Working for Human Rights & Social Justice during the Roll-Back- Sri Lanka


Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the Presidential Election on 16 November 2019 with promises to usher in vistas of prosperity and splendor’. Less than three years later, the UN has launched an appeal for 47 million USD for life saving aid for at least 1.7 million people estimated to be at grave risk in Sri Lanka, while UNICFE launched its own appeal for 2.3 million children from marginalized and vulnerable communities and WFP launched an immediate response program beginning with pregnant mothers in need. Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented crisis, the worst since its independence. The root causes of the crisis include a powerful and unaccountable executive, unsustainable debt, financial mismanagement and corruption. While this is a result of the populist policy making of successive governments, the gross economic mismanagement and imprudent policy decisions taken by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government since November 2019, toppled the country’s economy in less than 6 months time. While the tax cuts promised during the election campaign, implemented a couple of months before the COVID 19 pandemic significantly reduced income, the impact of the pandemic led to a reduction in foreign remittances and tourism. When the credit rating agencies downgraded Sri Lanka in 2021, the government dismissed it and continued with poor debt management. The government’s ban on chemical fertilizer in 2021 resulted in a sharp decline in the quantity and quality of agricultural produce. Just a couple of months ago people were spending up to several days in lines to get fuel for their vehicles, gas to cook, milk powder to feed their children. As of September 2022, Inflation is at a staggering 70% with inflation of food items surpassing 85%. Less than three years after President Gotabaya was elected, Sri Lankans are yearning to leave Sri Lanka en masse, in search of vistas of prosperity elsewhere.

The outlook for Sri Lanka is grave. The UN reports that the socio-economic crisis is pushing the country’s once robust public health care system near collapse, as patients are at risk from power shortages to a lack of life saving medication. WFP estimates that nearly 30% of the population are currently food insecure and require humanitarian assistance. UNICEF estimates that over 70% of the households in the country has reduced food consumption. The economic crisis will continue to push families into hunger and poverty, some for the first time. This will only add to the half a million people the World Bank estimated had fallen below poverty line due to the pandemic in 2020-2021. According to UNICEF, Sri Lanka is currently in the top ten countries with the highest malnourished children and the numbers are expected to rise sharply this year.

Sri Lanka is a cautionary tale of the outcome of authoritarianism intersecting with mismanagement and imprudent policies. Amidst unending public protests demanding that the President, Prime Minister and the government led by the Rajapaksa family step down, a chain of violence was triggered resulting in the burning of vehicles, houses and property of the Rajapaksa family, ministers and members of Parliament. Dozens were killed and scores injured. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the global food and energy crisis, the consequences of the pandemic and climate change are worsening Sri Lanka’s troubles. What these intersecting crises have proven in the past 3 years is that deep rooted inequalities have far reaching and long-term social, political and economic consequences and it is the communities who were already marginalized and vulnerable that are most affected.

Thousands of protestors taking to the streets that toppled the Rajapaksa regime also inadvertently made way to perhaps an even more dangerous power-hungry politician carefully attempting to don democratic clothing to cover up his authoritarianism. Ranil Wickramasinghe began by violently cracking down the flagship Gota-go-gama protest site, just after he was appointed the Acting President. With the support of the Rajapaksa led political party he was elected President by the parliament despite his party having only one seat in parliament. President Wickramasinghe began using the language of law, regulations and constitutionality to oppress and curtail human rights. Declaring a state of emergency and granting sweeping powers to the police and armed forces, paved the way for arbitrary detention and arrest on a daily basis and violent crackdown on peaceful protestors. Such action is justified by the government and its supporters as justified means of achieving stability. Protestors including human rights defenders have been arrested, detained and remanded on trumped up charges of unlawful assembly.

The world watched as ordinary Sri Lankans marched into previously hallowed halls of power like the presidential palace and the presidential secretariat. Political leaders are treated as demigods in Sri Lanka. These scenes of people from all wakes of life sitting in chairs, jumping to the pool, eating at the kitchen which were all maintained to pamper and entertain the families that have been ruling the country since its Independence were remarkable.

I still remember seeing a photo of a frail woman sitting on the President’s chair posing for the camera with her toothless smile. She was a plantation worker, paid less than 2 dollars a day for picking the famous Sri Lankan tea leaves for close to 10 hours a day. She had travelled for hours walking and taking multiple busses so that she could see how the President had lived. Those moments for me personally were the epitome of the ordinary citizen claiming back places of power, from which they have been excluded for decades. This happened in June 2022, and with the appointment of Wickramasinghe, police is now searching through social media posts and TV footage and arresting people en masse for unlawful entry to the presidential palace and presidential secretariat. Human Rights Watch for example criticized the government for its legal manoeuvring in seeking court orders to prevent peaceful legitimate protests and for taking disproportionate action against protest that should be instead seen as civil disobedience.

