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The political situation in Sri Lanka: April 2022

It is apt that this editorial discusses and analyses the unprecedented political situation Sri Lanka faces at the moment. An unprecedented economic crisis has shaken Sri Lanka with the price of essential goods and fuel and electricity shortages. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s popularity has plunged to rock bottom and the Rajapaksa family’s grip on power in Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly unstable. The crisis is ongoing and evolving constantly and each day brings a new angle and dimension to it. This editorial analyses three areas pertaining to the current political situation in Sri Lanka: its economic dimension, the people’s protests, and the ruling dynasty.

The economic dimension: The economic crisis as a catalyst for a political crisis

In late 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initiated a tax regime in Sri Lanka which significantly reduced government revenue, even as its benefits were not experienced by the lower-income sections of society. This was implemented just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka. The pandemic stalled tourism and generated a series of lockdowns which severely affected the Sri Lankan economy. This dramatically reduced Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves. This made it difficult for the nation to stay afloat and manage its economy. Coupled with this was the country’s foreign debt problem which had been in the making for a couple of decades at least. Sri Lanka has engaged in unsustainable debt practices, from commercial lenders to bilateral partners such as China and India at commercial rates. It is unclear to the ordinary citizens of the country how this debt is going to be serviced.

So what does this say about the economic situation in the country? Sri Lanka’s $81 Billion economy is under severe pressure. Unemployment, in particular, youth unemployment is at a record high. Overall economic growth is low and inflation is rising rapidly. This results in increasing prices of essential food and medicines. The Rajapaksa government has since raised interest rates and devalued the Sri Lankan Rupee, while continuing its latest policy of curbing non-essential imports. Consumer prices in Sri Lanka rose nearly 19% in March 2022, from a year earlier. This is the highest rate for Asia, after a 15% jump in February 2022. This dire economic crisis, unprecedented in the nation’s history, has triggered a feeling of anger and resentment towards the Rajapaksa family and incumbent government. The feeling among a core section of the electorate is that the ruling administration is mismanaging the economy and destroying Sri Lanka’s future and potential.

Protests: The people spill-over onto the streets

Sri Lankans are finding themselves in increasingly difficult living and social conditions. Since the start of March 2022, Sri Lankan homes and companies have experienced daily power cuts which have been highly gruelling and have had a significant impact on productivity and efficiency. There has also been a petrol/fuel shortage which continues even at present, with long lines of people queuing up outside petrol stations to acquire a supply of fuel.

The street protests that have developed in Sri Lanka during this time have three broad dimensions. First, it is important to understand that the bulk of the protestors comprise the youth. These youth, many of whom are struggling with unemployment and their future hopes and aspirations being dashed by the impact of the crisis, are demanding the resignation of both the President and Prime Minister.

The second dimension is the media. Media coverage and portrayal of the waves of protests in Sri Lanka have been largely sympathetic to the protestors, fuelling increasing unpopularity of the Rajapaksa government. Most media (both local and international) have supported the protest movement by granting it widespread coverage and turning it into a global phenomenon. In fact Sri Lanka is now becoming a focal point throughout the world for anti-government protest movements, fuelled largely by economic and governance issues.

The third dimension to the protests is the Rajapaksa family and the connection between the protest movements and the political situation in Sri Lanka. The protesters’ demands have largely been clear and focused, calling on the Rajapaksa family to resign from Sri Lankan politics and the President and Prime Minister to go home. The “Gota Go Home” hashtag has been trending on Twitter. However, President Gotabaya holds sweeping Executive powers under the 20th constitutional amendment and his removal is not going to be straightforward.

Are Sri Lankans getting ready to remove the Rajapaksa regime from power once and for all?

The Rajapaksa family is among the most controversial and polarizing political families in Sri Lankan history. On April 6th 2022, the Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando told Parliament that President Gotabaya will not resign from his post under any circumstances. The political impasse in Sri Lanka is therefore evident. There is a clear clash between the people and the Rajapaksa family. A significant part of the citizenry, including those who voted for the current regime, are now calling on the Rajapaksas to leave. The protestors appear adamant and are unlikely to relax their demands.

On the other side of the tunnel, the Rajapaksas also appear adamant that they will not resign or leave their government posts. The legal route to impeaching and removing the President is fraught with obstacles and is going to be very difficult. Efforts to oust the Rajapaksas are gathering momentum both inside the Parliament and on the streets. None of this will be easy or straightforward and the Rajapaksa family in likely aware of this too. They are likely to exploit every card they have to stay in charge, at whatever costs, including through the use of force and deploying the military and police to maintain order. The current political situation is therefore highly volatile and dangerous, with the possibility of increasing bloody clashes between protestors and the security forces.

In conclusion, the political situation in Sri Lanka is very concerning indeed. In a nutshell the scenario can be summarized as a clash between the people and the all-powerful Rajapaksa family which will stop at nothing to retain and maintain their rule. The protestors are managing to maintain momentum. But the Rajapaksa regime is a ruthless one which will not hesitate to use force to crush and quell protests.

In fact, the family has form in this area, being responsible for the murder of countless high-profile journalists and the brutal and controversial manner in which the 2009 civil war against the Tamil Tigers was ended. Will Sri Lanka’s protestors face a similar fate? Or will they be strong enough to once and for all oust the Rajapaksa regime from Sri Lanka’s politics. There is no clear answer to these difficult questions and each minute the crisis evolves. Whatever happens in the end, it is clear that every single citizen of Sri Lanka will be grappling with very difficult political questions throughout the days, weeks, and months to come.