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What Led to Sri Lanka’s Crisis and Unrest – and Where Does The Country Go From Here?

On the morning of July 9, 2022, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans gathered in front of the country’s Presidential Palace. By the afternoon, they had overwhelmed the guards and entered the grounds. The country’s President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the property and ultimately, the country. 

It was the culmination of a protest movement known as the ‘Aragalaya’ which had been growing for months amidst Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and its leaders’ corrupt, inept response. For the next few days, surreal images were broadcast around the world of Sri Lankan citizens of all stripes milling throughout the Palace, picnicking on its lawns, and swimming in its pool. 

But almost as surprising as the images was how quickly, within weeks, the country seemed to revert to the status quo. 

Or did it? 

On this episode, Dan Richards talks with Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an expert on Sri Lankan politics and founder of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka. He explains where the crisis came from, what led to the surreal protests this summer, and where the Aragalaya goes from here. 

Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: Ireland, Rwanda, Colombia-- what do these places have in common? They all came together after periods of conflict because of peacekeeping efforts led by women. Enter Seeking Peace, a podcast that uplifts the stories of women around the world who are involved in bringing lasting peace to their communities.

Each week, former US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, speaks with on the ground peace builders from places like Cyprus, Mali, and South Sudan, in addition to those leading the charge for peace at the highest level of international politics, the United Nations. Listen to Seeking Peace wherever you get your podcasts.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. Between the fighting in Ukraine and the congressional hearings about the January 6 insurrections, this summer was filled with a lot of dark imagery for American news consumers, which is maybe why for a few days in July, many of us became captivated by a very different expression of civil unrest.

[WATER SPLASHING]

It looked on TV like a combination of a pool party, a school field trip, and a family cookout. Of course, it was much more than that. This all was taking place in the presidential palace in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, just hours after the country's president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had fled the palace and the country.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It was the culmination of a protest movement known as the Aragalaya, which had encompassed a broad and diverse swath of Sri Lanka's citizens. No small feat for a country still recovering from a three-decade long civil war. But almost as surprising as the images of families picnicking on the president's lawn and swimming in his pool, was how quickly within weeks, the country seemed to revert to its status quo for now.

On this episode, an expert on Sri Lankan politics explains where this crisis came from, what led to the surreal protests this summer, and where the Aragalaya goes from here.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

To understand what happened this summer in Sri Lanka, we need to start a little farther back. Because to understand the protests, you need to understand the unique failures of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. And to do that, we really need to start with Gotabaya's brother, Mahinda. Mahinda was the first Rajapaksa to become president of Sri Lanka.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: In Two Thousand Five, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka was in the throes of an ethnic conflict.

DAN RICHARDS: That's Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: I am the founder, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, which is a non-governmental think tank in Sri Lanka, which works on research, but it also does advocacy on questions of governance, conflict transformation from a largely human rights perspective.

DAN RICHARDS: And as Dr. Saravanamuttu was saying, Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in Two Thousand Five of a country that had been at war with itself for over 20 years. The Sri Lankan Civil War was fought largely between the Tamils, an ethnic and religious minority based in the North and East of the country, and the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority. The war started in Nineteen Eighty-Three, but it was a long, complicated conflict with less of a clear beginning and end date than official histories make it seem. It enveloped nearly every part of national life in the country.

The Rajapaksa's were an influential Sinhalese family in Sri Lanka, and rose through the political ranks in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties. And in Two Thousand Five, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president with a slim majority.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: On a very populist, majoritarian, authoritarian platform. And he vows to resolve the ethnic conflict, to do whatever was necessary to be able to win the war.

DAN RICHARDS: This included harsh and violent crackdowns against separatist regions, and a willingness to commit human rights abuses and war crimes against their opposition.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: It was fairly brutal, but he succeeded.

DAN RICHARDS: In Two Thousand Nine, the war was officially declared over.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: And as a consequence of succeeding, he is seen as a great hero amongst the Singhalene majority community.

