Ever since his election victory in 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapska has been propelling the island nation of Sri Lanka into a repressive and violent authoritarian regime. In truth, Rajapaska’s dynasty began well before his presidency. In 2005, he served as the defense secretary during the infamous Sri Lankan Civil War. Although he was praised by many for his role in defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels, he oversaw what have now been declared war crimes by the United Nations. What makes Gotabaya all the more powerful, and dangerous, is his family’s extensive reach within Sri Lankan politics. His father was a member of parliament, his brother Mahinda served two presidential terms, and several family members occupy positions at various levels of government.
Ensuring the survival of his family’s dynasty has defined Rajapaksa’s presidency, leading him to neglect the state of his country’s economy and incentivizing radical authoritarian behaviors. Notably, he has undermined the criminal justice system, raÏsuppressed the opposition, and jailed and silenced critics—all of which are overt threats to Sri Lankan democracy.
Sri Lanka is currently in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history; it has defaulted on foreign debts, inflation is at an all-time high, and there are acute food and power shortages. In March, widespread protests started sweeping the country, resulting in a cascade of events that have generated the first real cracks in Rajapaksa’s rule. Will these actions be powerful enough to dismantle Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime?
Academics have identified two principal ways to effectively respond to an authoritarian incumbent: moderate, intra-institutional resistance, and nonviolent resistance. Intra-institutional resistance involves the political opposition taking actions within their legislative powers, such as policy changes, institutional reforms, and organizing protests to prevent and limit executive aggrandizement. Its counterpart, inter-institutional resistance employs radical and non-electoral means to remove the incumbent from power. Political science professor, Laura Gamboa, argues that intra-institutional resistance is more effective than inter because it increases the government’s costs of repressing its opposition and populace. Additionally, political science experts Öztürk and Clearly, emphasize that moderate intra-institutional approaches create a better opportunity for democratic survival, as they maintain support from a larger public whilst safeguarding democratic institutions.
Recently, the Sri Lankan opposition has engaged in several intra-institutional actions to curtail Rajapaksa’s influence. Notably, on April 5th, 41 legislators walked out of their parliamentary alliance with Rajapska’s party: the SLPP. This was a striking blow to his power, as it stripped the SLPP of its stature as the ruling party. This means that it no longer holds a simple majority, and it leaves open the possibility of a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa.
Scrambling to amend this loss of power, Rajapaksa invited several opposition groups to form a national unity government, however, the groups unanimously rejected this offer, stating that they could not work alongside the corrupt. Additionally, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya—the leading opposition group—has organized protests in Colombo which have mobilized thousands of citizens against the government. SJB’s leader, Harsha de Silva, asserted that the only way to resolve Sri Lanka’s crisis is “to have a fresh mandate for a new set of people.”
These are only initial traces of intra-institutional resistance, however, they have generated a considerable impact. The opposition has come together as a unified front against Rajapaksa. They have used legal means to undermine the government, such as taking away Rajapaksa’s majority rule, they have organized momentous nonviolent protests, and re-affirmed the importance of the electoral system and dangers of corruption.
The latter approach to successfully countering an authoritarian incumbent is nonviolent resistance. Renowned political scientists, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan argue that there are two reasons for which nonviolent resistance is more strategic than violent resistance. For one, they assert that repressing nonviolent movements can backfire on the incumbent; it can break down loyalty between supporters, and mobilize a larger force against the regime. Chenoweth and Stephan also emphasize that nonviolent resistance is more conducive to negotiation; such a movement doesn’t threaten the lives of regime members, which can make them more inclined to peaceful power shifts or agreements.
At the beginning of its political turmoil, Sri Lanka seemed to be headed in the direction of a mass, successful, nonviolent movement. In March thousands of civilians all over the country engaged in nonviolent protests, leading Rajapaksa’s regime to teeter. Effectively, these protests induced the soft-liners of Rajapaksa’s government, such as the 41 legislators that walked out of parliament, to abandon their regime.
However, in the last weeks, as tensions rise and the crisis deepens, protests have come closer and closer to resembling violent resistance. On April 1st, there were aggressive demonstrations outside of the Rajapaksa residence in the nation’s capital, Colombo. Consequently, Rajapaksa issued a state of emergency which granted him the power to suspend any laws, seize property, and even made it illegal for people to leave their homes.
This indeed has backfired on Rajapaksa, as the populace has largely ignored this decree and has promised to continue protesting until he steps down from power. This amped aggression in the protests is dangerous as it threatens Rajapaksa’s stature and safety, which could severely impede a successful transition of power. In fact, as a response to the disobedience, police arrested hundreds of individuals and employed tear gas and water cannons. On April 19th, protests in Rambukkana turned decisively violent, as police opened fire killing one civilian and injuring at least thirteen.
Sri Lanka’s future is unforeseeable, however, experts have outlined intra-institutional resistance and nonviolent resistance as discernable steps that can direct the nation towards greater democracy and stability. The opposition successfully limited governmental power by engaging in intra-institutional resistance, however, their cause has greatly faltered on the account of nonviolent resistance. The recent violent protests have led to drastic government crackdowns and they have diminished the possibility of a peaceful transition. If Sri Lankans wish to counter Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule whilst safeguarding the country’s surviving democratic norms, they must adhere to nonviolent protests, as well as continue intra-institutional resistance.
This piece was so interesting and informative! I really liked how you presented the different options for resistance and then explained how they are being used in Sri Lanka. I found it so interesting that after Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency, it was largely ignored; I think this really speaks to the limited power of his regime, and that the public is largely unafraid of the government enforcing the stay in place. It is remarkable to see so much public pushback and such effort to restore their government, and it seemed like they were really on the right track to do so until their protests became violent.