Tag Archives sri lanka

Sri Lanka’s Disastrous 2022 Ends With A Sliver Of Optimism – Analysis

Last year, Sri Lanka faced its worst economic crisis to date, accompanied by political upheaval that left its population reeling as they struggled to make ends meet. In this article, Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits briefly outlines how things played out in 2022, showing that while the crisis has had a devastating impact on the country’s stability and prosperity, 2023 signals a time for action – and change.

Protesters in front of Sri Lanka's Presidential Secretariat. Photo Credit: Jayanidu Nilupul, Wikipedia Commons

Sri Lanka entered 2022 beset by economic crisis and political upheaval. The economic crisis culminated in Sri Lanka defaulting on payment for the first time. This led to the government being completely cut off from most sources of international funding, including from official multilateral and international commercial sources.

The government’s effort to blame its debt default on the lost revenue from tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased fuel prices resulting from the war in Ukraine did not carry much weight. One analyst stated that ‘this is the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis of which I know’.

Although many Sri Lankans did not understand what default meant, the effects of the crisis were keenly felt. The foreign currency crunch that followed progressively restricted imports of food, fuel, fertiliser, medicine and other essentials. By August 2022, the annual inflation rate had reached nearly 70 per cent and inflation of food prices had reached nearly 85 per cent — the sixth highest food inflation in the world. 750,000 people have already fallen into poverty. One UNICEF report shows that the food crisis has already taken its toll on young mothers and newborn babies.

The economic crisis has also hit the previously well-off middle class, who now struggle to eat their usual three meals a day. In rural areas, heartbreaking stories have emerged of children fainting at schools because they have not had breakfast. The emergency aid, including food and fertiliser, received from the World Bank, UN World Food Program, Australia and India, was not enough to feed everyone. Food shortages were exacerbated by declining local agricultural output.

Urban Sri Lanka became plagued by lengthy queues for fuel and food, with Sri Lankans waiting under the scorching sun and in torrential downpours. The crisis triggered mass protests by thousands of people from all walks of life. The main protest slogan, GotaGoGama (Gota go home), pointed toward former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal responsibility for governing Sri Lanka directly into a crisis and demanded his resignation.

The mass resignation of cabinet ministers jeopardised the former president’s attempt to cling on to power. As a last resort, he formed an all-party government, but this lacked support from other politicians who were aware of the political costs of taking part. Still, the former president showed no sign of stepping down and instead made his brother, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resign.

Before resigning in May, former prime minister Rajapaksa wasted no time mobilising his political supporters to attack peaceful protesters outside his home and at the main protest site, Galle Face Green. The anti-government protesters retaliated by targeting the Rajapaksa supporters’ properties and businesses. Some went even further by burning down the Rajapaksa family’s ancestral home and a museum honouring their parents. In response the state rolled out a variety of repressive measures, including Sunday curfews, social media blackouts, tear gas and water cannons. Presidential orders prohibited any public gathering and protest leaders were arrested.

The peak period of protests from March to July was followed by a massive anti-government march held at Galle Face Green in Colombo on 9 July. Gotabaya Rajapaksa finally fled the country and sent his resignation from Singapore via email on 14 July. As the former president fled his residence, people flocked to occupy it. Some even had a dip in the presidential swimming pool and took selfies while relaxing in the president’s bed.

In the absence of the president, the perpetually unpopular Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president, under Article 37 (1) of the Constitution. This was announced via an extraordinary gazette notification. Sometimes nicknamed ‘the Eel’ (Aanda) for his ability to glide through any political trap, Wickremesinghe’s dream of becoming president finally came true amid Sri Lanka’s worst nightmare.

The public legitimacy of Wickremesinghe’s rule was immediately clouded. While Wickremesinghe was appointed via a parliamentary process according to Articles 40(1) (a) and 40(1) (c) of the Constitution, there have been allegations that the exiting president paid bribes to lawmakers to secure parliamentary approval for Wickremesinghe’s appointment.

Wickremesinghe has managed to bring slight relief to the people as fuel, electricity, medicine and food items have slowly begun to be replenished. Wickremesinghe’s poor reputation among conservative voters, who widely considered him to be an elitist, Western-style cosmopolitan, was dropped — at least for now — when he secured a bailout package from the IMF by flaunting his liberal sensibilities. Wickremesinghe secured a commitment from Japan to lead the debt restructuring talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, which are essential to secure a US$2.9 billion bailout package from the IMF. Even a subtle attempt to push Wickremesinghe under the bus any time soon will likely provoke a relapse toward another crisis.

2023 comes with some concerns over the conditions on government spending that an IMF bailout will entail, as well as hope for the opportunities it will provide to promote financial stability. One can expect fewer angry protests in 2023, as the cross-class spirit of Aragalaya (Revolution) has already begun to wane since Wickremesinghe started laying the ground work for rescuing the economy and disciplining society.

