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January 2023

Asia

Sri Lanka

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”.

December 2022

Asia

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.

November 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

October 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

September 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

August 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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”.

July 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

June 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

May 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

April 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

March 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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”.

February 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

January 2022

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

December 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

November 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

October 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

September 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

August 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

July 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

June 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

May 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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.

April 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

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 attacks were “politically driven”, and the victims “attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it […] to strengthen their political power.” Opposition MPs 20 April alleged govt was covering up evidence indicating contacts between military intelligence officials loyal to President Rajapaksa, then in opposition, and bombers before Easter attacks. PM Rajapaksa 9 April introduced legally unprecedented resolution in Parliament to implement recommendations of presidential commission on “political victimisation” to dismiss ongoing murder, corruption and other criminal cases against Rajapaksa family members and loyalists and to prosecute investigators, prosecutors and witnesses. Meanwhile, govt 8 April introduced bill granting unprecedented legal autonomy to Colombo port city, its multi-billion-dollar flagship economic project financed by Chinese company; more than dozen organisations and opposition parties challenged bill in lawsuits filed at Supreme Court. Former minister and ruling party MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told court on 20 April bill would create “a haven for money laundering” and 15 April criticised project for establishing “Chinese colony”; Rajapakshe alleged President Rajapaksa next day threatened him for his criticisms. 

March 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

UN Human Rights Council adopted groundbreaking resolution establishing new accountability process, while govt unveiled new restrictions targeting Muslims. UN Human Rights Council 23 March adopted new resolution on Sri Lanka expressing “deep concern” at “warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation” and calling on govt to protect religious freedom, review anti-terrorism laws, allow civil society to “operate free from hindrance, surveillance, insecurity and threat of reprisals” and “ensure the prompt, thorough and impartial investigation” of serious rights violations “including for long-standing emblematic cases”. Resolution authorised UN human rights body OHCHR to “collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence” in support of “future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka” including through universal jurisdiction cases in individual states. Ahead of vote, in attempt to court support from Muslim-majority states for countering new UN resolution, President Rajapaksa 19 March visited Bangladesh with high-level delegation and made series of phone calls with Indian PM Modi, Egyptian President Sisi and senior officials at Organisation of Islamic Cooperation; India and Japan abstained in council vote while China and Pakistan voted against. Following vote, govt rejected UN resolution and launched public media campaign against those supporting it domestically; President Rajapaksa 27 March declared: “We are not afraid to face the impact of Geneva. It is possible not to succumb to it. We are a free country”. Meanwhile, govt announced new laws targeting Muslims. Notably, defence ministry 5 March said new regulations will require all imported Islamic books to be screened beforehand as part of counter-terrorism measures; Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera 13 March announced that he had signed cabinet paper to ban burqa and nikab face veil and that 1000 madrasas will be closed on national security grounds; MFA 16 March clarified measure would be implemented following public consultations. President Rajapaksa 9 March also signed new regulations under Prevention of Terrorism Act permitting two-year detention without trial for “deradicalisation” of those accused of supporting “violent extremist religious ideology”. Police 16 March arrested prominent Muslim politician Azath Salley under terrorism act.

February 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

UN Human Rights Council mulled new oversight resolution as govt continued to dismiss deeply critical UN human rights report. Following late Jan report by UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet that noted “warning signs” of possible return of “grave human rights violations” and advocated “international action to ensure justice for international crimes” allegedly committed during 26-year civil war, UN Human Rights Council 22 Feb began Spring session where it will consider new resolution to pursue accountability and maintain international oversight over Sri Lanka as 2015 resolution approaches expiration. Govt reiterated harsh response to UN report; foreign affairs ministry 21 Feb labelled it “propaganda” and part of campaign of “premeditated attempts at vilifying Sri Lanka”. Seventeen former UN special rapporteurs and human rights experts 5 Feb issued joint statement expressing grave concerns about “continued reluctance of the Sri Lankan Government to meaningfully uphold the human rights of all”. Pakistani PM Imran Khan 23 Feb visited Sri Lanka, seen as attempt by Sri Lankan govt to court support from Muslim-majority states for countering new UN resolution; Khan welcomed govt’s 26 Feb announcement of reversal of widely criticised policy mandating cremation of bodies of COVID-19 victims; govt had yet to allocate land for burials by month’s end. Meanwhile, presidential commission of inquiry on 2019 Easter bombings 1 Feb submitted long-awaited report to President Rajapaksa, who 19 Feb appointed ministerial committee to look into how to respond to its recommendations, which have not yet been formally made public. Thousands of mostly Tamil and some Muslim demonstrators 3-7 Feb marched 400km from Pottuvil town in eastern province to Polikandy town near Jaffna in northern province in protest of land grabs and Sinhalisation of Tamil-majority areas, militarisation, forced cremations, disappearances, anti-terrorism laws and political prisoners. Govt 1 Feb unilaterally cancelled Feb 2019 agreement with India and Japan for public-private partnership to develop Eastern Container Terminal of Colombo port.

