By The Guardian. 6 Apr 2022
Explainer: Anger over the economic crisis and the government’s handling of the situation has led to unrest
Unprecedented shortages of food and fuel along with record inflation and blackouts have inflicted widespread misery in Sri Lanka’s most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
Anger over the economic crisis and the government’s handling of the situation has led to unrest. Last week the president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, declared a national emergency after violent protests and calls for him to resign. That order was lifted on Tuesday as political turmoil intensified and the ruling party further lost its grip on power.
Where are the protests?
Demonstrations have spread across the country of 22 million people, despite the emergency laws. Since the weekend, crowds have attempted to storm the homes of several senior government officials, and public frustration is at a fever pitch.
“If we don’t act now, there will be a river of blood in the country,” said Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, a newly independent lawmaker who broke ranks with the president’s party and joined calls for the leader to step down.
Many of the protests have been peaceful, with Catholic clergy and nunsleading a procession in the capital.
“This is a valuable country with intelligent people. But our intelligence, the people’s intelligence, has been insulted by corruption,” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said. “Therefore now we call out … please now listen to the cry of the people and step down.”
What is the political situation?
The unrest and dissatisfaction with the government led to Sri Lanka’s entire cabinet apart from the president and his sibling prime minister resigning from their posts this week. Rajapaksa sought to form a unity government as public unrest surged over the ruling family’s handling of the economy. His once-powerful coalition is in turmoil after a string of defections, capped by the new finance minister’s resignation just one day after taking office.
Rajapaksa revoked a state of emergency late on Tuesday after dozens of lawmakers walked out of the ruling coalition, leaving his government in a minority in parliament. The move was aimed at avoiding a vote on the extraordinary laws in parliament where the government is five short of the 113 seats required for a simple majority.
What will happen next?
Politically, the possible next steps could include the appointment of a new prime minister replacing the president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, or snap parliamentary elections way ahead of a scheduled vote in 2025.
Although the government is now in a minority, there has been no clear signal that opposition legislators will attempt a no-confidence motion to topple it immediately. However, opposition parties have already rebuffed Rajapaksa’s call to join a unity administration led by him and his brother.
Nimal Lanza, a former minister who has also abandoned Rajapaksa’s administration, conceded that the ruling party no longer had a mandate to govern.
“I beg and appeal to you to take the side of the protesters,” he told parliament, addressing the prime minister, who attended the session but remained silent.
How bad is the economic crisis?
A critical lack of foreign currency has left Sri Lanka struggling to service its ballooning $51bn foreign debt, with the pandemic torpedoing vital revenue from tourism and remittances. There have been unprecedented shortages as a result, with no sign of an end to the economic woes.
Economists say Sri Lanka’s crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.
The foreign exchange shortage forced the government to announce the closure of three of its diplomatic missions in Norway, Iraq and Australia. Three others, in Nigeria, Germany and Cyprus, were shut in January.
A doctors’ body also told the government there was an acute shortage of medicines that could collapse the health system. “Failure to assure a continuous and adequate supply of essential medical drugs will lead to collapse of the entire health system,” it told the health ministry in a letter. “This will create a life-threatening situation to our citizens who are already facing an unprecedented crisis situation,” the Government Medical Officers Association said.
Has the international community responded?
During the protests in the capital, more than 60 people have been arrested in connection with unrest and many have said they were tortured in police custody.
The UN Human Rights Council said it was closely watching the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka, which is already facing international censure over its human rights record.
“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,” the UNHRC said.