DAN RICHARDS: And his support wasn't exclusive to the Sinhalese ethnic majority that he represented.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: The conflict it lasted almost 30 years. There was a great deal of relief that the conflict had actually ended.

DAN RICHARDS: Mahinda was able to capitalize on this victory.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: He's very good at the kissing of babies and hugging them, and all of that kind of thing. He's arguably Sri Lanka's most popular politician.

DAN RICHARDS: At the same time that he was kissing babies and basking in his status as the man who ended the civil war, he was making some dicey decisions for the country's economy.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: He embarked upon a whole lot of infrastructural projects and indeed vanity projects.

DAN RICHARDS: Creations like the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and the Mahinda Rajapaksa international Cricket Stadium. The projects were financed largely through foreign loans, and the soundness of these arrangements was often called into question. Equally concerning to Dr. Saravanamuttu was the regime's increasing corruption.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: A whole environment of non-transparency and non-accountability

DAN RICHARDS: And nepotism.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: The overarching objective was to institute his family as a dynasty in Sri Lankan politics.

DAN RICHARDS: This included making his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa defense minister. Mahinda's administration also failed to make a more meaningful peace in the aftermath of the civil war.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Nothing has been done with regard to that political settlement. In fact, instead of not reproducing conflict and indeed not producing new conflicts, we did exactly the opposite.

DAN RICHARDS: The army took over large parts of the economy in the Tamil base North and East, marginalizing many of their former opponents. They also made life increasingly difficult for the third main ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: They opened up on the Muslim community. There were various attacks on Muslim property, shops, et cetera. And, of course, the arguments that Muslim civil law, the whole question of polygamous marriages, and all of that, that those had to be changed. Basically, almost Goebbelsian propaganda campaign against the Muslim community.

DAN RICHARDS: As a result of all this, by Twenty Fifteen, people were getting sick of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: So it was a coalition of the opposition in the North and East, it was about war crimes and crimes against humanity, and all of those human rights issues. In the South of the country, it was largely about the plunder and loot of the national treasury by the Rajapaksa family. That built up into a coalition of forces that saw Mahinda Rajapaksa lose that election.

DAN RICHARDS: But as is often the case in moments like this, the multifaceted opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa had an easier time rejecting their opponent than agreeing on a new direction. As Dr. Saravanamuttu put it--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: That combination of forces were somewhat like chalk and cheese, they didn't really quite get on.

DAN RICHARDS: As a result, on a few fronts, progress didn't quite come as expected. First, the government struggled to make good on meaningful truth and reconciliation from the civil war.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: That was relative success, small but relative success on the truth and justice side, but the accountability side was not looked at.

DAN RICHARDS: And as for the country's economic challenges--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Nothing really happened. There was no real progress on the financial accountability questions.

DAN RICHARDS: All in all--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: A lot of the promises and the expectations that the country had in Twenty Fifteen were not fulfilled.

DAN RICHARDS: And during this time, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters were laying the foundation to retake power. He ran for and won a seat in parliament which no former president had done before. He built up a network of political supporters and a new opposition party formed around him. Disappointment in his replacement surely helped Mahinda win back many Sri Lankan voters. But perhaps the biggest factor in the Rajapaksa's resurgence--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Then, of course, you had the Easter Sunday bombings.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[BOMB EXPLODES]

[SOUND OF POLICE SIREN]

NEWS ANCHOR: We begin tonight with the horrific scene unfolding overseas. Eight bomb attacks targeting Christians and tourists in Sri Lanka, and a ninth bomb targeting police.

REPORTER: Complex and coordinated attack has stunned the nation.

REPORTER: 290 people dead and 500 others injured. A state of emergency has now been declared. Let's get the very latest now from our correspondent.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: It was a coordinated attack. The people who they said were responsible for it were Muslim extremists. Now, the thing about it, of course, is that the logistical and coordination of that attack which they hit five hotels and many churches, I think was beyond them. And there obviously were other forces involved. That horrendous atrocity was attributed also to weak leadership.

