Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 493, 6 April 2022

Sri Lanka: The economic woes spiral into a political crisis
Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare

Sri Lanka: The economic woes spiral into a political crisis
In the news
On 1 April 2021, Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency following protests over the economic crisis. In his  address, he said: "At this crucial juncture the country needs stability to weather the current financial crisis and difficulties."

On 5 April, the government lost its majority in the Parliament, following a series of resignations by the Parliamentarians, from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its alliance partner, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). Earlier, the Cabinet ministers also handed over their resignations, and most of the political parties withdrew their support to the ruling party to remain independent within the Parliament.

On 5 April, the President revoked the emergency. During the week, people's protests were being held island-wide, with the citizens demanding the President resign over the severe economic crisis. On the protests, UN Human Rights Chief said: "the drift towards militarisation and the weakening of institutional checks and balances in Sri Lanka have affected the State's ability to effectively tackle the economic crisis."

Issues at large
First, the state of emergency. An extraordinary gazette notification was issued on 1 April, which can only be implemented in a situation of "exceptional threat, danger, or disaster" in order to secure "national security, public order, and undisrupted essential services." The emergency was declared on the heels of discontented citizens gathering outside the President's residence in a Colombo suburb on 31 March, demanding he step down immediately. The protest turned violent when the riot squads and the special task force members used rubber bullets and batons to disperse the angry crowds. Further repression came in the form of an island-wide curfew being implemented on 2 April, with an extraordinary gazette being issued on the same day prohibiting the people from gathering in public spaces. A social media ban was implemented at midnight and lasted for over 15 hours, which was put in place to maintain public order. 

Second, the protests. Non-partisan people's protests have been ongoing for over a month, which intensified last week as the people were forced to endure a 13-hour-long power cut on 31 March. People took to the streets in spite of the curfew and being aware that they could be arrested without a warrant under the emergency regulations. However, an interesting development was that in most cases, the protesting public were not deterred by law enforcement officers. The slogan "Gota Go Home" has been taken up by the masses, as they demand the President to step down and to be held accountable for the current crisis. Some of the protesters surrounded the residencies of several Cabinet Ministers, demanding that they resign as well. 

Third, the political crisis, following resignations. With the growing public dissent, all Ministers of the Cabinet resigned from their posts on 4 April. However, many experts questioned the constitutionality of this move; according to Article 49 of the Constitution, the Cabinet will not stand dissolved as long as the Prime Minister continues to hold office. A Cabinet reshuffle was done on the same day, with former Justice Minister Ali Sabry being appointed as the new Finance Minister. However, he handed over his resignation the next day. Similarly, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka also handed over his resignation saying: "In the context of all Cabinet Ministers resigning, I have today submitted my resignation." In the meantime, the President invited all political parties representing the Parliament to accept new ministerial posts and assist in resolving the crisis, which was rejected.
The Parliament was reconvened on 5 April, as party leaders agreed to hold a two-day Parliamentary debate over the prevailing situation. As of now, over 40 Ministers have declared that they will leave the government and function independently. This includes Ministers from ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC). Meanwhile, Parliamentary opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa during the Parliamentary session proposed to abolish the Executive Presidency immediately stating: "There should not be a voice that is contrary to the voice on the streets. And the voice is that there should be change. What the people want is for this President and the entire government to step down."

Fourth, the continuing economic crisis. In the backdrop of the growing citizen uprisings are the country's deteriorating economic status. The regular load shedding of electricity continues while people are still queuing outside filling stations for scarce fuel supplies. On 4 April the Sri Lankan Stock Exchange halted trading as the share market plunged 5.9 per cent. The resignation of the Finance Minister comes as a blow in such a situation, as talks for an IMF programme are scheduled to take place in the coming days.

In perspective
First, the public protests have no sign of dying out and continue to grow in strength. This is perhaps the first time in recorded history since the Independence that Sri Lankan masses, despite their ethnicity, religious identity, or social class, have united against the ruling government. The movement is primarily led by the youth, and the public sentiment leans towards rejecting all existing political parties and calling for a complete reform of the current political system.

Second, the uncertain future. At this point, the people have completely lost faith in the Rajapaksa regime. As more MPs declare that they will operate independently, the ruling government has lost the Parliamentary majority. Even if the Rajapaksa regime does step down, the path ahead for Sri Lanka is unknown. The people would still have to deal with the mounting public debt while dealing with more shortages. Even if the talks for an IMF programme become successful, the austerity measures imposed will likely increase the burden on the public. However, Sri Lankan people remain hopeful as they protest for change, searching desperately for a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

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