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Where Does Sri Lanka’s Protest Movement Go From Here?

The primary demand of the 2022 protests – the removal of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his role as president – has been achieved, but the secondary demand of “system change” has not.

Where Does Sri Lanka’s Protest Movement Go From Here?

Workers representing government institutions participate in a protest against Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tax policy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

The state-led repression of protests, delay of local elections, and introduction of repressive mechanisms such as the Anti-Terrorism Bill have raised a number of questions about the future of protests in Sri Lanka. The primary demand of the 2022 protests – the removal of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his role as president – has been achieved, but the secondary demand of “system change” has not. While never clearly defined, this loosely called for widespread systemic, structural, and institutional reform. Under the current climate, is “system change” which feels like an elusive and distant dream still a possibility?

There are several reasons for Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, which included structural problems such as a current account deficit, budget deficit, and an external debt problem. The Easter Sunday terror attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the tourism sector, one of the country’s main sources of revenue. Bad policies such as tax cuts, a fertilizer ban, and a decision to use money from the reserves to pay external debt created a critical shortage of essentials in 2022. Queues could be seen across the country as people lined up for fuel, gas, and kerosene. The prices of food skyrocketed. Medicine and medical equipment became scarce. Power cuts lasted for 13 hours in the hottest month of the year, April.

Protests popped up in pockets around residential areas in Colombo. Activists like Marisa De Silva circulated a list of protests daily on social media and invited interested citizens to join in. The country had never had mass protests before. But in the spring of 2022, citizens joined in anxiously with loudspeakers, placards, and candles.

On March 31, the protests reached a tipping point. A peaceful collective in Jubilee Junction, near the president’s house, exploded into a protest outside the official residence of the head of state. The protesters, among them youth, families, and the elderly, were violently dispersed by the police, riot police, and the army. Despite a series of arrests, the declaration of a State of Emergency, curfew, and a social media ban, people took to the streets across Colombo in early April 2022. A number of youth set up camp at Colombo’s Galle Face Green and renamed the allocated agitation site Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village) on April 9.

The Indian Ocean, Colombo Port City, and luxurious five-star hotels surrounded the site. Citizens set-up a community kitchen, a library, a medical center, a People’s University, and a movie theater. Numerous political parties, which included members of the United National Party, National People’s Power, and Frontline Socialist Party, could be seen at the site. From its inception, Gota Go Gama functioned as a complex and contradictory political ecosystem. In close proximity to the tents raised by the Mothers of the Disappeared and plantation workers were so-called War Heroes and Buddhist monks.

Gota Go Gama became a junction for a number of aragalayas (struggles). The labor movement rose from the ashes where it had languished since then-President J. R. Jayawardene crippled the 1980 General Strike. The LGBTQ+ community hosted Sri Lanka’s first pride parade. People also remembered deeply traumatic events such as the Easter Sunday attacks and the Mullivaikkal Massacre and Black July riots.

In retrospect, the protests notched two major achievements, which are now under threat of erosion. The country’s polity transformed from a passive citizenship, whose only political involvement revolved around the ballot box, to an active citizenship who took to the streets, made their voices heard, and continued to put civic pressure on all tiers of the state. However, Arjuna Parakrama, a lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, is uncertain about how much this transition could achieve. “Will there be a shift to individual outcomes in the country in measurable ways?” he questioned.

The second achievement of the protests is the involvement of the middle classes. “The protests permanently politicized a substantial section of the middle class,” lawyer and trade union leader Swasthika Arulingam told me. She sees the middle class as key players in the country because of their influence over policy, parliament, and the judiciary. The presence of the middle class in the protests reduced the state’s violent response and backlash, which could be seen, for example, in protests led by free trade workers to protect retirement funds in 2011.

However, Parakrama criticized the protests’ dependence on the middle class. Once the middle class pulled out in May 2022, the protests lost their credibility and momentum.

The protests also had a number of setbacks. The National Question, disenfranchisement of the Hill Country Tamil people, the discrimination of the Muslim community, and exploitation of workers sat on the periphery of primary demands. Citizens should have mapped out the intersections of a number of broad issues and unpacked their systemic, structural, and institution core rather than focus so intensely on one key demand: Go Home Gota.

Many experts have also criticized the violence that broke out on May 9 and July 9. On May 9, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s loyalists met at Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence, and then attacked Gota Go Gama in Colombo and Kandy. The police looked on and enabled the violence. Workers from around the area ran in to help the youth and children under attack. They pushed the perpetrators into the Beira Lake. Other members collected outside the prime minister’s residence to break in. Across the country, people set fire to the houses of MPs and supporters. Similarly, on July 9, after protesters occupied the president’s house, the presidential secretariat, and the prime minister’s official residence, a fire broke out in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s house.

Lawyer and researcher Ambika Satkunathan explained the possible factors behind people’s so-called violent response.

“Violence as a response is not surprising in a society where violence is normalized. State violence is normalized, and the state wants people to accept it as normal,” she told me. “The state behaves as if it is entitled to use arbitrary, unchecked, extralegal, brutal violence, but expects citizens to act in a measured, reasonable and non-violent way within the legal framework when responding to authoritarianism, systemic state violence and human rights violations.”

“The reality is that people who have been abused and discriminated against will react in violent ways. That is human nature!”