January 2021

Asia

Sri Lanka

UN human rights office (OHCHR) issued highly critical report about country’s trajectory and called on international support to avert future abuses. OHCHR 27 Jan issued report – pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 40/1 – criticising country’s failure “to address past violations” and “risk of human rights violations being repeated”: said govt “proactively obstructing investigations and trials” and called for “enhanced monitoring and strong preventive action” by international community; govt 27 Jan rejected report as “speculative, presumptive and unsubstantiated”, and beyond mandate given by Human Rights Council. Earlier in month, Tamil political parties, civil society groups and religious leaders 15 Jan jointly called for UN to establish international accountability mechanism and rejected domestic accountability process. President Gotabaya 21 Jan appointed Commission of Inquiry to review work of past commissions established to investigate human rights violations. Indian FM Subrahmanyam Jaishankar 6 Jan met with Gotabaya in capital Colombo; Jaishankar said it is in country’s “own interest” that Tamil aspirations for “equality, justice, peace and dignity” are met, urged govt to maintain devolution of power enshrined in 13th constitutional amendment, which some of Gotabaya’s close allies seek to abolish. Gotabaya 13 Jan announced deal with India and Japan to jointly develop container terminal in Colombo port; PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 31 Jan promised major change to deal following protests against Indian involvement by nationalist monks and trade unions. Jaffna University authorities, on orders from central govt, 8 Jan demolished memorial to Tamil civilians killed during civil war, sparking student protests along with domestic and international backlash; university’s vice chancellor 10 Jan promised to reconstruct monument, reportedly after India’s ambassador to Sri Lanka raised concern with PM. Amid growing criticism from opposition over govt’s policies, Gotabaya 9 Jan called on opponents to engage in “civilised politics without misleading the public” and appeared to threaten to kill prominent opposition MP Harin Fernando who had earlier criticised him; Fernando next day requested police protection. Health minister 7 Jan told parliament that govt would continue to cremate all COVID-19 victims in contravention of Islamic burial practices and contrary to World Health Organization guidelines.

December 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed loyalists to independent oversight commissions while govt’s COVID-19 policy vis-à-vis Muslims sparked outrage and small-scale protests. Parliamentary council – established under 20th amendment to constitution, which grants Gotabaya sweeping powers – early Dec rubber-stamped Gotabaya’s nominees to several independent oversight commissions, including Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission, National Election Commission and National Police Commission. In 10 Dec letter to govt, two UN special rapporteurs expressed concern that 20th constitutional amendment would damage country’s liberal and democratic institutions. Supreme Court 1 Dec dismissed multiple petitions challenging govt’s policy of cremating all COVID-19 victims, including Muslims, in contravention of Islamic burial practices. Cremation against parents’ wishes 9 Dec of 20-day old Muslim baby who died of COVID-19 sparked public outrage and small-scale protests against govt’s cremation policy in capital Colombo and across country’s Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities, as well as in Europe, U.S. and Canada. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 10 Dec expressed concern over Sri Lankan authorities “insisting on cremation” of Muslim COVID-19 victims. Maldivian govt 14 Dec announced it was considering request by Sri Lanka to bury remains of Sri Lankan Muslims in Maldives; Muslim activists and politicians rejected proposed arrangement and UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief 16 Dec said it could further marginalise Muslims in Sri Lanka. U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation 15 Dec withdrew $480mn development assistance grant to Sri Lanka “due to lack of partner country engagement”.