As global calls for ‘debt justice’ continue to gather momentum, there is an opportunity for Sri Lankans to take the lead in this emerging movement by rekindling their past ‘Aragalaya’ spirit and channelling it towards the global political arena.

This blog was first published in East Asia Forum.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is an Assistant Professor in conflict and peace studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.


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Sri Lankan President Sirisena’s political war on drugs by Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s answer to drug-related crimes is bringing back the death penalty. According to recent reports, international drug smugglers are increasingly turning to Sri Lanka as a transit hub in Asia, while drug-related arrests are on the rise. The question is whether the war on drugs is winnable and whether the death penalty will help. Framing the anti-narcotics efforts as a war has been a selling point for the public who are getting weary of everyday drug abusers and dealers.

On 26 June 2019, Sirisena signed death warrants for four prisoners serving sentences for drug-related crimes. His signature brought an end to a 43-year moratorium on the death penalty which begun following a final capital punishment case in 1976.

Sirisena’s return to the death penalty has provoked mixed responses. Some point out that Sirisena cannot present evidence to show that the death penalty can save future generations from the scourge of narcotics and drug trafficking. His attempt to link an undisclosed drug mafia with the April 2019 Easter bombings did not prove convincing for most observers. The claim was flatly contradicted by a Special Presidential Committee appointed to probe the Easter attacks and statements issued by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. As Sirisena’s arch rival in politics, Wickremesinghe points the finger at home-grown jihadists. Linking drugs with terrorism is a familiar fable in the history of war in Sri Lanka.

Fearing that he might lose the support of his own government, President Sirisena has announced that he will declare a day of ‘national mourning’ if the government does not agree to his reinstatement of capital punishment or seeks to abolish it. For many in Sri Lankan politics, whatever the scale of the drug problem at hand, bringing back capital punishment for drug offences sounds like an over-reaction.

Legal experts point to pitfalls in the road ahead. Reinstating the death penalty requires approval both from an extremely divided national legislature and the Supreme Court. Their legal–moral appeal seems to have had some effect on Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala–Buddhist population. But the President’s efforts to convince the public by citing blessings he received from a number of Buddhist clergymen have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Sirisena’s move to bring back the death penalty is not out of character. Almost immediately after being sworn into office in 2015, Sirisena started a morality-inspired war against narcotics. He launched an anti-drug elite task force and increased police powers to deal with drug offenders. An island-wide anti-drug awareness campaign led to the establishment of thousands of committees in schools and villages to combat drugs. Yet in December 2018, Sri Lanka voted in favour of a final moratorium on the death penalty at the United Nations General Assembly. This vote was retracted just six months later. The background to this turn is developing dynamics in Colombo’s political settlement and the huge political stakes involved in the gamble to bring back capital punishment.

Sirisena has tied the war to his personal as well as political agenda. Like his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the ‘war against terrorism’, Sirisena wants to go down in history for having saved Sri Lanka in the war on drugs. One can attribute President Sirisena’s toughness and bravado of his resolve to an inspirational meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in January 2019. This ‘toughness’ is an effort to politically re-brand himself as stronger and more powerful than Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a competitor in the December presidential elections.

As a former defence secretary, Rajapaksa has already earned a reputation for being ‘tough on crime’. Contrary to Rajapaksa’s hard-man political image, Sirisena is often depicted as softly spoken and temple-worshipping — an ordinary man of the village. Although Sirisena has yet to officially declare his intention to contest the presidency, his decision to bring back the death penalty could be a sign that he is preparing such an announcement. Reinforcing a reputation for ‘toughness’ is vital for Sirisena given his rapidly declining public approval ratings following the disastrous Easter bombings.

The question is whether the war on drugs is winnable and whether the death penalty will help. Framing the anti-narcotics efforts as a war has been a selling point for the public who are getting weary of everyday drug abusers and dealers. Considerable political momentum was created by the ending of almost 25 years of civil war, and people are accustomed to the warfare frame of reference.

As intended, the reintroduction of the death penalty received the expected reaction from local and international civil society organisations, the United Nations and Western governments — the so-called ‘coalition of enemies’ of the majority Sinhala–Buddhist constituency. Ultimately Sirisena’s political fate will depend on this constituency, which so far seems supportive of his gambit.

Although there are no clear signs that Sirisena will be re-elected, he is making small gains by drawing political attention to himself, while distracting the electoral mass away from compelling issues of national security and economic development. Sirisena’s choice of battleground has been executed with almost military precision, reminding us of Clauzewitz’s claim that ‘war is politics by other means’.

This article was originally published by the East Asia Forum.

About the author: 


Dr. Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is an Assistant Professor in Conflict and Peace Studies at ISS/Erasmus University Rotterdam. She holds a PhD in Development Studies from  the ISS and an MA in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding from Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia, USA. Her current research agenda covers a wide variety of themes including, security sector reform, challenges of post-conflict transition and diaspora politics.