Friday, December 02, 2022

As discontent spreads through the streets, ‘civilizational crisis’ in crumbling Sri Lanka marks a watershed moment

The situation in Sri Lanka is complicated. With civil unrest, severe economic crisis, political instability and now the standoff between the people and the administration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the island country is experiencing an unusual standoff. The road ahead to Lanka is difficult; not only does it need to relieve itself of the economic crisis, it also needs to rebuild brick by brick.


“What Sri Lanka is going through is a crisis of civilization, which has given people the opportunity to reimagine a new system of government and a new Sri Lanka,” said Sunil Wijesiriwardane, a popular civil rights activist and academic based in Colombo. .

Wijesiriwardane explained that Rajapaksa must step down and make way for a new legitimate government that will not only help rebuild Sri Lanka but also build a relationship with other countries to secure monetary assistance.

“The economy is in a very critical situation right now. This is not just a political crisis. The future of Sri Lanka is in the hands of the new government and this needs to be formed as soon as possible to save the country from further collapse,” he said.

Wijesiriwardane added that people from civil society have been asking for the present waiver to agree to form an interim government within the next six months. The demand is for two important things: one is to find a solution to alleviate the current economic situation and the second is to form an interim government and secure general elections within six months.

“However, people like me have understood that Parliament will not reach an agreement, at least not easily. There should be the formation of a popular civil forum and a popular charter,” added the academic.

“This is nothing less than a revolution, it is civil society revolting and seeking a new, fair and strong government, different from the one that has been run by political ‘bandits’. You saw the number of people on the streets. That’s just a small percentage. If the push happens, the situation could change drastically,” explained another resident who previously worked with the government and requested anonymity.

Millions gathered as protesters stormed the official homes of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and set fire to one of the buildings to mark their desperation. But Sri Lankan political observers monitoring the situation said this was about to happen, as the Rajapaksa brothers, despite losing public confidence, were determined to remain in power.

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News18 learned that on Sunday, opposition political parties met and agreed on a new government.

A leader of the opposition United Popular Force, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, confirmed that meetings of the opposition parties are underway – including the group of 40 lawmakers who split from Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition and sat as independents in Parliament.

Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, a member of the National Tamil Alliance of Sri Lanka, made it clear that the Opposition has been gathering support and could easily garner a majority in Parliament. They would need to show 113 members to overthrow Rajapaksa and install a new government. However, they hope to establish a new government before the Rajapaksas’ resignations are accepted. Pressure has been mounting on both brothers as the economic crisis has led to shortages of essentials including food, fuel and energy.

According to Professor Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri of the University of Colombo, the political crisis has several layers. He feels that creating a lasting government will not be an easy task.

“The elephant in the room is the economic crisis. Even if you manage to control the political situation, unless the economic crisis is addressed, it will be difficult to control people’s discontent and yesterday was the culmination of that emotion,” he said.

Professor Dewasiri further notes that the dominance of Rajapaksa’s party has completely disappeared and it will be difficult for one group to obtain an absolute majority in Sri Lanka.

“There is a big break between the established political elite that dominates Parliament and the struggle of the masses. The mood among the main actors of the masses is that they are talking about systemic change, they are looking for fundamental system change and not cosmetic change. The bottom line is that the expectation on the ground is very high. Satisfying your ambitions is an extremely difficult task. The political elite that dominates Parliament thinks that, by guaranteeing minimal reforms and superficial changes to the Constitution, they can remain in power. That’s not possible. The political party system has completely disappeared,” explains Professor Dewasiri.


One of the main factors that led to Sri Lanka’s rapid decline after the Covid-19 pandemic was the attitude that the Rajapaksa government took towards the economy. Colombo political economist Sumanasiri Liyanage spoke to News18 about his perspective on the economic situation in the island country.

He feels that Sri Lanka is facing an “exaggerated economic crisis” and the issue has arisen from “sheer mismanagement”. According to the expert, the government was not prepared to assume the economic situation and resolve it. “This could have easily been done a year or six months ago. Now, some radical action needs to be taken,” Liyanage told News18.

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According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s 2021 report, Liyanage says that Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings were around US$19.5 billion last year and external expenditures, including imports of goods and services, amounted to around US$19.5 billion. about US$ 20.5 billion.

The country has been in continuous deficit since 1977, but managed with the help of generous grants and low concessional loans. After 2000 it stopped. In 2007, Sri Lanka sold its first international sovereign bond worth US$500 billion and this has helped the economy and been the main source of foreign exchange reserves that the country has.

“We have enough money to import all the necessary items. According to the Central Bank report, we spent only US$ 882 million on medicines, US$ 3,700 million on fuel, industrial and agricultural imports worth US$ 8,000 million and another US$ 500 million on essential foods such as rice, wheat, lentil etc. to the essential minimum, we can even achieve a positive trade balance”, believes Liyanage.

Professor Dewasiri noted that when the pandemic hit the economy severely, Rajapaksas acted as if there was no such crisis. “They claimed to be in control of the situation and even government spokespeople made public statements claiming that things were under control when it was not true,” he said.


While the situation is still volatile, those on the ground are confused about what will happen next. According to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, in the absence of the president, the prime minister can be sworn in as the country’s temporary president. But in this case, with the president and prime minister being forced to step down, President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will take over as temporary president.

Wickremesinghe was named prime minister two months ago after his predecessor, Mahindra Rajapaksa, was forced to step down amid calls for resignation and a deepening economic crisis in the country. Wickremesinghe’s appointment was an effort to resolve shortages and start economic recovery, but it clearly failed.

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