November 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Unshackled by 20th amendment to constitution, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa installed loyalists in senior judicial and security positions. Following Oct passage of 20th constitutional amendment giving Gotabaya sweeping powers, newly created Parliamentary Council 10 and 23 Nov rubber-stamped Gotabaya’s nominees for senior positions, including six Supreme Court justices, 14 Court of Appeal judges and Inspector General of Police. In address to nation on first anniversary of 2019 presidential election victory, Gotabaya 18 Nov stated that Sinhalese voters voted for him “because they had legitimate fears that the Sinhala race … would be threatened with destruction in the face of various local and foreign forces and ideologies”. Hardline nationalist retired Admiral Sarath Weerasekara, known for past threats against civil society activists and calls for ban of main Tamil political alliance, 26 Nov appointed as minister of public security in charge of police and civil defence force. With arrests and court orders blocking public commemorations, Tamils 27 Nov held small private Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes Day, or Tamil Remembrance Day) ceremonies to remember family members killed during three-decade civil war. Amid second COVID-19 wave, health ministry committee 22 Nov reaffirmed govt’s policy of mandatory cremation of all COVID-19 victims despite widespread criticism; opposition leader Sajith Premadasa 3 Nov accused govt of violating Muslim rights by cremating their dead; Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 4 Nov called on govt to “fulfil its human rights obligations by protecting and respecting the rights of its Muslim minority to practice their religion free from any discrimination”. In sign of closer relations with China, ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party 4 Nov held virtual “Advanced Seminar on Governance Experience” with senior Chinese Communist Party officials and China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval met Gotabaya and PM during 27-28 Nov visit to capital Colombo. At least eight people were killed and 50 injured from fire and police shooting as inmates in Mahara prison 29 Nov protested risks of rapid COVID-19 spread in prisons across island.

October 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Parliament removed constitutional checks on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, heralding return to authoritarianism and institutionalisation of hardline Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Govt-sponsored bill introduced in Sept on 20th constitutional amendment, which would give president sweeping powers, continued to generate strong criticism throughout month, including from bar association and retired judges. Supreme Court (SC) 5 Oct concluded hearing of 39 petitions filed by opposition and civil society challenging amendment. Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka 13 Oct urged govt not to proceed with amendment saying “that concentration of power in an individual without checks and balances does not augur well for a democratic, socialist republic”; senior monks of two of Sri Lanka’s four Buddhist chapters previous day called on govt to withdraw amendment, saying that it threatened “democracy by undermining the system of checks and balances” and that its adoption would mark “birth of authoritarianism [and] arbitrary despotism”; chief monks of both chapters later disavowed statement. Parliament speaker 20 Oct said SC ruling indicates that with revision of four clauses, amendment bill could be passed by two-thirds parliamentary majority without approval at public referendum; following two-day debate, parliament 22 Oct passed revised bill giving president virtually unlimited powers, including to appoint judges and all senior state officials, appoint and dismiss ministers, head ministries and dissolve parliament halfway through its term. Meanwhile, police 19 Oct arrested opposition All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) party leader, Rishad Bathiudeen, for alleged misappropriation of public funds during 2019 presidential election; arrest followed widespread criticism of Sept release of Bathiudeen’s brother, detained since April for alleged involvement in 2019 Easter bombings, reportedly as part of deal for ACMC votes for 20th amendment. Gotabaya 9 Oct received high-level Chinese delegation, which promised additional financial assistance and defence of Sri Lanka “at international fora” including UN Human Rights Council. During visit to capital Colombo, U.S. Sec of State Mike Pompeo 28 Oct accused China of “lawlessness” and being a “predator” and pressed Sri Lanka to “take meaningful, concrete steps to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation”; Chinese Embassy in Colombo 27 Oct accused U.S. of trying to “bully Sri Lanka”.

