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Rage & repeat: Another uprising on the cards for Sri Lanka in 2023?

Tamsin Hunt 12 April 2023
12 April 2023    Tamsin Hunt

Global Risk Bulletin | Vol 2 2023

In this edition of the Global Risk Bulletin, we look at how the security situation has developed in the two years since the military seized power in Myanmar, consider the prospects for renewed mass civil unrest in Sri Lanka, and assess the broader implications of unrest over proposed judicial reforms in Israel.

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The ‘Aragalaya’ protest movement that brought about a change of leadership in 2022 has largely dissipated, although anti-government sentiment remains prevalent. Tamsin Hunt identifies some of the key drivers civil unrest in Sri Lanka in 2023.

In April 2022, Sri Lanka ran out of money. A series of poor government decisions, exacerbated by external shocks and high inflation globally, led to foreign exchange reserves becoming so depleted that the government was unable to afford essential imports or its foreign debt payments. As a result, Sri Lanka suffered daily power cuts of up to 13 hours, shortages of cooking gas and medical supplies, and hyperinflation that reached 73.7 percent in September 2022. Thousands of people, led by the youth, took to the streets of Colombo in April last year, launching an anti-government protest movement known as ‘Aragalaya’, the Sinhalese word for ‘struggle’. The protests reached a critical point when protesters stormed and occupied the president’s palace and other key government buildings, forcing the president to flee the country and ultimately step down on 13 July 2022. 

The Aragalaya movement has continued into 2023, albeit with much smaller and far less frequent protests, primarily driven by students calling for the release of protest leaders detained in 2022. However, Sri Lanka’s precarious economic situation and the resultant impact on political stability create a fertile ground for further unrest over the coming months. 


The spotlight on unions

In recent months, there has been a spike in strikes and protests by unions, who are vehemently opposed to certain economic policies. Incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe is faced with steering Sri Lanka out of its debt crisis which, for immediate purposes, means securing a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the loan may provide Sri Lanka with longer-term financial security and ability to access essential imports, it also comes with some major strings attached. In recent months, the government has hiked personal income taxes, increased fuel prices, and begun to restructure state-owned enterprises as part of IMF-mandated economic reforms. While such reforms are ultimately likely to help secure the IMF loan, and improve the country’s foreign exchange reserves in the coming months and years, they are deeply unpopular, and have driven unionised protests across sectors in February and March 2023. The sectors most affected by strikes and demonstrations include banking, healthcare, education, rail transport and ports. While it is unclear what the ultimate cost of the unrest will be, the government reported in March 2023 that at least 17 ships en route to Colombo Port had turned back amid the protests against higher income taxes. 


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Election-related protests

Unionised protest action has also coincided with increased demonstrations by opposition parties in recent months. Sri Lanka is constitutionally obligated to hold local government elections in 2023, which could not come at a worse time for the government. Amid high living costs and unpopular economic reforms, the government is understandably reluctant to face its first electoral test under the current circumstances. Previously scheduled for 9 March 2023, the polls were postponed after the government failed to release the required funds for printing ballot papers, prompting demonstrations by opposition parties that want elections to go ahead. With elections now scheduled for 25 April, further political rallies are likely as opposition parties leverage economic grievances to drive anti-government sentiment and drum up support. There is also a potential for post-election protests in the event of a disputed poll. 


Government response 

In 2022, Sri Lanka’s government responded to the ‘Aragalaya’ protests with physical force, mass arrests, military deployment, and several states of emergency. The new government continues to employ similar measures against protesters. On 26 February 2023, for example, police fired tear gas and water cannons on thousands of people protesting postponed local election in Colombo, killing one person, and injuring dozens of others. On 28 February, the government banned strikes in key sectors, such as transport and healthcare, which had little effect on stifling the countrywide anti-tax protests the following day. Despite outrage from both the domestic and international community over the crackdown on protests, authorities appear determined to continue with such policies to ensure it does not face the same fate as its predecessor.


Some progress, but a long road ahead

The focus of protests has certainly changed in 2023, as electricity supply has stabilised, and access to cooking gas, medical supplies and other goods has improved. However, the purchasing power of households remains under threat amid stubbornly high inflation that remains above 50 percent as of February 2023, and steep income tax hikes. As such, anti-government demonstrations over economic grievances will continue in the coming months, compounded by political opposition leaders looking to shore up support ahead of the local elections in April. Additionally, sporadic violent clashes will continue to occur, primarily in Colombo, while the authorities remain determined to suppress unrest and dissent. Sri Lanka faces a tough year ahead, and the government must strike a careful balance between stabilising the economy while maintaining political and popular stability in the months to come.


S-RM is a global risk consultancy providing intelligence, resilience and response solutions to clients worldwide. To discuss this article or other industry developments, please reach out to one of our experts.

Tamsin Hunt
Tamsin hunt Analyst, Strategic Intelligence Email Tamsin


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