Sri Lanka in Crisis

Why the Past Lives on in its Collective Future

by Ambika Satkunananthan, 9Dashline, Europe, June 16, 2022

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Ambika Satkunananthan

Sri Lanka is in the throes of an economic and political crisis not hitherto witnessed. The crisis has created instability and resulted in protests that began in March 2022. Citizens’ protests that are not organised by political parties or trade unions are unique in recent Sri Lankan history. The flagship protest site in Colombo, called GotaGoGama, is especially noteworthy due to the diversity of social groups present there. While the current moment is even hailed as revolutionary and one of unity amongst different ethnic and social groups, the narrative around the protests highlights a few elephants in the room that demonstrate the erasures and silences that may derail the potential of this moment.

The military — a sacred entity

One elephant is the government’s massive defence spending, about which no opposition party (except the Tamil political parties) has spoken. In 2021, defence received the highest allocation in the national budget at 373.1 billion rupees — a tremendous increase from the previous year of 33.8 billion rupees, reaching 14.9 per cent of total government expenditure. Defence spending in Sri Lanka is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny and there is little publicly available information on the exact number of military personnel or budgetary allocations to different parts of the military, such as military intelligence.

The reluctance of Sinhala political parties to address this is due to the valorisation of the military, which is viewed as a sacred entity beyond reproach. Further, this is linked to Sinhala political parties seeking to protect the military from any action to address allegations that they violated humanitarian and human rights law during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The other issues are Sri Lanka’s dysfunctional political structures, the culture of patronage and nepotism, the Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state, and discrimination against minorities.

Ignoring history

An absence in the narrative about the protests is the decades-long rights struggle of communities, such as the Tamils, that have challenged the state and particularly the Rajapaksas. For instance, the families of those who were disappeared by successive governments during the armed conflict have been protesting for nearly 2,000 days non-stop, demanding answers specifically from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. These groups’ protests have been subject to surveillance, intimidation, harassment, and threats by security agencies. The ability to protest freely has been rendered a privilege and is shaped by factors such as ethnicity, region and class, particularly when people do not have the safety of numbers.

The determination of the Rajapaksas to stay in power seems partly due to their inability to comprehend protestors’ demands for accountability or to internalise their descent from god-like status to memes and jokes.

Moreover, the apathy shown by the people in Sri Lanka’s north and east towards the protests in the south, or the absence of spontaneous protests in the north and east in support of the #GotaGoHome movement, could be due to the south largely ignoring the northern and eastern communities’ struggles in the past, with negligible media coverage provided in the south. Southern social activists too have done little to engage and encourage southern media to report and amplify these struggles. Even now there is no concerted effort to urge southern media to view historical and long-term issues as part of the current struggle.

Searching for a saviour

Another point of discomfort about the protests is their lack of leadership, which is indicative of the yearning Sri Lankans have for power to be centralised, and for a ‘strong leader’ to save Sri Lanka. This yearning has enabled the creation of a paternalistic, non-rational core of the nation and the cult of personality, whereby the relationship is not one of accountability between the voter and the elected but a relationship between a superior and a subordinate. This is what many young protestors are seeking to change. It probably also illustrates Sri Lankan discomfort with the devolution of power — one of the core demands of the Tamil community, which was dismissed by successive governments and which led to the thirty-year internal armed conflict.

In Sri Lanka, which is a patronage-driven society with a feudal hangover, political leaders are not held to account but are instead treated deferentially as demi-gods. In such a culture, demands for accountability are not regarded as a check on elected representatives but are viewed with disbelief and outrage by politicians. The determination of the Rajapaksas to stay in power seems partly due to their inability to comprehend protestors’ demands for accountability or to internalise their descent from god-like status to memes and jokes.

Looking back to move forward

Post-colonial Sri Lanka has witnessed numerous efforts to reform the state and restructure constitutional and institutional arrangements. Yet in each instance, reform attempts have taken place only at the convenience of the executive for gaining political advantage and/or at the behest of international bilateral or multilateral institutions or processes. Reform in Sri Lanka has therefore often been reactive rather than proactive and has adopted a ‘leave-for-later’ approach toward addressing the root causes of socio-political and economic problems. The same is taking place now.

Particularly in post-war contexts plagued by ethno-nationalist politics, institutional reform must take into account the structures of entrenched discrimination and marginalisation that are invisible when viewed through a purely legal lens. For example, the draft 21st Amendment to the Constitution tabled by the main opposition party (the Samagi Jana Balaya, SJB), aims to reverse the 20th Amendment, which undermined the independence of public institutions and the separation of powers in Sri Lanka, and essentially allowed the president to exercise unfettered power.

However, the SJB-drafted 21st Amendment has a National Security Council (NSC) that includes the Attorney-General as a member. The Attorney-General’s office is already not independent because it functions both as an advisor to the government and as a public prosecutor. For decades, this has been the main reason for the failure to prosecute wartime human rights violations and extended incarceration of persons under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This has adversely impacted Tamils and later Muslims as well. Hence, their membership in the NSC would only create more instances of conflicts of interest.

After Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation, which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hoped would appease the protestors, the president rejected opposition parties’ offers to accept the prime minister position himself and establish a national/multi-party government. Instead, he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe — a critical juncture in the protests because Wickremesinghe is known to be a friend of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Since Mahinda is the brother of the current president, Wickremesinghe is viewed as likely to enable the president to remain in power. However, the elite and middle classes also consider him capable of rescuing Sri Lanka from the economic crisis. Therefore, since Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister, calls have increased for the protests to end and for political reforms (such as the abolition of the executive presidency) to be ‘left for later’ in the interests of stability.

In this context, we must be aware that the mere removal of the Rajapaksas, the passing of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, or the abolition of the executive presidency alone, will not change the way Sri Lanka’s institutions and persons in public office function. To capitalise on the current moment — in which the public increasingly demands accountability from elected representatives, and questions entrenched systems of discrimination and corruption — Sri Lanka and the international community need to address the root causes and the elephants in the room. If we fail to do that, like many other points in Sri Lankan history, this moment will only be yet another lost opportunity.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of the platform.

Author biography

Ambika Satkunanathan is an Open Society Fellow (2020-2021). Previously, she was a Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (2015-2020), and has also functioned as the Legal Advisor to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Ambika is Vice Chairperson of Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific, a regional feminist grant-making organisation, and holds a Master of Laws (Human Rights) degree from the University of Nottingham. 

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