September 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Govt tabled bill in parliament to remove constitutional checks on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Cabinet 2 Sept approved draft 20th constitutional amendment to replace 19th amendment which curbs presidential powers; new amendment would give president sweeping powers, including to appoint and control all state institutions, appoint and dismiss ministers, head ministries, dissolve parliament one year after its election, as well as full legal immunity. Proposed amendment sparked criticism from opposition, but also within ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, prompting PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 12 Sept to appoint committee to consider changes. Govt 22 Sept tabled unchanged amendment bill in parliament amid protests from opposition. Supreme Court 29 Sept began consideration of petitions filed by opposition and civil society against amendment. Gotabaya 25 Sept directed officials to implement his future verbal orders as if they were formal written directives, adding that those who fail to do so “will face stern action”. Cabinet 3 Sept appointed nine-member “experts’ committee” headed by Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and featuring notable Sinhala hardliners to draft new constitution; State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs Sarath Weerasekera quoted 6 Sept in support of new constitution removing “detrimental aspects” of 13th amendment, which devolved power in 1987 to satisfy in part Tamil autonomy demands; during virtual summit with Mahinda, Indian PM Modi 26 Sept repeated longstanding calls for implementation of 13th amendment; Mahinda’s separate statement same day ignored the issue. Cabinet 29 Sept approved proposal by Mahinda to ban cattle slaughter, an industry run mostly by Muslims; imports of beef will still be allowed. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet 14 Sept criticised draft 20th amendment and appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials “allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity” and called for immediate end to “surveillance and intimidation of victims [of civil war], their families, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers”; Sri Lanka 15 Sept dismissed Bachelet’s criticism of amendment as “unwarranted” and rejected “false and unsubstantiated allegations”. UK 17 Sept expressed concern over lack of “meaningful progress” in govt’s commitment to transitional justice.

August 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won resounding victory in parliamentary elections, paving way for unbridled executive powers for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and increasingly Sinhala nationalist policies. Following peaceful campaign, 5 Aug legislative elections resulted in ruling party SLPP securing 145 of 225 seats in parliament, enough – together with allied parties – to achieve two-thirds majority SLPP sought in order to amend constitution and unshackle presidential powers. In prominent Buddhist temple near capital Colombo, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as PM 9 Aug. Mahinda and Gotabaya 12 Aug announced new cabinet and state ministers, giving portfolios to themselves and to three other family members; other appointees included Gotabaya’s personal lawyer as justice minister and retired admiral as foreign secretary. Cabinet 19 Aug approved repealing 19th amendment to constitution, which limits presidential powers, and established committee under justice ministry to draft replacement. In speech at opening of new parliament, Gotabaya 20 Aug promised that once 19th amendment had been replaced, govt would draft new constitution in which “priority will be given to the concept of one country, one law for all the people” and which will allow govt to make decisions freely without being influenced by “extremists”. Former Director of Police Criminal Investigations Department Shani Abeysekara remanded in custody 20 Aug accused of fabricating evidence in 2015 murder conviction; Abeysekara’s arrest widely seen as retribution for his key role investigating major criminal cases implicating senior officials in 2005-2015 Rajapaksa govt. Joint letter to Sri Lanka govt from six UN Special Rapporteurs sent in June and publicised 25 Aug expressed “grave concern over the seemingly arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention” of Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, in “what may be a reprisal for his legal work and human rights advocacy”. President 24 Aug appointed four prominent Buddhist monks to join all-Sinhalese task force on archaeological heritage in multi-ethnic eastern province. Foreign Secretary Adm. Jayantha Colombage announced Sri Lanka will adopt “India first approach” in its foreign policy and would “not do anything harmful to India’s strategic security interests”, despite China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka.