It is in this context that we work. The grant making model that NTT has followed in the past 20 years has recognised the importance of supporting vulnerable communities, especially where the state fails. It is during such times that philanthropy, deeply committed to social justice, needs to step in and at the same time, support initiatives that challenge the state and demand accountability and reform; this is how we can contribute to sustainable long-term social change.

During recent monitoring visits Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT) has observed that the conditions of marginalized and vulnerable communities have sharply declined amidst the economic crisis. For example, many women headed families that were already living in extreme poverty in the North Central Province are barely surviving on one meal a day. Even community groups – especially women led enterprises – that NTT has supported through local Community Based Organizations are at risk of failing due to the unprecedent fuel and power crisis.

Programs introduced to improve value addition chains, such as the production of yogurt from fresh milk sourced from the community has now ground to a halt due to the daily power cuts because these community enterprises cannot afford to run generators. Even if they were able to source generators, they will not be able to find fuel for them. This is the time for CSOs to re-focus their activities and choose the most sustainable intervention to ensure food security. An example would be establishing off-the-grid solar panels for electricity generation for community enterprises, which will not be affected by power cuts. However, such solutions are extremely expensive, especially in the current economic recession. Yet, these should be viewed as long-term investment by philanthropic institutions, which need to step up during such crises.

Supporting interventions that promote human rights is an important thematic area for NTT. Ensuring that people know their rights, know about redress mechanisms when rights are violated and are supported in seeking remedies is a vital thematic area of operations for NTT. For example, just this year we supported the publication of an illustrated children’s book on civic education and protest. The book explains the current crisis in Sri Lanka – how we got here; why people are protesting; and what children can do- with powerful illustrations. We also supported several organizations last year and this year who provide assistance to victims and survivors of torture to seek legal remedies. These are important interventions in making public dissent mainstream, and to recognize its place as a democratic value.

Sadly, Sri Lanka is mostly a patronage driven society and political leaders are rarely held to account. The mass protest that garnered widespread support is slowly dying out. Protest has gone back to being a thing of the unions, of the university students and of the minorities. The majority has gone back to thinking of their bread and butter and have no time to think of rights. Demands for accountability are often not seen as a check on the government, but as a distraction. Human rights defenders that ask for accountability for war crimes are attacked for embarrassing the country when the government is trying to woo the international community for bail outs.

Just a couple of months ago, I saw a social media post of a young couple riding a motorbike stuck between the police who had been trying to prevent a protest from taking place, and the university student union holding the protest demanding the release of one of their union leaders who is being held in administrative detention for months now. The young man, going home after work, stuck in traffic, drenched in rain shouts and ask the police officers who are threatening the student union with arrests, “we’ve got nothing to eat and nothing to drink and how dare you stand here oppressing us. Go stand in front of the parliament and arrest them.”

Perhaps there is still some ray of hope. These compounded crises that the country is struggling through has ironically brought about an opportune time to instil the importance of democratic values and principles, such as holding elected officials accountable for their actions and inactions; questioning government’s decisions and approach; not relegating certain issues as issues of the minorities. If at all, the majority Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka are on a hard and painful path to discover that the sufferings of the minorities for the past couple of decades is on their doorstep today.

These are complex issues, issues that have been in the making for several decades. It is difficult to find solutions overnight. What we as grant making institutions need to do is to use this opportunity to foster dialogue, support initiatives that lead to rights-based approaches in interventions from emergency assistance to development work to demanding accountability from the government. This support needs to be long-term ; building democratic values from bottom up; strengthening civil society organizations, helping them improve their finances, management and governance structures – so that the long arms of an oppressive government cannot find loopholes to oppress civil society organizations. These are the strategies that we need to use in this crisis.

Philanthropy must not get distracted by short term solutions that will not result in sustainable outcomes. And this requires deep commitment to the communities they support, which means close engagement with CSOs, CBOs, and communities cannot end when project periods end. The pandemic, political and the economic crisis in Sri Lanka have demonstrated that the costs of political and socio-economic inequalities are too high for society to bear. Without addressing inequalities, short term crisis management will inevitably fail.

Kaushalya Ariyathilaka
Manager – Programs and Grants
Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust


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