Amid an economic crisis that has turned out to be the worst in the country’s history, Sri Lankans have taken to the streets like never before in a tremendous show of unity, irrespective of age, race, gender, or social class.

These civilian-led peaceful protests mark a new era for Sri Lanka, highlighting widespread contempt for the governing party in a manner never before seen in Sri Lankan history. 

The ruling Rajapaksa family has been under fire for quite some time, but with almost all essentials in the country becoming increasingly scarce, and inflation having already reached a record high, citizens are tired of being “resilient,” a label that has been applied to them – and the country – for far too long. They want to see meaningful change.

What led to the crisis in Sri Lanka?

Most people who remember the nation as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean” may wonder what happened in order for Sri Lanka to reach this pitiful state of affairs. The backstory of the current chaos is multifaceted, but the majority of causes can be traced back to a single governing family.

While economists have warned for years about a looming economic crisis, the public ignored them and trusted the political class. Inflation skyrocketed, pushing millions of people into poverty. In April, Hanke recorded inflation in Sri Lanka to stand at a staggering 119%, despite the central bank insisting on a more modest figure. 

Sri Lanka’s soaring inflation rate can be attributed to the multiple COVID-19 lockdowns and the associated decline in tourism, a ban on chemical fertilizer, import restrictions to save forex reserves, and the unfortunate timing of the war in Ukraine. 

Moreover, Sri Lanka is riddled with foreign debt from unprofitable borrowing, and defaulted on its debt last month for the first time since the country’s independence. 

All this has resulted in massive shortages of essential products, and as of May, more than 10 people have died simply waiting in line to purchase essentials.

Ordinary people have lost patience

But what caused people to finally snap was the 13-hour power cuts that came from this economic catastrophe. Yet the political class continued to be tone deaf. The former Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, oversaw the printing of unprecedented amounts of money – which further aggravated inflation – and denied the idea of a forex crisis right up until his resignation in April 2022. 

In a move typical of politicians, they were more worried about saving their own skins. After a protest in front of the president’s residence, Members of Parliament (MPs) seemed more concerned about the safety of their own houses rather than the economic catastrophe affecting the entire citizenry.

This inaction caused further outrage among people who by this point were desperate, starving, and had nothing left to lose. Even the upper-middle class, usually unaffected by most economic fluctuations, were feeling the strain. Thus, the protests continued.

The Sri Lankan government has attempted to suppress and discredit protesters

Instead of making plans to avert a worsening economic crisis, the Sri Lankan government seemingly preferred to clamp down on protesters. 

To this extent, their actions included:

  • Setting a bus on fire to promote the idea that the protesters were violent, although this backfired when CCTV footage was released showing the police passively watching while one lone person set fire to the vehicle.
  • Stirring racial tensions, which also failed as the Sri Lankan people were simply too desperate to focus on fighting each other on this occasion.
  • A social media ban, which backfired as everyone simply used VPNs to access the sites, resulting in the #GoHomeGota hashtag trending internationally.
  • Targeting social media activists and protesters, which was also foiled as hundreds of members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) voluntarily represented those arrested and moved proactively to support protesters.
  • An island-wide curfew, which also didn’t work as citizens took to the streets regardless, with local law enforcement standing by without intervening.
  • Smear campaigns through the media, with some calling the protests a “festival” and others attempting to discredit protest sites by planting drugs, condoms, etc.

President Rajapaksa conveniently did not address the nation during these times, instead leaving it to his older and media-friendly brother, the prime minister. In a speech that said nothing of importance while concealing a thinly-veiled threat by referencing violent protests in the late 1980s, the Prime Minister tried to bring about order.

However, the people are now well and truly tired of falling for old tricks. When the president did eventually address the nation, most people did not even care. They were only interested in seeing him out of office.

Sri Lanka faces brutal and uncertain times ahead

As the protests continued, more and more people observed the stark reality that the crisis  may not reach a conclusion soon, or even worsen to levels of what happened in Myanmar

On Monday, May 9, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa gave a speech to his supporters (a mere few hundred) at his residence, Temple Trees, which is also the location of a prominent protest site known as MainaGoGama (Maina Go Village, referring to PM Mahinda).

What was meant to be a harmless speech with a few people unleashed what no one expected: mob violence. Immediately after the speech, pro-government supporters banded together to attack the outnumbered peaceful protestors – first at MainaGoGama then at GotaGoGama – with devastating brutality, attacking men, women, and even children, burning tents to the ground.

Scenes of brutal violence flooded the internet soon after, with clergy and the Bar Association forming human barriers in a last ditch effort to protect the people before the police barrier was breached and support arrived. 

Simultaneously, news came in from other cities that their respective protest sites were also attacked at the same time, highlighting the fact that the sudden eruption of mob violence was no coincidence. On all occasions, law enforcement had chosen to look the other way. 

The prime minister and the cabinet resigned shortly after. Yet the president remains.

As of May 10, the Rajapaksa family were allegedly attempting to flee the country, desperately trying to avoid the people who surrounded all the airports in the country and the naval base in which they were hiding. 

All the while, the economic crisis continues to worsen and more people starve everyday. Action cannot be taken as the people do not trust the Rajapaksas to do anything anymore. The Sri Lankan people maintain that only by changing the political landscape can we improve the economic landscape. 

Regardless of resilience, hard times do create stronger people, and those we see protesting and protecting people’s rights across the island are the strongest people of all.

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This article was first published on the Students For Liberty website.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.