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Economic Spiral Drives Rare Protests, Political Exodus in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. The nation’s currency was devalued in March and has since lost more than 30 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. A severe shortage of foreign currency left the government unable to pay for essential imports, including fuel. As a result, the country’s 22 million people are dealing with shortages and soaring inflation, the BBC reported, and businesses and homes have had their electricity cut for up to 13 hours at a time. 

In response to these pressures, Sri Lankans launched demonstrations across the country—some of them violent—last week, and the protests continue. Late 31 March, hundreds of protesters gathered near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, before police moved to disperse them with tear gas and water cannons, Reuters reported. Dozens of protesters were injured or arrested, and some protesters responded by setting fire to several police and army vehicles during the incident. The majority of the demonstrators were unarmed.

In response to the protests, Rajapaksa declared a nationwide public emergency late on 1 April, citing the interests of public security, the protection of public order, and the maintenance of supplies and essential services. The government also blocked social media access.

Rajapaksa is acting without the support of his cabinet, however. On 3 April, the entire Sri Lankan cabinet—excluding Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—stepped down, leaving a leadership vacuum in a country largely controlled by Rajapaksa’s powerful family. The governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank has also submitted his resignation. According to The New York Times, the recent protests would have been unimaginable just mere months ago, since the Rajapaksa family “have ruled the country largely through fear, based on accusations of wartime atrocities they perpetrated during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.”

But recent pressures and factors—including massive tax cuts by Rajapaksa and the effect of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and then the COVID-19 pandemic on Sri Lanka’s cornerstone industry of tourism—have undercut the fear factor. According to a statement from Ranil Wickremesinghe (Sri Lanka’s prime minister from 2015 to 2019) to reporters, the country is having its own “Arab Spring.”

Protesters defied the ban on public assemblies, instead demonstrating quietly and peacefully to avoid provoking security services. Some sang the national anthem or waved Sri Lankan flags. In Colombo, approximately 750 people protested despite the curfew. In the Western Province, more than 600 people were arrested for breaking curfew. Police used tear gas and water cannons to stop a university student protest in Kandy, Reuters reported.

The civil unrest in Sri Lanka will likely accelerate a restructuring of the country’s $44 billion of international sovereign debt, and “though Sri Lanka’s problems follow years of mismanagement, its speedy unraveling is a warning to sturdier economies from Europe to Asia suddenly grappling with a spike in the cost of living,” wrote Una Galani in a column for Reuters.

Sri Lanka is not the only nation currently challenged by economic stressors, pandemic pressures, and the risk of mass unrest. In Pakistan, legislators sought to upend government leaders over their struggles to manage spiraling inflation and other domestic issues, but Prime Minister Imran Khan avoided a no-confidence vote and dissolved Parliament. Khan has since blamed the United States for an alleged plot to remove him from power. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department has denied the allegations.

In China, strict COVID-19 measures have triggered an unusually loud backlash from Shanghai residents. Videos of young children crying in hospitals and separated from their COVID-positive parents have sparked fury and concern from parents, the Times reported. Residents also complain that the COVID lockdown measures are opaque and unpredictable, since they receive little warning about neighborhood lockdowns and news reports about outbreaks disappear from online outlets.

Protesters in Sudan took to the streets in cities across the country in March in continued demonstrations against military rule. The October 2021 coup in Sudan resulted in the struggling county being cut off from foreign aid, Reuters reported, and the Sudanese pound lost about a third of its value, with sharp increases in the cost of bread and gasoline.

Economic insecurity sparked significant protests worldwide in 2021.

“Rising costs of living, chronic unemployment, shortages of goods, and government spending cuts stoked public anger,” according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In Ecuador, an increase in fuel prices sparked nationwide unrest, broader economic failure in Cuba launched the largest demonstration in decades, and a tax increase in Ghana drew large crowds.

“The unexpected outbreak of massive protests in Kazakhstan at the start of 2022 offered a vivid reminder of how a seemingly small grievance—an increase in natural gas prices—can provoke large-scale citizen demonstrations that upend a country’s politics,” the Carnegie report noted. “Given the depth and persistence of the global authoritarian trend, the strained economic situations of many countries, and the pandemic’s long tail, the forecast for 2022 can only be for the continued multiplication and intensification of protests globally. The consequences for political life—even where stasis has long prevailed—and the potential for the emergence of new geopolitical flashpoints will almost certainly be significant.”

CSOs and security leaders can play a significant role in monitoring factors that affect mass protest movements, wrote Michael Center and Dieter Arendt for Security Management in 2020.

“There is no crystal ball foretelling when and how a mass protest may begin,” they wrote in “Corporate Resilience: How to Anticipate Mass Protest and Disruption.” “Looking more broadly at geopolitical, regional, and internal issues—and the connections between them—helps build the picture over time. No single source of information will predict a mass protest. There are, however, various economic and societal indicators that can provide foresight into how the situation will likely evolve.

“Economic hardship and significant fluctuations are often the most important drivers of a mass protest. Unaddressed economic stressors eventually result in hardship and discontent throughout a population.”

They continued: “Economic stress indicators alone will not paint a full picture, though, for those looking at how an area’s residents may behave or react in the future. Understanding a region’s culture, characteristics, and unique societal structure can help form a better gauge and a more informed response to potential mass reactions.”

Antigovernment protests continue to arise. According to Carnegie’s Global Protest Tracker, 76 new significant antigovernment protests emerged in 2021 at a rate of roughly one new event every five days. The number of new protests dipped below the record-breaking 87 in 2020, but “the pace at which new protests emerged in 2021 still greatly outstripped pre-pandemic levels; in 2019, for example, only 65 new protests emerged.”