DAN RICHARDS: Mahinda Rajapaksa's stock grew. Now, constitutionally Mahinda was not allowed to run for president again. But he and his allies decided on the second best option.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Perhaps it was coincidental or perhaps it was not, but soon after the Easter Sunday bombings, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his candidacy for the presidency.

DAN RICHARDS: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda's brother was, as you might recall, defense minister under Mahinda at the end of the civil war. He had the Rajapaksa name and he appealed to people looking for a sense of security after the Easter Sunday attacks. There's an election in Twenty Nineteen and Gotabaya wins it handily. After Gotabaya wins the election, he tries to rebrand a little bit.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Gotabaya Rajapaksa presents himself as a sort of technocratic leader. And so there was a feeling that yes, this man is someone who gets things done. He will be a strong leader. He will get things done, and put us on the road to sort of recovery or growth ala Singapore, for example. He had formed something called Viyathmaga, which was supposed to be a group of technocrats who were going to advise the government. But very soon after he got into office, the Viyathmaga lot left.

DAN RICHARDS: Gotabaya also appointed a new prime minister, his brother Mahinda.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Now, had Gotabaya Rajapaksa been able to steer the country out of its economic crisis and create a sense of stability and security after the Easter Sunday bombings, his administration might have done well. But that's not what happened. Instead, Gotabaya Rajapaksa sowed mistrust and division on multiple fronts, and took the country's economic health from bad to worse. In terms of sowing mistrust and division--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: He brought in lots of serving and past members of the armed forces into government as secretaries to ministries. A key Buddhist monk who was a key purveyor of hate speech particularly against the Muslim community was put in charge of a presidential commission saying, one country one law.

DAN RICHARDS: This was a campaign launched by the Rajapaksa administration, which insinuated that Muslims Sri Lankans follow their own laws and aren't fully loyal to the country as a whole. It was part of a larger trend of demonizing and marginalizing Muslim Sri Lankans after the Easter Sunday bombings.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Then there was another task force that was set up, which said that the archaeological sites in the Eastern province which is the truly plural province where you have sort of roughly equal percentages of the three major communities, that they were going to look for Buddhist heritage sites and that the Tamils and the Muslims had tried to suppress all of that.

DAN RICHARDS: Gotabaya also continued his brother's somewhat reckless spending policies.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Spending on infrastructure continue to undergo with him as well. But the thing with regard to those projects, of course, is that you need to spend on those projects and they need to give you a yield in order to be able to pay back the loans that you've taken to start the project in the first instance, and none of that happened.

DAN RICHARDS: And this is where things start to really get bad for Gotabaya's administration. Because here's the thing, there had been ethnic tension and religious tension in Sri Lanka for decades. I mean there had been a civil war. There had also been poor economic planning and corruption. But those things had not led to citizens storming the presidential palace and picnicking on its lawns. So what changed in Twenty Twenty-Two? Well, as Dr. Saravanamuttu put it, there were three decisions that brought this crisis to a head.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: One was to reduce the tax base.

DAN RICHARDS: Which put the whole country's economy on incredibly shaky ground, which was not where you wanted to be in the spring of Twenty Twenty. COVID-19 destroyed the country's tourism industry, and sent the whole country's economy into further crisis. But what really sank things was Gotabaya's administration's efforts to fix this crisis. The remedies would prove far worse than the illness. So first as we said he lowered tax revenue, but the bills for the country's various infrastructure and vanity projects were coming due. And that brings us to Gotabaya's second key mistake.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Secondly, a stubborn refusal to not go to the IMF.

DAN RICHARDS: Instead of renegotiating the bills and loans that Sri Lanka couldn't pay back to its creditors--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: We had to dig into our foreign exchange reserves to pay our international creditors.

DAN RICHARDS: Foreign exchange reserves serve a number of purposes. One of which is to be a country's sort of rainy day fund. You'd rather not have to spend too much of it, especially if at the same time, you've also reduced the government's revenue from taxes, and your economy is stalled because of a global pandemic.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: As a consequence, we didn't have any money to buy essential imports. We didn't have money for fuel, for gas, that has a chain effect on the economy as a whole.

