec attacked four Muslim detainees held on suspicion of links to network behind 2019 Easter bombings. In effort to placate concerns among European states about continued use of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), govt took series of actions. Following green light from attorney general, Puttalam High Court 15 Dec granted bail to Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem, detained under PTA for seven months on spurious reading of one of his poems. Colombo High Court 2 Dec acquitted prominent Muslim politician Azath Salley, who had been detained under the PTA, based on edited copy of speech he gave. Court during month gave bail to ten Tamil youth, arrested in May 2021 for publicly commemorating deaths of Tamils during war in violation of court order. Govt expressed outrage following 3 Dec mob lynching of Sinhalese manager of factory in Pakistani town of Sialkot (see Pakistan), but voiced appreciation for PM Imran Kahn’s promised of swift justice.
Economic woes deepened amid food security concerns, while trial of 2019 Easter bombings suspects began. On economic front, country faced soaring food prices as supplies shrunk, raising concern of major food shortages in coming weeks and months; govt’s ban in April on import of chemical fertilisers and pesticides (lifted in late Oct) had triggered warnings of potentially much reduced crop yields this year. After rating agency Moody late Oct downgraded govt’s credit rating, fears persisted over falling currency reserves and govt’s ability to pay billions of dollars of debt due next year; Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa 13 Nov said govt can pay debts on schedule, and one day after unveiled budget proposing major tax hikes and spending cuts in attempt to reduce budget deficit. Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya 16 Nov held its first major COVID-era public rally in capital Colombo in protest at govt economic mismanagement despite police-requested court orders to prevent demonstration on public health grounds. Trial of 25 suspects allegedly involved in 2019 Easter bombings began 23 Nov, but subsequently adjourned until January. Separate murder trial of former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former police chief Pujith Jayasundara for alleged failure to act on early warnings of Easter attack began 23 Nov. Amid outspoken criticism from Catholic leaders in recent months regarding lack of accountability for attacks, police 15-16 Nov questioned Catholic leader Fr Cyril Gamini Fernando following complaint in Oct by State Intelligence Service head Suresh Sallay, who claimed Fernando had falsely accused him of links to those behind attacks. Govt faced more criticism for unrepresentative composition of task force appointed in late Oct, headed by radical Buddhist monk Gnanasara, to implement principle of “One Country, One Law”, with clear focus on regulating Islamic practices and institutions; in response, President’s Office 10 Nov appointed three Tamils, including one woman, and revised task force’s mandate from amending draft laws to “presenting proposals”. Tamils across north and east held public and private “Great Heroes Day” events on 27 Nov to commemorate fighters and civilians killed during civil war, despite aggressive attempts by police and military to prevent gatherings.
President Rajapaksa appointed controversial “nationalistic” legal task force, while efforts toward accountability came under renewed scrutiny, including over Easter bombings events. President Rajapaksa 27 Oct appointed Task Force to draft law instituting principle of “One Country, One Law” to regulate religious and family law, with clear focus on Islamic institutions; headed by Buddhist monk and militant Sinhala nationalist campaigner Galagodaaaththe Gnanasara, whom many accuse of instigating anti-Muslim violence; task force widely criticised across political and religious spectrum as partisan and divisive. Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith 24 Oct accused Rajapaksa govt of covering up conspiracy behind Easter Sunday 2019 jihadist bombings in order to “protect the interests” of president, called for international assistance in uncovering truth and announced Pope Francis had written to convey his support for cardinal’s efforts. Meanwhile, teachers continued months-long strike calling for salary increases and protesting arrest and harassment of trade union leaders. Farmer protests against govt’s ban on importing chemical fertiliser and pesticides also continued, fuelling concerns over potential food shortages with predicted fall of rice and tea harvests. Following EU visit to monitor govt’s compliance with EU treaty obligations underpinning trade benefits associated with General Scheme of Preferences, European Commission officials 6 Oct urged amendment of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) act but gave no deadline for changes; PTA permits arrests without warrant and detention without charge for up to 18 months. Previously, EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission’s Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights 1 Oct announced both parties “agreed to take stock of progress” related to PTA amendment. President Rajapaksa’s office 4 Oct announced “immediate steps” to amend “necessary provisions”. FM Peiris 13 Oct reiterated that govt “rejects the establishment of an external [accountability] mechanism when domestic processes were ongoing”; Attorney General Rajaratnam 13 Oct informed High Court govt was dropping charges against former Naval Commander Karannagoda for alleged abduction, torture and murder of at least 11 Tamil and Muslim men in 2008-2009 – making it one of more than dozen indictments against Rajapaksa family members and former officials dropped since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in Nov 2019.
