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Anti-regime protests in Sri Lanka: Causes and likely outcomes

Sri Lanka has recently been struck by a wave of mass protests and demonstrations throughout the country, in anger at the incumbent Rajapaksa administration led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. On Thursday night, March 31, thousands of protestors gathered outside the President’s house in Mirihana. Protestors stormed barricades and there were clashes between the protestors and police, as  police fired tear gas and water cannons at the protestors. There were reports of police and army vehicles being damaged, although it remains contested as to whether such property damage were caused by protestors or actors external to these protests.

The Mirihana protest catalysed similar protests in other parts of the country, creating a highly volatile situation and a difficult political situation. This editorial will analyse two areas pertaining to protests in Sri Lanka in April 2022 and make a concluding remark on the overall state and/or efficacy of continuing to protest in Sri Lanka.

The economic crisis as a vehicle fuelling the protest movement

The Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a nation-wide emergency on Friday, April 1st 2022, following protests in response to the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has at present manifested itself in two ways.

Firstly, it has led to a series of rolling blackouts in the country, with island-wide power cuts imposed in various parts of the country. The electricity shortages have provoked widespread anger among Sri Lankans in all provinces of the country, creating immeasurable difficulties for employees and companies to operate. The other lens of the crisis is the food and fuel shortages and the increase in prices of essential food commodities such as milk, rice, and sugar. Ordinary Sri Lankans are also dealing with increasing inflation and a highly-depleted exchange rate as a result of soaring international debt and a weak national economy. These conditions are fuelling anger and resentment among the ordinary public, targeted at the incumbent Rajapaksa administration. The economic crisis is a fallout of misgovernance, compounded by the country’s lucrative tourism industry and foreign worker remittances being sapped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Sri Lanka is rising daily. Throughout the country, university graduates, students, and others are finding it impossible to find a paying job that will allow them to support themselves and their families. The official national unemployment rate stands at 4.6%. However, this figure has to be viewed critically since it does not account for all the different types of unemployment that persist in the Sri Lankan economy: these include cyclical unemployment, structural unemployment, and frictional unemployment. Unemployment has a knock-on effect on protest movements as it creates a feeling of anger and desperation which propels people onto the streets and increases anti-government sentiment. In addition, unemployment creates immeasurable financial difficulties for all those caught and locked in the “unemployment trap”, reducing the health of the labour market, denting economic progress, and creating a stagnation scenario. Addressing the unemployment situation in Sri Lanka is therefore critical.

In conclusion, the situation in relation to protests in Sri Lanka looks very worrying indeed. One could draw an analogy between the Arab Spring crisis and the factors that are playing out in Sri Lanka at present: such as high levels of unemployment, weak national financial institutions, and currency- and debt-related issues. Cumulatively, the public response to the situation is manifesting itself in street protests across the country. These protests, vital for the country’s democratic benchmarks, portend instability and chaos in the country’s economic, political, and social landscape. The central question remains: what is the solution to the national economic crisis and the demands of the protests? This is a difficult question, with no single or easy set of answers. Finding an internal solution within a democratic framework will prove challenging, but Sri Lanka has to strive for an inclusive and effective solution immediately. Otherwise, it risks plunging the island nation of 22 million people into further economic and political chaos and a national humanitarian crisis.