DAN RICHARDS: So those were the first two big mistakes-- lowering taxes and refusing to get help from the International Monetary Fund. The third big mistake, as Dr. Saravanamuttu sees it, this one you don't hear every day.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Thirdly, a decision to move to organic fertilizer for agriculture overnight.

DAN RICHARDS: This was branded as an environmentally driven decision, but--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Probably was created by the need to save on foreign exchange.

DAN RICHARDS: Instead of importing fertilizer and chemicals from other countries that you'd have to buy, the government hoped to save money by making their own fertilizer.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: The decision in itself is not bad at all, but it has to be phased in.

DAN RICHARDS: It was not phased in. It was instituted in April Twenty Twenty-One. And instead of saving the country money, it made everything worse. According to one report, the cost of producing tea which is Sri Lanka's single biggest export, the cost of it grew tenfold, while the productivity was cut in half. One analyst described the plan as, quote, "a dream with unimaginable social, political, and economic costs, but the costs were quickly becoming reality."

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: And as a consequence, we didn't have enough money to get the basic imports for daily livelihoods and all of that. There has been shortages of food, and in some cases, people are facing starvation which is something that's never really happened in Sri Lanka.

DAN RICHARDS: In August Twenty Twenty-One, a national food emergency was declared. And over the next few months, food and fuel shortages occurred across the country. And people began to protest. Protesters increasingly flocked to Sri Lanka's capital Colombo.

[SCREAMING]

They formed semi-permanent encampments around one of the city's main parks. The movement grew and it got a name.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Aragalaya, the struggle.

[PEOPLE SHOUTING]

Which was a broadly horizontal based grouping of people from neighborhood watchers to community organizations to political parties as well. They presented a vision of Sri Lanka of what Sri Lanka should be or could be in that there was no religious or ethnic-- any form of discrimination.

DAN RICHARDS: Gotabaya Rajapaksa's administration held off on violently suppressing the protests or destroying the growing encampment in the capital. But over the spring and summer of Twenty Twenty, tension mounted.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: On the 9th of May, it rose to a point where his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was prime minister, was forced out of office. But that led to Rajapaksa supporters turning against the members of the Aragalaya, beating them up, et cetera.

DAN RICHARDS: The violence escalated.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: They retaliated. 70 odd houses were burnt. There was the first point at which violence really erupted in such a great extent.

DAN RICHARDS: Increasingly, protesters were calling for Gotabaya to step down as president, as expressed in one of their slogans.

PROTESTER: Go home Gota. Go home Gota.

[PEOPLE CHANTING]

DAN RICHARDS: On July 9th, this past summer, a massive protest was planned for in front of the presidential palace.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: They demanded that the Rajapaksa should leave. And they said he has to go, his family has to go, and they have to bring back or give back the money that they have stolen. Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn't bring out the army to suppress the Aragalaya. But at the same time, he did not concede.

DAN RICHARDS: Tens of thousands marched from their encampments to the front of the presidential palace. And Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he fled, out the back of the palace, onto a boat. Dr. Saravanamuttu was in Colombo during this period. And as he recalls--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: It was almost like a carnival. The atmosphere, the experience was exhilarating.

DAN RICHARDS: Protesters overpowered the guards and got on to the property. And regular people from all around the country treated the presidential palace as their own.

[PEOPLE SHOUTING AND SWIMMING]

Families picnicked in the private gardens, people swam in the pool, cooked food in the gigantic kitchen, and the security forces didn't do much to stop anyone. Occasionally, some of them even joined in with the protesters.

Today, the presidential palace is no longer filled with members of the Aragalaya. So what happened? On July 14th, after just nine days, the Aragalaya ceded the property back to the government. Then there were crackdowns on the encampments, which were decried by many people, but which nonetheless succeeded in stalling the movement's momentum. The Aragalaya didn't lead to a coup or a revolution of the government. There was an emergency election held by parliament since their president was hiding out on a boat. And on July 21st, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as president.

