Why Sri Lanka’s Headline Grabbing Protests Failed

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Why Sri Lanka’s Headline Grabbing Protests Failed

Yes, Sri Lankans drove President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office – but did they accomplish any lasting change?

Why Sri Lanka’s Headline Grabbing Protests Failed

Sri Lankan university students march during a protest over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

So much has happened and yet so little has changed in Sri Lanka. The last year was a period of unprecedented political turmoil on the South Asian island, as an economic crisis led to angry protests that captured headlines around the world. A strongman president, once dubbed “the Terminator” for his ruthlessness, was forced to flee as thousands of protesters raided his official residence. While Gotabaya Rajapaksa sought refuge in the Maldives and Singapore, demonstrators flooded into his home, swam in his private pool, and rifled through his underwear. The images played on screens across the globe, in what looked set to be a moment of much needed and radical change for the conflict-ridden island.

Just a few short months later, however, those hopes of change have been dashed. Rajapaksa soon returned to the island and was even welcomed by supporters at Colombo airport. Close allies have replaced him in office and his political party is currently plotting its next return to power, its reputation seemingly unscathed. Rajapaksa faces no investigations for any of his crimes, from his cronyism and corruption to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians more than a decade ago. Many of the protests have now been dispersed and public outrage with the Rajapsaksas quelled.

The so-called aragalaya, or “people’s protest,” which seemed to be on the brink of a spectacular revolution, has roundly failed.

For those looking to understand the crisis in Colombo, however, none of this should be a surprise. Sri Lanka’s protest movement was plagued with a host of problems from its inception.

The demonstrations began early last year as economic turmoil began to squeeze Sri Lanka. Prices of basic goods continued to rise and in March, fuel shortages in the south sparked a particularly vociferous wave of protests that targeted then-President Rajapaksa. It was a marked shift in popularity for the military man. Just over two years earlier, his extremist brand of Sinhala nationalism swept ballot boxes in the south and bore him into the island’s top job. But as the very same electorate that brought him to power started suffering economically, Rajapaksa was left to shoulder the blame.

The roots of the economic crisis, however, go deeper than the former Sri Lankan president. For decades, government expenditure had been exorbitant. From 2005 onward, during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure as president, the Sri Lankan military rapidly expanded, with defense dominating spending as the state launched a genocidal campaign to defeat the LTTE.

In the wake of that offensive, which culminated in the killing of tens of thousands of Tamils, the Rajapaksas went on to take out costly international loans, financing massive projects that brought the country almost no financial benefit. Costly cricket stadiums and brand new airports remained empty.

The problem is also not entirely the responsibility of the Rajapaksas. The “unity” regime of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe that replaced the siblings in 2015 brought little material change, continuing to bolster defense spending and pursuing the same policy of military occupation in the Tamil North-East.

Gotabaya’s continuation of such expensive policies, however, as well as the introduction of his own disastrous fertilizer bans and tax changes, combined with a global economic downturn, did indeed tip the island into disaster. The protest movement, though, failed to acknowledge the deeper roots of the island’s financial woes and instead chose to focus their fury solely on the younger Rajapaksa. There was little mention of the massive government expenditure on the bloated Sri Lankan armed forces, of the other political and military actors who had played a role in contributing to the current situation, or even of Rajapaksa’s role in the massacres of Tamils. Instead, the protests ignored Sri Lanka’s systemic issues and sought to blame one man under an overly simplistic slogan – “Go Home Gota.”

Failing to recognize the wider causes of the crisis, the movement also proposed no solutions for the island’s financial turmoil or an envisioned governance structure going forward. The movement coalesced around a singular demand, one that didn’t even call for Rajapaksa to be held accountable for his crimes. It was the lack of potency behind “Go Home Gota” that weakened it. It allowed a broad range of the Sinhala south, including military figures responsible for war crimes, notorious racists, and even former Rajapaksa supporters, to join the protest and wave flags knowing that a deeper, systemic change was not on the cards. It was a hollow call for revolution.

As Rajapaksa fled, protesters were left seemingly stumped on the next steps toward reform. While Tamils and human rights groups around the world demanded Rajapaksa’s arrest and a process of accountability that tackles the longstanding climate of impunity, the aragalaya was conspicuously silent.

Into that gap stepped Ranil Wickremesinghe – a former Rajapaksa rival turned ally. He quickly assumed office and forcefully dispelled the protesters with a familiar mix of police brutality and draconian arrests. Rajapaksa supporters regrouped and welcomed the strongman back, while Wickremesinghe continues to rule. Sri Lanka’s broken political system merely has a new head at the top of it.

The failure of the aragalaya will not come as a surprise to the island’s Tamils, particularly the mothers of the forcibly disappeared, whose continuous protest has lasted far longer, but attracted far less attention from the global press. They had repeatedly called on the southern protesters to build links and incorporate their demands in seeking justice for their forcibly disappeared loved ones. Though a token remembrance ceremony took place at the protest site as Tamils mourned their war dead, it failed even to mention the word genocide, let alone demand accountability for it.

Wider calls from Tamils demanding justice for Rajapaksa’s more egregious crimes, demilitarization, and a complete restructuring of the state also fell on deaf ears. Tamils who were skeptical about expecting change from a southern community that has repeatedly elected racists and catered to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism will stand vindicated.

Sri Lanka’s political system is incredibly resistant to reform. Since independence in 1948, an ethnocratic hegemony, which concentrates power in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese, has been forged and stiffened through decades of violent repression. This illiberal rule has allowed crimes from massacres to financial misdemeanors remain unaccountable and buttressed by a massive military, one of the largest per capita in the world.

Solving Sri Lanka’s financial woes means dismantling that entire broken system, from the militarization of the state and its occupation of the North-East to tackling the climate of impunity. Without addressing those core issues, those who sit at the top of a rotten system will continue to simply rotate through the top posts, and the same cycles of illiberal and unaccountable rule will be doomed to repeat themselves.