July 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Ahead of August parliamentary elections, ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led Sinhala nationalist campaign in attempt to obtain two-thirds majority and strengthen executive power. Amid ongoing campaigning ahead of 5 Aug legislative polls, SLPP leader and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 2 July said two-thirds majority was required to repeal 19th amendment to constitution, which limits presidential powers; PM 5 July described Samagi Jana Balawegaya opposition coalition, which includes Tamil and Muslim parties, as instrument for “communal parties” and their allegedly “extremist” ambitions, said 2019 Easter bombings had revealed dangerous consequences of “communal politics”; election campaign also featured anti-Muslim hate speech on social media. Main Tamil grouping Tamil National Alliance (TNA) 18 July released election manifesto underscoring its long-held demand for devolution of power to traditionally Tamil-majority regions; prominent hardline Buddhist monks 20 July warned that if Tamils “demand a separate state again, a river of blood will flow in the North and East”; PM 27 July claimed TNA continuing separatist project of defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In Northern province, amid reports of security forces targeting Tamils, former LTTE member 4 July fatally injured himself allegedly while building bomb; defence ministry claimed he was financed by Tamil diaspora to “revamp LTTE”. Attorney general 17 July approved draft regulations under controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act allowing suspects detained for holding violent extremist views to undergo “de-radicalisation” program. Prominent Muslim leader of opposition party All Ceylon Makkal Congress Rishad Bathiudeen 17 July filed petition with Supreme Court to prevent his arrest for alleged links to Easter bombings; 27 July summoned for further questioning by police in the midst of election campaigning. Police 27 July questioned former United National Party (UNP) minister Ravi Kurunanayake with regard to alleged 2015 Central Bank “bond scam”. Following rise in COVID-19 cases, leader of opposition UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa respectively 12 and 13 July called for postponement of polls; PM 15 July dismissed fears of second wave of infections, claiming they were based on opposition rumours.

June 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Supreme Court (SC) ruling granted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa authority to govern without parliamentary oversight, while Gotabaya’s appointment of two new bodies with far-reaching powers signalled further steps toward authoritarianism and hard-line Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. SC 2 June dismissed civil society and opposition parties’ petitions challenging constitutionality of 20 June legislative polls and dissolution of parliament; ruling allows Gotabaya to govern without parliamentary oversight for at least another two months, as Election Commission 10 June again rescheduled elections for 5 August. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 28 June promised voters that, if elected, his ruling-Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party would defeat “domestic and international conspiracies” allegedly backed by main opposition parties. Gotabaya 2 June appointed two task forces headed by Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne: one entirely made up of military and police officials with broad mandate to turn Sri Lanka into “a virtuous, disciplined and lawful society”; the other composed exclusively of Sinhalese Buddhists charged with “preserving the historical heritage of Sri Lanka” in Tamil- and Muslim-majority Eastern province. Prominent civil society group Friday Forum 13 June called for abolition of military task force arguing that it could be first step toward “military dictatorship” while leader of Tamil National Alliance R. Sampanthan 17 June said intention of all-Sinhalese task force is to “convert the Eastern province into majority Sinhalese areas”. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet 3 June expressed concern over clampdown on free speech. In Colombo, police 9 June raided home and seized computer of Dharisha Bastians, govt-critical journalist who fled country after Rajapaksas came to power. Colombo magistrate 25 June sharply criticised police for manipulating witness statements in case against prominent Muslim lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, detained for alleged involvement in Easter 2019 Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired terror attacks. Expert review committee presented strongly critical final report to president on proposed U.S. govt $480mn Millenium Challenge Corporation grant; U.S. embassy expressed disappointment at the “politicization and spread of disinformation” related to grant.

May 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued to reject opposition and civil society demands to reconvene parliament by 2 June, raising prospect of major constitutional crisis. Throughout month President Rajapaksaand PM Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected appeals to recall parliament, said there was no need or power to call it back into session. Supreme Court (SC) last two weeks of May heard arguments in eight “fundamental rights petitions” filed by opposition and civil society challenging constitutionality of parliamentary polls scheduled for 20 June – almost three weeks beyond 2 June deadline prescribed in constitution – and requesting parliament be reconvened. Elections Commission 20 May informed SC that arranging elections would require “nine to eleven weeks after receiving the green light from health authorities that the country is safe [from COVID-19 virus]”, placing earliest possible election in late July. Responding to false accusations of Muslims spreading COVID-19 and policy of cremating all COVID-19 victims, including Muslims, in contravention of Islamic burial practices, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 6 May expressed deep concern over “escalating hate speech and hostility towards Muslims in Sri Lanka” and called on authorities to ensure safety of Muslim community and respect for religious practices and rituals. Prominent Muslim leader of opposition party All Ceylon Makkal Congress Rishad Bathiudeen 14 May filed petition with SC challenging govt’s cremation policy. Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratne 15 May ordered navy to establish unit in Eastern province to “protect” Buddhist temple and its land from “other parties” following years of unsubstantiated claims Muslims were taking temple lands. Family of prominent Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah 5 May filed petition with SC challenging his arrest for alleged involvement in 2019 Easter bombings. On 11th anniversary of civil war end, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 18 May praised sacrifices of “war heroes” and challenged opposition criticism of militarisation of civilian administration; President Rajapaksa next day promoted record number of military officers and warned that he would withdraw country from any international organisation that “targets” military for human rights abuses during civil war. Meanwhile, Tamil National People’s Front 18 May said police prevented its members from holding commemoration events.

