November 1, 2022

Can Citizen Activism Lead to Change in Sri Lanka?

Azra Abdul Cader

This blog discusses active citizenship in Sri Lanka looking at SLB findings from 2021 and developments in the country in 2022.

The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the resulting citizen protests has prompted an interest in  the facets and drivers of active citizenship, which this blog will explore. ‘Active Citizenship’ is one of the key domains of reconciliation identified in the Sri Lanka Barometer (SLB) framework through community consultations, literature reviews and expert consultations. In each national survey round, this domain is explored through people’s willingness, ability, and freedoms to engage in change processes in the country and considers the space that exists to bring about positive change. Moreover, the SLB recognises that citizen engagement can take many forms and take place at different levels from engaging with the media, local community actors, civil society, and in legal and peaceful protests. Through this lens the blog looks at what citizen engagement means and how it relates to recent events in Sri Lanka.

Introducing active citizenship

The concept of ‘active citizenship’ includes the engagement, action, and participation of citizens on issues that affect their lives and wellbeing. It relates to citizen willingness to participate and contribute to positive change in a country. For this to take place there needs to be, importantly, the choice of citizens to engage and equal opportunities for such civic engagement for all citizens. They should be able to do so having the freedom from fear and repercussion. Thus, it involves the creation of space for citizen engagement and the willingness of the state to ensure that active citizenship is supported and sustained in a meaningful manner.

Enabling civic engagement helps people come together and to connect on issues that they identify with. It can be a powerful force that can transcend politicisation and the polarisation of the public discourse. In the context of communities affected by conflict and war, it provides the space to raise marginalised voices. As such civic engagement is an important component of reconciliation, enabling engagement with issues that have a direct bearing on the present (Dirksen, 2018).

Civic engagement enables citizens to challenge the status-quo to make systems and structures of governance work better for them. Ideally, through such processes, citizens are not passive recipients but recognise their ability to actively bring about change and ensure inclusive and effective state structures, systems, and processes (Gomez, 2019; Changes,2021).

However, active citizenship does not take place in a vacuum and comprises of many aspects. There are many factors that influence whether and how people engage, including their contexts, power dynamics, marginalisation, and the openness of political and governance systems (Moro, 2010; Gomez, 2019).

The Sri Lankan crisis and active citizenship

The Barometer findings provide some insights into active citizenship in Sri Lanka prior to the onset of the crisis in 2022. The findings from 2020 and 2021 show people’s generally low inclination to civic engagement, where most Sri Lankans noted that they would almost never engage in active citizenship.

While citizen engagement through protests is not new to Sri Lanka, it increased momentum in the post-war period, such as the protests for justice of the disappeared (Srinivasan, 2022) among others that were organised by civil society and activists. Thus, it was only a subset of the population generally engaging politically for change. In fact, the SLB findings of 2020 and 2021 also show that Tamils were the most inclined to engage, while Sinhalese and the Muslims were less so inclined. At the same time, there was more of a drop in willingness to engage amongst the minorities than amongst the majority in 2021 when compared to 2020. A similar pattern prevailed across religious groups in 2021. In a context where identity politics play out, and minorities communities may have felt marginalised, the findings by ethnic and religious group could be an indication of the greater motivation of these groups to demand for change through civic engagement. Whereas the majority Sinhalese did not feel the need to affect change as the status quo was mainly in their favour.

However, what was witnessed in 2022 with the onset of the economic crisis and worsening conditions on the ground, thousands of people protested across the country, demanding regime and system change, and relief from the ongoing crisis. For example, the SLB Snapshot Survey conducted in 2022 shows how 50.3% of the population were motivated to become more politically engaged as a result of the crisis. This may reveal how the deteriorating economic conditions affected a large subset of the population, including the Sinhalese community, which saw a perceived rise in civic engagement, especially visible in the form of the large-scale protest movement.

Also known as the Aragalaya (struggle in Sinhala) the protest movement was presented as an apolitical peaceful protest. Protesters gathered in Colombo’s Galle Face Green, the main protest site and was led by citizens, mainly young people (Rasheed, 2022; OHCHR, 2022). Other cities outside Colombo too followed suit on a smaller scale, and had a similar set up with groups of citizens gathering to protest for change and calling for accountability towards the crisis. The movement created a space for discussion, dissent, and creative engagements. It soon also evolved into a space calling for accountability and justice for human rights abuses, including those related to the civil war and the unfulfilled reconciliation process. It was accepting of marginalised groups and called for the realisation of sexual and disability rights (FIDH, 2023). The protests led to a change in political leadership in May and July 2022, followed by the swearing in of a new President.

What motivates civic engagement?

Political efficacy – people’s ability and confidence to engage with social and political issues – is a key aspect that may motivate higher civic engagement. If people feel connected to the political structures and processes and feel they can influence how systems function, then the motivation to engage can increase. In the SLB Surveys of 2020 and 2021, people were asked if they felt they had the knowledge and confidence to engage with political issues and if they felt that their vote could make a difference. The findings indicated that at the national level people indicated a moderate level of ability and confidence to engage in social and political issues. Provincially, apart from the Northern, Southern and Uva provinces, a similar pattern of moderate agreement in political efficacy was observed in both years. These findings raise the issues of whether capacities for civic engagement need to be strengthened so that real results can be seen.

Protecting people’s rights to engage is another important aspect that may motivate civic engagement. People may fear the repercussions of raising social and political issues, including the fear of backlash. The SLB Survey showed that at the national level in 2020, people perceived that they had moderate levels of personal freedoms, and this continued into 2021. This is further emphasised when for example, after the initial urgency of the Argalaya protest movement died down, the protest site at Galle Face Green was cleared, and there were targeted crackdowns of the protesters and the repeated violation of people’s right to peaceful assembly. There were instances when security forces used violence to control protesters and their supporters. A state of emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was used to arrest and detain protest leaders (OHCHR, 2022; FIDH, 2023). Therefore, the change that was expected through the protests was short-lived.

It is also important to consider other aspects, such as desperation and urgency for real change, that may motivate people to engage. For example, in the case of people in the North, the SLB findings of 2020 and 2021 point to more of a willingness to engage. This may stem from consistent and long-term marginalisation caused by the war for many and the continued lack of action for their demands. Therefore, this may explain how marginalisation affects people’s motivations.

Key take aways

The Barometer findings are an important reminder that citizen engagement must look beyond protests and consider the importance of long-term citizen engagement beyond seeing citizens as mere voters. Active citizenship must be considered in the long term and as a process of holding political actors accountable at many levels and across various facets of a democratic society.

With this comes the importance of improving political efficacy of all citizens. What the 2022 protests have taught us is that bringing about change is more complex. What starts on the streets must be seen through to ensure systemic change, accountability and improvements in people’s well-being. Although we have seen how people’s rights and freedoms are circumvented through the stifling of political dissent, we also need to look beyond this, as bringing about systemic change entails civic education, a change in mindsets, and greater awareness of civic rights that can ensure the demand for change.


Changes. (2021). Active citizenship: An introduction to active citizenship.

Dirksen, A. (2018). Civic engagement and reconciliation. Remarks delivered to the 2018 30 Network cohort on April 7, 2018 on the role of reconciliation in civic engagement. April 7, 2018.

Gomez, M. (2022). Active citizenship. Concept Note. The Sri Lanka Barometer.

Moro G. (2010). Civic Action. In: Anheier H.K., Toepler S. (eds) International Encyclopaedia of Civil Society. Springer, New York, NY.