Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis Plunges the Country Into Unrest and Uncertainty

Sri Lanka’s worsening economic and political crisis has plunged the country into widespread unrest and uncertainty, leading to fears that conditions will worsen and lead to violence and complete economic collapse.

This comes after the government’s entire cabinet resigned last week in response to the biggest economic crisis Sri Lanka has faced since independence. Growing unrest has also resulted in the government declaring a state of emergency to counter widespread protests by Sri Lankans unhappy with record inflation, fuel and food shortages, and hours-long power blackouts across the country.

This has been a long time coming for Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa’s dismissal of the former Prime Minister in 2018 led to a constitutional crisis, leading to widespread unrest at the time. The 2019 Easter bombings, which killed hundreds of people, also caused damage to the tourism industry. The COVID-19 pandemic then caused tourism in the country to collapse completely.

Economic mismanagement has also played a role. The tax cuts imposed by President Rajapaksa’s government put in place months before the pandemic left the country’s economy vulnerable and created unsustainable levels of debt while substantially reducing revenue. In addition, the decision to ban all chemical fertilizers in 2021 made matters even worse by acutely impacting the country’s substantial agricultural sector. This poor economic management has now left the Sri Lankan economy on the brink of collapse.

This crisis is affecting those most vulnerable in Sri Lanka. Food and fuel have become scarce or unattainable, even after spending hours in lines outside of shops. These shops have been forced to close because of a lack of fuel and power to run appliances. Shortages of medical supplies have also been reported, which is exacerbating the ongoing effects of the pandemic. The government has stationed soldiers at petrol stations to ensure order and to prevent looting or theft in what is regarded as a heavy-handed move.

These issues have brought protesters out on the streets in large numbers, particularly in Colombo, to demand government action and accountability. These protests have quickly become violent, with protesters throwing projectiles, starting fires, and attempting to enter the President’s residence while demanding his resignation.

The police force has met this unrest with tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to break up the protests. A 36-hour curfew was also imposed last week with the hope of keeping protesters off the streets.

While the state of emergency has since been rescinded, it sets a worrying precedent if further unrest eventuates. While violent protests are unacceptable, nor is the government’s use of force to attack, arrest or detain peaceful protesters who are upset about legitimate problems. The government’s recent social media blackout has raised further concerns about the rights of its citizens in what is a difficult time.

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, has raised concerns over the treatment of protesters by stating that violence “Should not be used to stifle dissent or hinder peaceful protest” and warned against “the drift to militarisation and the weakening of institutional checks and balances in Sri Lanka.”

In the absence of any rapid economic reform, it is vital that the rights of Sri Lankans are protected, including freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the right to protest peacefully, are maintained at all costs. The response to years of poor governance is understandable, and the government, instead of using violence, should listen to protesters’ concerns instead of resorting to heavy-handed tactics.

In the meantime, in what is an uncertain future for Sri Lanka, the international community, through the International Monetary Fund, regional powers, and the United Nations, need to ensure that Sri Lankans have adequate money, food, fuel, and power to remain safe and well throughout the duration of this crisis and to monitor any alleged human rights abuses.

In a crisis such as this, it is vital that those most vulnerable are protected. Both the Sri Lankan government and the international community have a role in ensuring that is the case going forward.