April 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Amid COVID-19 fears, govt measures sparked concerns over intensification of crackdown on dissent, growing anti-Muslim hate speech left unchecked, and looming constitutional crisis should parliament not reconvene before 2 June deadline. Facing pressure from govt for elections, Election Commission 20 April announced 20 June as new date of postponed parliamentary elections, despite constitution requiring parliament to sit by 2 June. President Rajapaksa refused calls to reconvene old parliament even after 27 April collective opposition promise to support govt policies to contain COVID-19 and despite 30 April expiration of govt borrowing authority. Muslims widely accused of spreading COVID-19 on social and traditional media; govt yet to challenge false accusations and hate-speech, accused of assisting biased reporting by pro-govt TV. Govt 11 April made cremation – in contravention of Islamic burial practices – compulsory for all COVID-19-related deaths despite objections from Muslim leaders and 8 April letter from four UN Special Rapporteurs calling on President Rajapaksa to follow World Health Organization guidelines. Amid fears of intensification of crackdown on dissent, Inspector General of Police (IGP) 1 April warned media institutions of legal action against those spreading “false” or “malicious” COVID-19-related messages, including criticism of govt officials; Human Rights Commission 25 April in letter to IGP criticised lack of legal grounds and discriminatory impact of arrests under new policies. Arrests of govt critics and opposition supporters continued: police 9 April arrested Muslim writer and govt critic Ramzy Razeek apparently following complaints about a 2 April Facebook post that called for “intellectual jihad” against anti-Muslim policies and hate campaigning; 13 April arrested opposition United National Party politician Ranjan Ramanayake for obstructing police duties while distributing COVID-19 relief supplies, Ramanayake 20 April released on bail; 14-15 April arrested brother of opposition All Ceylon Makkal Congress party leader, Rishad Bathiudeen, and prominent Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, for alleged involvement in 2019 Easter bombings.

March 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Election Commission postponed April parliamentary elections in light of global COVID-19 pandemic, while govt introduced measures to tackle growing public health and economic crisis. Citing health risks associated with running an election amid COVID-19 spread, Election Commission 19 March postponed indefinitely planned 25 April parliamentary elections. Opposition leaders 25 March called for parliament to be reconvened until new election date set, contested authority of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to govern alone and reliance on ad hoc committees headed by military and Rajapaksa family members. Govt took series of measures to contain COVID-19, including border closures to internationals 18 March, quarantine of residents returning from overseas, widespread deployment of military, and rolling curfews across country to enforce “social distancing”. In 5 March media interview, Rajapaksa reiterated desire for stronger presidential powers, calling for “an environment where the President could function without an obstruction”. Govt 18 March signed $500mn ten-year loan from China to improve foreign currency reserves. Split in main opposition United National Party (UNP) confirmed 19 March when faction led by UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa submitted separate list of candidates for elections under newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). Three prominent Sinhalese nationalist monks 16 March formed new political party, Ape Jana Bala Pakshya (“Our People’s Power Party”) and submitted nominations for upcoming election, to campaign on explicitly Sinhalese nationalist and anti-Muslim platform. Govt 2 March criticised findings of Feb report by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; report highlighted ongoing insecurity faced by Muslim communities and need to end impunity for attacks on religious minorities. Attorney General (AG) 11 March wrote to presidential commission established to investigate alleged “political victimisation” by previous UNP-led govt against officials and supporters of the 2005-2015 Rajapaksa govt, AG argued commission has no authority to suspend or interfere with ongoing criminal cases. President 26 March pardoned former army Sgt Sunil Ratnayake, sentenced to death in 2015 for 2000 murder of eight Tamil civilians during civil war, one of few successful prosecutions of war-related atrocities.

