Debt Crisis and Popular Social Protest in Sri Lanka: Citizenship, Development and Democracy Within Global North–South Dynamics

Cover of Debt Crisis and Popular Social Protest in Sri Lanka: Citizenship, Development and Democracy Within Global North–South Dynamics


Table of contents

(10 chapters)

The peoples’ movement was a movement to deepen citizenship and democracy by demanding actual participation in representative politics. It was a non-violent democratic movement based on independence from political parties, collective informal leadership and multi-level horizontal networking and coordination. It was strengthened by the activists from the student movement, trade unions and working-class parties. It foregrounded issues related to debt and development, Global North–South dynamics, narrowing of representative politics and the role of democratic social movements. The peoples’ movement, ‘Aragalaya’, illustrated that solidarity, cultivated across multiple cultural, economic and political differences, while engaging locally with a global sense, can influence authoritarian militarised governments. In effect, the struggle for democracy and citizenship aimed at transforming representative politics also accompanied alternative notions of well-being and pleasures involving ‘living well together with others’ in harmony with nature.


The popular uprising (Aragalaya) combined a protest movement with a movement towards commons or a solidarity economy. The popular uprising from March to August 2022 was a reaction to the authoritarian heteropatriarchal Rajapaksa regime, which drained public revenues instigating an economic crisis. The Aragalaya was based on non-violence, independence from political parties, participatory democracy, collective leadership, politico-aesthetic strategies (art activism) and collective learning. While there were multiple contradictions, along with state repression, the Aragalaya expressed new forms of solidarity, strengthening struggles for democracy and citizenship.


The Rajapaksa regime over the 2005–2022 period promoted a national-popular project based on a militarised Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism promoting a market-driven rentier economy. It illustrated a form of patrimonial capitalism undermining public accountability and the efficacy of the state bureaucracy. This popular-national project was dependent on strengthening ties with China while distancing relations with India and the Global North (USA and the EU). The ways in which the external relations were coordinated reinforced discrimination against Tamil and Muslim communities, while disregarding their demands for justice and reparations. The increasing integration of the economy with financial markets, driven by the Central Bank, amplified the commercialisation of the state, restraining public revenues and state oversight. Meanwhile, the militarisation of the state involved the commercialisation of the military, opaque military budgets and violent repression of protests. The Rajapaksa regime, which enabled a minority-privileged (leisure) class to culturally flourish in regulated safe spaces, also instigated multiple protests from below demanding democracy as well as justice.


The political crisis related to two main factors internal to the public revenue system, namely financial markets and the commercialisation of the state, and three related external factors, pertaining to the pandemic, popular discontent and inequality. The emphasis on financial markets since the mid-1990s expanded the commercialisation of the state while neglecting public accountability and government oversight. The efforts to shore up public finances through the tax system is increasingly undermined by the global tax architecture, enabling financial secrecy and illicit financial flows.

The pandemic revealed the significance of women’s work, paid as well as unpaid care work. The pandemic also exposed the limitations of a domestic economy, based on export-oriented development, over-reliant on tourism and remittances from migrant workers. Combining with the on-going dengue epidemic, the pandemic highlighted the urgency of climate adaptation. Meanwhile, the popular discontent conveyed an accumulation of grievances linked with cultural discrimination, political misrepresentation as well as economic maldistribution. The participation of new middle-class segments in the protests foregrounded new tendencies significant for strengthening the labour movement as well as working-class parties in their demands for redistribution, reframing democracy as well as citizenship.


Democratic renewal in Sri Lanka as well as a cross the Global South depends on strengthening democratic social movements within varieties of patrimonial capitalism. Patrimonial capitalism, emphasising patron–client relations, coincide with weakening democratic institutional cultures and practices. The dominant corruption/anti-corruption narrative is bracketed with elite class strategies aimed at negotiating a ‘managed corruption’. The realm of representative politics creating consent for patrimonial capitalism is shaped by: ethnic and class relations; the weakening of working-class parties; patriarchal cultures within parties; links with criminal networks; opaque finances and the integration of mainstream media with party patronage.

Democratising the realm of representative politics points towards democratic social movements. The internal dynamics of social movements, their relationships with political parties and collective learning are significant factors that shapes the strategic orientation of social movements. State repression of social movements highlights the need for demilitarisation and the abolition of prisons. The global sense of this local struggle relates to transforming financial markets and platform economies towards notions of financial and digital commons. The integration of different realms of politics, such as representative, movement, life and emancipatory politics, is vital for reinforcing solidarity as the basis for counter-hegemonic struggles.


The popular uprising, the Aragalaya, was a response to a debt crisis as well as a catharsis of accumulated public discontent, which overlapped with the pandemic. A key lesson from the pandemic was the need to strengthen state social provisioning capacities to protect the health status of citizens. In addition, enhancing local economies and sustainable livelihoods is central to avoiding the vulnerabilities of international migrant labour and tourism. The limitations of representative politics highlight the need to strengthen democratic social movement politics. Along with cross cultural alliances, building multi-class alliances is central for strengthening politics of redistribution. In a context of integration of party politics with criminal networks, demilitarisation as well as the abolition of prisons is indispensable for democratisation. In a global scale, democratising financial markets and platform economies suggests regulation and regional experiments not simply by the state but also multiple publics. In demanding participation in representative institutions, the Aragalaya combined a protest movement with a sense of commons. In turn, it pointed towards the possibilities of a public-driven economy based on the democratisation of the state as well as markets. In framing this movement as a ‘struggle of love’, it revitalised the realm of life politics and alternative pleasures of life.

Cover of Debt Crisis and Popular Social Protest in Sri Lanka: Citizenship, Development and Democracy Within Global North–South Dynamics
Publication date
Book series
Diverse Perspectives on Creating a Fairer Society
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited