Democracy is known as a system ‘by the people, for the people, and of the people’. If a democracy deviates from this principle, it could bring disasters, as happened in Sri Lanka on 09 July 2022. On that day, thousands of protesters stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office, secretariat, and the personal house of the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In two and half years, the democratically elected President of Sri Lanka was forced to resign.
The protestors, who came from different parts of Sri Lanka to Colombo, had demanded the resignation of both the President and Prime Minister for failing to manage the economic crisis, overseeing pervasive corruption, and living luxuriously while the commoners struggled to get food, fuel, fertilizer, and other essentials. They also demanded an all-party interim government barring the current corrupt political leader, and the drafting of a new constitution to get rid of the presidential system. Although both the President and the PM announced to resign by 13 July, the protesters say they will continue to occupy the president’s office until both formally do.
There is a general understanding that the financial crisis developed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, rising oil prices, and the 2021 ban on import of chemical fertilizers that devastated agriculture. The problems were compounded by growing debt which was rooted in corruption perpetrated by President Gotabaya, other members of the Rajapaksa family, and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Inflation had soared to 54.6 percent by the end of June 2022. The island ran out of foreign exchange to import fuel.
Media reports indicate that the protests were spontaneous. The involvement of opposition parties or any other political entities was not seen. The movement gradually picked up with the support of civil society actors—like Aragalaya (a loose alliance of like-minded people) and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL)—who initially organized small street protests in front of local administrative offices. As the government failed to manage the economic crisis and citizens across the social spectrum, including government and security personnel, were affected by shortage of essentials, various trade unions joined the civil society to make the public voice louder and build pressure. Nearly 1,000 unions from a number of sectors had allegedly joined the protests under the theme ‘Gota go home’.
The peaceful movement garnered further public and student support in May 2022, when President Gotabaya refused to resign and initiated military action against peaceful demonstrators. Eight people were killed and over 200 civilians were wounded as weeks of demonstrations escalated into bloody clashes between those supporting and opposing the government. In a Twitter message opposition leader Sajith Premadasa observed that the violent unrest had been orchestrated on 09 May 2022 as a pretext for a coup. “In the guise of angry mobs, violence is being incited so the military rule can be established.”
When mainstream political parties were afraid of openly extending support to these protestors due to their negative public perception, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Front-Line Socialist Party-FLSP (Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya), a dissident offshoot of the JVP, played a key role in mobilizing trade and student unions respectively.
In the second week of April, the JVP declared a massive public march for three days from 17 April to support the ongoing protest. JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said at a press conference: “We are ready to give a new impetus to the struggle and turn it into a people’s power that will end victoriously”. The JVP utilized its association with senior leaders of trade unions of various government sectors.
Although the JVP and FLSP had many operational and ideological differences, anti-government public sentiments gave them an opportunity to build trust among the public by mobilizing their cadres. The citizen groups did not oppose JVP and FLSP cadres’ presence as they were thought of as relatively less corrupt in comparison to other major political parties and they had never formed a government in Colombo. Moreover, as the JVP-affiliated trade unions had limited capacity to organize massive rallies due to the higher age profile of t cadres, the FLSP, which has good control over colleges and university student unions, mobilized students.
The July 09 anti-corruption protest has pushed Sri Lanka into political instability and uncertainty, which would aggravate the ongoing economic crisis. First, neither the President nor the Prime Minister has directly announced resignation. Their decision was rather conveyed through the speaker of the Parliament. There have been speculations in Sri Lanka that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would be waiting till the resignation of President Gotabaya, which would automatically make him President.
Second, if both the leaders resign, then the speaker of Parliament would be appointed as acting President and the parliament would vote for a new President within 30 days. Third, opposition party leaders have so far failed to find a consensus candidate to lead the interim government. At the same time, the main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), has been negotiating with other smaller parties to make Sajith Premadasa the President.
Fourth, as the public has set up a new criteria—a non-corrupt, morally and ethically committed person—for the next government head, and the public finds all political leaders corrupt, there is no guarantee that an opposition-led new government would be acceptable to the protestors.
Lastly, in the absence of a credible people’s representative in Sri Lanka, global economic institutions would take time to offer any economic bailout. Sri Lanka has $50 billion in external debt and needs to pay $28 billion by 2027.
The anti-corruption agitation could spread to other countries. A Sri Lanka-like situation could happen to any country struggling to cope with the double whammy of Covid-19 and Ukraine. Countries that depend on tourism, remittance, external energy, and smaller economies appear especially vulnerable. Many SAARC countries have had a difficult time post-Covid-19. Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal have been struggling to maintain their forex level for the import of oil and other essential items.
Moreover, the negative impacts of Covid-19 and Ukraine are not going to end soon. In that case, the economic problems of smaller SAARC countries could aggravate and some could witness political instability if public sentiments are not addressed on time.
The author is a Research Fellow with MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Views are personal