February 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Govt of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued efforts to reverse previous govt’s modest efforts to investigate past abuses and strengthen independence of police, judiciary and oversight commissions. In media interview PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 9 Feb reiterated plans to strengthen presidential powers by removing 19th amendment of constitution. FM Dinesh Gunawardena 26 Feb informed UN Human Rights Council govt was withdrawing its co-sponsorship of Oct 2015 council resolution on “Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka”, stated resolution had not received cabinet or parliamentary approval and certain clauses contravened Sri Lankan constitution; promised govt would establish “an inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process”. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 14 Feb announced travel ban on Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva and his immediate family for his alleged role in “gross violations of human rights” during final phases of civil war; Foreign Ministry 16 Feb rejected allegations during meeting with U.S. Ambassador. Police 4 Feb arrested former Sri Lankan Airlines Chief Executive Officer Kapila Chandrasena and his wife following new evidence of alleged bribes by Airbus to Sri Lankan Airlines officials under previous Rajapaksa govt; evidence emerged from British court proceedings following 4-year investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption. Police 14 Feb arrested former ambassador to Russia and Rajapaksa relative, Udayanga Weerathunga, for alleged role in fraudulent purchase of Ukrainian MiG fighter jets for Sri Lankan Air Force in 2006; magistrate 16 Feb denied bail after criticising police for apparent attempt to weaken prosecution case. Opposition United National Party parliamentarian Eran Wickremaratne 20 Feb criticised police questioning of several journalists and seizure of their phone records without warrant, accusing govt and police of attempting to frame prominent journalists and officials over Nov 2019 diplomatic incident. Parliamentary Oversight Committee on National Security 20 Feb issued report on potential security reforms to address shortcomings related to 2019 Easter bombings, recommendations include ban of face veils, suspension of registration of political parties on ethnic or religious bases, amendments to Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, and incorporation of madrassas into normal school system under Ministry of Education.

January 2020

Asia

Sri Lanka

Amid high-level visits from Russian, Chinese and U.S. officials, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued to consolidate his power while new arrest of United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian undermined political opposition. President Rajapaksa 3 Jan reiterated his commitment to constitutional reforms to increase presidential mandate under stronger executive system; announcement followed 1 Jan tabling of private member’s bills by pro-govt MP proposing changes to 19th amendment increase presidential powers; govt hoping parliamentary elections expected in April will give it two-thirds majority required to amend constitution. Authorities 4 Jan arrested opposition UNP member Ranjan Ramanayake over possession of unlicensed firearm; in search of his home, police discovered recorded conversations of Ramanayake discussing ongoing legal cases with police and judges, urging strong action against former Rajapaksa govt officials. Subsequent leaking of recordings to media undermined public credibility of UNP and used to support new govt claims its key members were victims of unjust investigations; President Rajapaksa 9 Jan appointed commission of inquiry to investigate cases of “political victimisation” by various anti-corruption units under former UNP-led govt. Cabinet 2 Jan withdrew draft Counter Terrorism Act which previous govt had submitted to parliament in order to replace controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act with more human rights compliant legislation. In official visit to Sri Lanka, Chinese FM Wang Yi 13 Jan encouraged greater economic ties between two countries, highlighted desire for increased cooperation on Belt and Road initiative and Colombo Port City projects. Russian FM Sergei Lavrov 14 Jan announced support to improve Sri Lanka’s defence capacity against “threats posed by terrorism, violent extremism, illicit drugs trafficking and other transnational organised crimes” during visit to Colombo. U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells also visited Sri Lanka 13-14 Jan, said negotiations over Millennium Challenge Corporation funding would resume after committee appointed by Rajapaksa reviews earlier draft agreed with UNP-led govt.

December 2019

Asia

Sri Lanka