Explainer: Have Mass Protests and Political Upheaval Strengthened Sri Lankan Democracy?
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Explainer: Have Mass Protests and Political Upheaval Strengthened Sri Lankan Democracy?

Mass protests and a presidential ouster have hoisted Sri Lanka into the international spotlight through much of 2022. But have these societal upheavals improved matters for the island nation, and placed it on track for a brighter future? The answer may depend on who you ask, and how they think Sri Lanka could stand to improve. In this explainer, I will review the events that led Sri Lanka to its current position, and then consider what lies ahead for the country and its people.

What drove the People’s Protest?

Recent months have seen a fall from grace by the Rajapaksa family — a Sri Lankan political dynasty that dominated the country’s top government positions until recently — and the controversial appointment of interim president Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Though these events followed the mass demonstrations that have come to be known as the People’s Protest, they weren’t the original aims of the demonstrators. The movement, which resulted in raids on official buildings and residences, was not simply a call to drive one man or family away from the country; rather, it was a call to drive away the structural elements of power that represented that one family. In short, the goal was to target everything that hinders democracy in a country whose president enjoyed unchecked power: corruption, discrimination, and authoritarian rule.

In other words, the people of Sri Lanka wanted to fight for the chance to build a true democracy. They wanted a country that would uphold the fundamental rights of its people while ensuring that all people — including members of minority groups — could enjoy equal protection under the law. Other democratic ideals the people fought for included checks on executive powers, the Rule of Law, and legislation aimed at improving the lives of Sri Lankan people.

All that said, the Rajapaksa family was not solely responsible for the country’s democratic shortcomings. Corruption and discrimination, particularly aimed at Tamils and Muslim minority groups, predate the family’s rise. It would be wrong to blame Sri Lanka’s plight entirely on one group of bad government actors. Ultimately, the country’s presidents came to power by way of the votes of the majority; in other words, we — the public — are also responsible. As John F. Kennedy once said, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

Has the movement and its impacts improved matters for Sri Lanka?

As mentioned above, the answer to this question will depend on who you ask, and how they interpret a country’s success.

To the extent that a country with a failing economy can improve in the span of just over a month, Sri Lanka has seen some improvements. The country is seeing some improvements to its economic outlook. This is apparent in the form of consumer price decreases and shorter lines for fuel and gas. But this does not mean matters have improved wholesale, particularly for Sri Lanka’s lower-income families, or that the fuel and gas crisis is over.

How has the movement affected Sri Lankan democracy?

With respect to democratic ideals, matters appear to be grimmer. Since ascending to the presidency in mid-July, Wickremesinghe has curtailed many rights. He started by declaring a state of emergency on 20 July, which resulted in official force against protestors in the early hours of the following day. On 27 July, the Parliament approved new emergency regulations that emboldened the police and the armed forces to search and arrest loosely-defined suspects, and to detain them for “mischief” in the absence of due-process safeguards. As a result, many individuals were targeted based on allegations they had participated in the People’s Protest. Under these regulations, the state had the power to prevent those taken into custody from contacting their lawyers or being placed before a judge within 72 hours. Additionally,  those convicted of causing “mischief” faced severe penalties, including the possibility of life imprisonment.

These arrests, as well as others carried out on suspicion of such crimes as property damage or inciting violence, have been perceived by the public and the international community as essentially a crackdown on peaceful protestors. Travel bans were imposed against a broad swath of activists, ranging from a teaching-union leader to a Catholic priest to a socialist organizer.

Many such arrests have also taken a form indistinguishable from abductions, such as when student activist Anthony Weranga Pushpika De Silva, was dragged out from a bus by men in plain clothes and taken into a jeep.

Human Rights Watch has also voiced its concerns noting that “arrests made solely on the grounds of taking part in a peaceful protest (which remains peaceful) or for attending a peaceful protest despite a court order against it, where a restriction of the freedom of peaceful assembly has neither been necessary nor proportionate, should not constitute a criminal offence.”

In addition to concerns about arbitrary arrests and due process, the new president’s efforts to create checks and balances over the executive branch have proved controversial. Wickremesinghe vowed to repeal the 20th Amendment, which provided the executive president with unchecked powers.

Specifically, the plan was to enact an amendment that would limit presidential powers. But so far the move has proven controversial, with critics arguing the actual text of the amendment fails to effectively limit the president’s powers. While it introduces a Constitutional Council, which consists of ten members who are meant to recommend positions in the judiciary and independent Commissions to the President, the majority of the ten-member commission would be appointed by the government, which many worry would nullify efforts to check presidential powers.

Where does that leave Sri Lanka?

In essence, Sri Lanka has improved to a certain extent economically from its position in the past few months, and economists predict that it will continue to steadily change in the months to come if stringent policies remain in place. However, as noted above, Sri Lanka has not improved completely. In other words, there is no hope under the current government that the country will be fully sustainable due to the restriction of freedoms and the enormous power wielded by the Executive President. Thus, it is doubtful that Sri Lanka will become a true democracy in the near future. However, this does not mean that there will never be an opportunity in the future to strengthen Sri Lankan democracy. There is reason to harbor optimism about the next election. The real question may be that of whether Sri Lanka will remember the underlying goal of the people’s protest next time they are called to cast their vote to elect a new president. The youth look forward to seeing the answer to this question.

Naveera Perera is a Final year law student pursuing the University of London LL.B. degree at CfPS Law School, Colombo, Sri Lanka.