Sri Lanka is currently experiencing a profound economic crisis, sparking massive protests around the country. The protests are happening against a backdrop of painful and unresolved aspects of the island’s history, following a civil war that drove and deepened ethnic and religious divisions.
The poorest are the worst affected, but everyone is struggling. There have been huge increases in the costs of food. A kilogram of rice now costs more than Rs205 (£0.46), 38% up on January and nearly double the price of a year ago), while a litre of petrol now costs Rs338 (£0.76), a 90% rise from January). There are severe shortages in these and other basics such as milk powder, cooking gas and medicine.
People have died queuing for hours for essential goods in the tropical heat. Meanwhile, energy shortages have led to power cuts of up to 13 hours a day since February.
As everyday life has become so difficult, anger has built up against the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (“Gota”), part of one of Asia’s most powerful family dynasties, and his government. In reaction to initial protests in March, the president declared a state of emergency and imposed a 36-hour curfew. From April 1 the government attempted a social media blackout, but quickly reversed it after an outcry, and after Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka’s decided that the government didn’t have the authority to force media companies to comply with the order.
The cabinet and wider government are now in turmoil. On April 19, police opened fire on protesters, killing one person and injuring over a dozen.
There are widespread demands for the president to resign (“Gota go home”, protesters shout). Gotabaya has been president since 2019 but the family has had held political power for close to 20 years. There are also demands for constitutional change, to end a creeping authoritarianism which has increased presidential powers over parliament and the courts.
The protest movement has steadily grown, with thousands setting up a site in the third week of April, Occupy Galle Face, opposite the president’s office in the capital, Colombo. On April 28, more than 1,000 trade unions took part in a general strike. Others are demanding a complete change in the existing economic system.
The context to all of this is that Sri Lanka is still grappling with the effects of a 26-year civil war which ended in 2009 and sharpened divisions along ethnic and religious fault lines, especially between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and Tamil and Muslim minorities. The war claimed tens of thousands of lives up to the end of 2008 and tens of thousands more during the final few months in 2009. An estimated 20,000 are still missing, many of whom were forcibly disappeared by the government during and after the final part of the war.
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The government blames recent global events for the current problems. The COVID-19 pandemic badly affected earnings from tourism and the Ukraine war has meant fewer tourists from Russia and Ukraine (two of Sri Lanka’s biggest tourism markets). It also hit earnings from tea, the country’s main goods export (Russia is a major buyer). Yet, these are only part of the context.
Government critics highlight catastrophic policy decisions by the current regime since 2019 such as implementing tax cuts that reduced state revenues but did not benefit the poorest; and switching abruptly to organic farming, although farmers warned this could cause over 40% crop reduction.
But contributing factors go back further. From the late 1970s, Sri Lanka opened up its economy and implemented major reforms. These resulted in uneven development across the island, benefiting elites but disadvantaging the wider public, not least because the state failed to invest in agriculture.
Uneven development deepened colonial and postcolonial divisions between the Sinhala majority that controls the state and minority ethnic Tamils, which escalated into civil war from 1983. Thirteen years after the official end of the war, the government continues to spend huge amounts on the military. In addition, Sri Lanka has become increasingly dependent on international finance to service its debt. This situation is common in “emerging economies”, which are especially vulnerable to financial crises.
Today’s protests are the latest part of a saga of struggles for better lives on the island. These include two centuries of resistance by plantation workers; a countrywide strike) in 1953; uprisings in the 1970s by youth in the south and north; feminist peace activism during the civil war; and global mobilisations in 2009 by Tamils protesting wartime atrocities against civilians. The hub of today’s “Occupy Galle Face” is also the site of protests held in 1956.
Today, there is real potential for change but the nature of that change matters. Removing the Rajapaksas from office would have a limited impact on its own. The dynasty was voted out in 2015, only to return in 2019.
A major question is how the protest movement can become truly inclusive. Tamil and Muslim citizens in the north and east have not yet participated much, even though they are severely affected by this economic crisis: these areas have some of the highest district-level poverty rates on the island. Significantly, people in these areas have been protesting against the government for years and voted en masse against Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election. At the end of March, just before demonstrations started in the south, Tamil families of those forcibly disappeared in war were resisting a visit by the Rajapaksas to the north.
There is, then, a shared desire for justice and accountability across the island. The growing movement needs to include both newer mass demands for economic justice and longstanding political demands (for war-related justice; for political rights) by the peoples in the north and east.
Reaching out to build this solidarity is crucial, even though the conversations would not be quick or easy. There are divisions, but the potential to create a mass inclusive movement for change is there.