UN Human Rights Council voiced concerns over erosion of rights, while economy continued to face deep strains. UN Human Rights Council 13 Sept began its 48th session where High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet noted “the corrosive impact that militarisation and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights” in country and urged govt to undertake major reforms, including repealing Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Statement by “Core Group” nations next day said they were “deeply concerned about current human rights developments, in particular increased limitations being put on civic space”. Report to council by special rapporteur on truth and justice debated 16 Sept concluded “the current administration has shown that it is unwilling or unable to make progress in the effective investigation, prosecution, and sanctioning of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law”. In response to criticism, FM G.L. Peiris 14 Sept said govt had made progress in domestic processes for national reconciliation and rejected external initiatives that “will polarize our society”. EU team 27 Sept arrived in capital Colombo for ten-day mission to monitor govt’s compliance with terms of EU’s GSP+ trade concessions; meetings included discussions with govt on recent promises to “review” PTA, as repeal of controversial law was condition for Sri Lanka regaining GSP+ status in 2017. State Minister for Prisons Lohan Ratwatte 15 Sept resigned after news emerged he had threatened to kill Tamil prisoners held under PTA during unplanned and drunken visit to Anuradhapura city on 12 Sept. Country continued to face economic hardship. After President Rajapaksa 31 Aug declared state of emergency in response to food shortages, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa 7 Sept acknowledged “country is facing a serious foreign exchange crisis” as well as growing budget deficits due to huge loss of revenue resulting from COVID-related restrictions. Central Bank Governor W. D. Lakshman 14 Sept resigned and was replaced by Rajapaksa loyalist Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who resigned as state minister of money and capital markets. Govt 17 Sept extended island-wide quarantine and curfew until 1 Oct as numbers of reported cases and deaths remained high during month.
Supreme Court suspended regulations linked to controversial Terrorism Act, while govt faced rising popular protests and spiralling COVID-19 cases. Supreme Court 5 Aug issued interim order suspending application of regulations issued by President Rajapaksa under controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to establish “deradicalisation” programme for alleged religious extremists; ruling follows petitions by journalists and activists who claim regulations violate constitution. Seven UN special mandate holders 9 Aug requested govt withdraw regulations, calling them “contrary to Sri Lanka’s international legal obligations”. Govt 10 Aug indicted 25 individuals suspected of involvement in 2019 Easter bombings; magistrate same day remanded former minister and head of All Ceylon People’s Congress Rishad Bathiudeen, detained under PTA for alleged involvement in Easter attacks. Influential Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith 13 Aug rejected president’s response to bishops’ request for effective investigations and prosecutions into terror attacks, and called for prosecution of former president Sirisena, now allied with govt, for failure to prevent bombings. Meanwhile, nationwide protests continued throughout month, including farmers contesting president’s chemical fertiliser ban, teachers demanding better pay and students, teachers and trade unions demonstrating against govt-proposed Kothilawala National Defence University bill that critics say marks first step toward end of free public university education. Govt responded with aggressive crackdowns on protesting leaders, including numerous arrests; senior judges, with govt encouragement, reportedly took unprecedented step of instructing magistrates to ban protests on COVID-19 health grounds. Govt 4 Aug postponed scheduled parliament debate of university bill. Facing rapid rise in coronavirus cases, with daily death rate passing 200, and weeks of increasingly urgent calls from health experts for strong action, govt 20 Aug imposed island-wide lockdown. President 30 Aug declared state of emergency and issued price controls on essential items, as the economic and currency crises deepened. Govt made overtures to select civil society leaders; notably, Rajapaksa 3 Aug met Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus. However, longstanding fears of govt plans to restrict NGO freedoms surfaced again as cabinet 10 Aug approved proposal for new unified law for all NGOs, citing concerns about terrorist financing.
Economy remained under great pressure, while authorities used repressive practices to control growing protests. Govt continued to focus on increasingly dire economic situation as prices of staples rose, trade deficit grew, currency reserves fell and concerns persisted over potential international debt default; Money, Capital Markets and Public Enterprise Reforms Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal 2 July rejected opposition calls for deal with International Monetary Fund to restructure debt. Basil Rajapaksa, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, 8 July sworn in as finance minister, promising new economic policies. Meanwhile, police 6 July announced ban on public gatherings amid growing number of protests by unions, students and farmers. Police 8 July used unusually aggressive measures to end protest outside parliament against controversial Kotelawala Defence University Act that critics say could end free higher education; police same day arrested general secretary of Ceylon Teachers Union and more than dozen trade union and student activists for violating COVID-19 health regulations; suspects sent to military-run COVID-19 quarantine centre despite being granted bail by court; all released 16 July. Former Parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya 11 July accused govt of “systematic repression” with “aim to eradicate democracy” and 17 July convened almost all opposition parties to chart strategy of resistance against govt practices. Govt 7 July appointed three-judge special court for trial of ex-Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and ex-police chief Pujith Jayasundara accused of negligence for failing to prevent 2019 Easter bombings. In 12 July letter to President Rajapaksa, Catholic bishops, including Cardinal Malcolm Rogers, criticised “lethargic pace” of investigations into bombings and called on govt to prosecute “main culprits” and investigate evidence of possible larger “conspiracy”. Cabinet 19 July approved legal changes - still to be endorsed by parliament - that would allow Muslim couples to marry under ordinary marriage registration law, rather than Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, in line with longstanding demand of women activists. COVID-19 case numbers and death rates levelled off during month but latter remained high at 40-50 per day; vaccination programme progressed significantly with substantial new supplies from abroad.