But Wickremesinghe isn't exactly a symbol of change in Sri Lanka.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: He's been prime minister six times before.

DAN RICHARDS: Six times?

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Yes. Or this is the sixth time as prime minister. Yes. He said that the economy was in such dire straits that someone had to come in and rescue the country from total collapse. So that's what happened. There's a popular perception that he is a proxy of the Rajapaksas.

DAN RICHARDS: Wickremesinghe was at first amenable to the Aragalaya, and acknowledged the needs for changes to the government. But over the summer and into the fall--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: He has turned against the Aragalaya and saying a good Aragalaya and there's a bad Aragalaya. The bad Aragalaya is the one he says that there is reasonable suspicion to assume that they were trying to use violence to overthrow the state, and all of that kind of thing. We are arresting them and then they can go before the courts. And the courts can decide whether they are to be released or whether they are to be detained. Now, over 3,000 odd have been taken in as a consequence. The Aragalaya has been subdued by fear. He has used sort of shock or internet tactics, in a sense, to silence them.

DAN RICHARDS: Which is a strategy that Dr. Saravanamuttu doesn't think will succeed for too long.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: What he needs to realize is that the country is divided. And you can't talk about a good Aragalaya and a bad Aragalaya. You have to reconcile people, bring them together.

DAN RICHARDS: For the time being, it seems like the government has learned that avoid some of the mistakes of the Rajapaksa administrations. Specifically, they've begun international negotiations to address their debt crisis. Beyond that, the list of to dos is long. It can perhaps be summed up as--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Basically, we need a new social contract,

DAN RICHARDS: Which would include--

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: On the constitutional and political reform side, we need to get rid of the all mighty all powerful executive presidency, return to parliamentary democracy, where there are checks and balances on the exercise of executive power and authority. Parliamentary committees, et cetera, have to be strengthened. We have to resolve the ethnic conflict and that requires us implementing our commitments with regard to devolution in the first instance. We have to increase taxes. We are a very low taxed country, and we have to improve tax collection as well.

DAN RICHARDS: As Dr. Saravanamuttu sees it, taxes need to be increased, but government spending also needs to fall.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: The economic situation has accumulated over the years where it's been patronage politics. And so they have nurtured a culture of entitlement on the part of the people. We have a hugely overbloated public service. That has got to be changed in the sense of there have got to be sacrifices made. We subsidize everything. And as a consequence it's totally unsustainable.

DAN RICHARDS: In other words, the country has a long tough row to hoe.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: Twenty Twenty-Two, Twenty Twenty-Three are probably going to be very, very tough years. And if all things being equal, things are going to get better, it's probably going to be Twenty Twenty-Four perhaps.

DAN RICHARDS: And as for the Aragalaya? While the movement has dispersed and perhaps lost some momentum, it hasn't disappeared. Different political parties have embraced different factions of the movement. But according to Saravanamuttu, the next steps for many who participated in the Aragalaya are unclear and a little bit up to their choosing.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: There are members of the Aragalaya who now have to make that decision as to whether they are going to join existing political parties or indeed go out and form political parties of their own.

DAN RICHARDS: Whatever shape or shapes the movement takes, Dr. Saravanamuttu says that the Aragalaya has already changed the country. It illustrated the potential for a multiethnic political movement to challenge government corruption and mismanagement in Sri Lanka. And maybe most importantly, it's given everyday Sri Lankans a new sense of agency in their country's future. And even though that future is uncertain, that sense of agency and vigilance are invaluable for navigating the challenges to come.

PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU: The people have realized that they are really sovereign, that demonstrating their sovereignty by identifying who they see as the culprits for the misgovernance that we've had by trying to take power back. It was very exhilarating. It was very, very exciting.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Sam McKeever Holtzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like Trending Globally, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. It really helps others find us. And even better, recommend the show to a friend who you think might like it.

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word-- trendingglobally@brown.edu.

Thanks again to Dr. Saravanamuttu for talking with us and to Watson's Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia for bringing him to campus. We'll put links to his work and his Watson event in the show notes. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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About the Podcast

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Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.