COVID-19 crisis continued to worsen as economy faced growing strains, while EU and UN voiced concerns over govt’s abuse of rule of law. Amid worsening COVID-19 epidemic, govt faced growing accusations of limiting access to coronavirus tests to prevent full knowledge on gravity of health situation and failing to report accurately on death rate, which reached new daily highs during month. Notably, eight members of independent expert panel 8 June called for immediate probe into failings of vaccination programme. Economic concerns persisted as COVID-19 spread among workers in garment and other export industries and Central Bank governor 28 June announced steps to restrict use of dwindling foreign reserves on non-essential imports; energy minister 11 June announced sharp spike in fuel prices, prompting protest in southern town of Ambalangoda 15 June. European Parliament 10 June passed resolution highlighting govt’s abuse of Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permits arrests without warrant and detention without charge for up to 18 months, and failure to adhere to international conventions required to retain EU trade benefits; urged EU Commission to consider withdrawing Sri Lanka’s special trade status; Sri Lanka foreign ministry 14 June rejected allegations of abuse and renewed promise to “revisit provisions” of Terrorism Act. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet 21 June expressed concerns over govt’s continued misuse and expansion of Terrorism Act, policies targeting Tamils and Muslims, and “continuing series” of deaths in police custody. In widely criticised decision, President Rajapaksa 24 June pardoned Duminda Silva, former ruling-party legislator convicted of 2011 murder of political rival; also pardoned 16 Tamils convicted under Terrorism Act. Bar Association of Sri Lanka 10 June raised concerns with inspector general of police about his 7 June directive calling on police to step up social media monitoring. In rare judicial rebuke of govt, Court of Appeal 16 June approved bail of former senior-most police investigator Shani Abeysekera detained in what was widely seen as retribution for investigations into previous alleged abuses by Rajapaksa-led govt.
Amid rapidly worsening COVID-19 crisis, country marked twelfth anniversary of end of civil war while parliament approved controversial govt bill on Colombo megaproject. Authorities prevented public commemorations in northern and eastern provinces to mark 12 years since end of civil war on 18 May; police same day arrested ten Tamil activists under Prevention of Terrorism Act for holding commemoration in eastern Batticaloa district. Well-known memorial to civilian Tamil dead in Mullivaikkal 13 May discovered vandalised while under army control. Tamil MPs, local officials and members of diaspora in Canada, UK and other European countries 18 May also recognised “Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day”, while PM Rajapaksa same day promised parliament that govt would never “betray” “war heroes” who sacrificed their lives to defeat terrorism. Govt next day held 12th National War Heroes’ Day events attended by President Rajapaksa and other govt and military officials. Parliament 20 May approved by nearly two-thirds majority govt’s landmark bill to establish legal and administrative framework for Chinese-built Colombo Port City megaproject, which provides for unprecedented legal autonomy to Port City Commission; opposition and civil society had previously expressed criticisms that project will facilitate money laundering and further increase Chinese influence over Sri Lankan economy and politics. Law 18 May rushed through parliament after speaker same day announced Supreme Court due to assess constitutionality of more than two dozen of bill’s provisions, following numerous petitions; govt immediately introduced amended bill after removing controversial provisions. Meanwhile, country faced rapidly worsening COVID-19 situation as hospital capacity appeared to reach its limit during month, and delays along with shortages in COVID-19 testing limited govt’s ability to track and control disease, fuelling criticism of govt’s handling of crisis. Public and health officials also protested politicised distribution of scarce vaccines.
Country commemorated deadly 2019 Easter attacks as authorities furthered “anti-extremism” agenda; meanwhile, govt bill on Colombo mega project sparked legal challenges. As country marked second anniversary of Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired Easter suicide bombings that killed over 260 people, govt continued to pursue “anti-extremism” agenda. Activists 8 April filed lawsuit challenging constitutionality of new “deradicalisation” regulations introduced in March that allow extended detention without charge. Govt 10 April formally proscribed 11 “extremist” groups, including range of local Salafi groups and Muslim charity funded by two suicide bombers of April 2019 attacks. Attorney general 20 April indicted 16 Muslim men detained without trial for almost two years for their alleged involvement in Dec 2018 vandalism of Buddhist statues in town of Mawanella. Police 24 April arrested Rishad Bathiudeen, Muslim legislator and leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Party, in connection with 2019 bombings. Cabinet 28 April approved ban on burqas and other religious face-coverings on “national security” grounds. Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Ranjith 18 April claimed Easter attack