It is also important to remember that politically motivated external elements joined in on May 9 and July 9. With violence, it is hard to differentiate between who was a “real” protestor, who was as an “external element,” and who took part in collective “mob” behavior.

The politicians responsible for May 9 have faced no repercussions for their behavior. Police on site, such as Deshabandu Tennakoo, have in-fact received promotions; he is slated to be appointed as the next Inspector-General of Police.

The Galle Face Action Plan brainstormed by citizens at Gota Go Gama had a path mapped out for the post-July 9 period. This included the removal of both the president and prime minister at the time, an interim government for six months, and a general election in the future. However, as activist Melanie Gunatileke pointed out, the protestors did not have a “mechanism to take the plan forward.” This eventually led to Wickremesinghe’s election as president by members of Parliament – a move that solidified the Rajapaksas’ control over the country by proxy. Currently, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son is busy campaigning around the country in a bid to return to power.

When Wickremesinghe became president on July 20, he started a crackdown on the protests, which is detailed in a report released by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Gota Go Gama was raided by armed forces at dawn on July 22, where activists, journalists, and lawyers faced violence and force. Clergy, student union leaders, and trade union leaders faced a witch hunt as they received travel bans and arrests. Three student union leaders, including convener of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige, were arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Peaceful protests such as a candlelit vigil on October 9 and a satyagraha on February 3 were disrupted by the police. A student union led protest on March 7 was attacked by armed forces as it approached the premises of a local university. Journalists have been surveilled, and the families of protestors have been harassed and intimidated.

Civic pressure still continues but on a small scale. The protests at Gota Go Gama from Colombo 5 held 100 days of continuous protests. Member Chaminda Dias described the protests as a “tribute act to the main event at Gota Go Gama.” The members still hold protests twice a week on Wednesday and Sunday.

Liberty protests in Colombo 3 continue despite harassment and intimidation from the police. “The constitution allows us to protest. If we give up this fundamental right, we will never get it back. We need to speak up for transparency, accountability, and justice,” an attendee told me about her presence at the site.

In the Eastern province, the Batticaloa Justice Walk protested for 300 days continuously. Citizens have also initiated the People’s Movement for Local Councils and formed two committees for economic justice and a new constitution.

Nevertheless, a local poll has indicated that people are still keen for “system change.” In a survey by the Center for Policy Alternatives, 82.5 percent supported the need for system change. Another poll confirmed that the people most supportive of the protests were youth aged 18-29, with 64 percent holding a favorable view of the movement.

Many of the economic problems from last year continue to exist. Food is overpriced. Many families are unable to access meat or fish, and some members skip meals entirely. Children are malnourished. The price of electricity has skyrocketed. Welfare and social security measures do not protect the poor and vulnerable. What is the way forward?

On July 9, I met a man who parked his car in a fuel queue and walked to Galle Face Green with his two children. “I have to show my children history if we are to be a better country,” he told me as he pointed to people who streamed in and out of the presidential secretariat.

Historically, the country has been a hotbed for dissent. The archive, Dissidents and Activists in Sri Lanka, which includes literature by various leftists, the Christian Liberation Theologists, and Women’s Movement from 1960-1990, is a testament to this fact.

“The archive reminds us that the protests were a culmination of momentum from the past,” curator Crystal Baines told me. “Most of these activists were not able to achieve justice in their lifetime, but this was the kind of momentum they were working towards.”

Activists such as Fr. Leo Nanayyakara, Fr. Lakshman Wickremesinghe, and Sunila Abeysekera faced extreme hardship and obstacles, particularly in the face of state repression, but the movements they led and the people they influenced retained momentum over time. Fr. Tissa Balasuriya’s output sat at the crossroads of socialism, theology and social justice. He founded the Center for Society and Religion (CSR), a safe haven for activists in the JVP uprisings in 1971, anti-Tamil riots, and the Civil War. He advocated for the urban poor and his influence could be felt in the presence of Fr. Jeewantha Peiris, who stood for estate workers in the protests.

As Baines told me, the protests were not just about a “physical people’s collection at a particular venue, but a goal which the country could move towards.”

Many experts and panels have noted the absence of leadership as one of the key failures of the protests. Shamara Wettimuny, a historian, touched on the various shades of protests in a teach-out held at Colombo’s Independence Square.

Based on her study of history, Wettimuny provided some hope. From 1915-1917, a number of youth protested against the Colonial Government’s human rights abuses, committed in the period of Martial Law between June and August 1915. The protests hosted future leaders such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan and D. S. Senanayake. While these protests failed to result in justice and accountability for state violation, the youth leaders continued and eventually steered the country towards independence.

“Historically, protests take a lot of time.” Wettimuny said. “Some of the youth who stood on podiums and were organizers at the protests may become leaders who could play an important role in politics in 20 years’ time.”

The protests certainly underlined the presence and potential of a number of possible leaders: Vrai Cally Balthazar. Melanie Gunatileke. Swasthika Arulingam. Ven. Thampitiya Sugathananda. Wasantha Mudalige. Many of these youth leaders advocated for various causes before the protests and continue their work in the present.

When Wickremesinghe became prime minister, the economic pressure on the middle classes ceased and they withdrew their support from the protests. “The protests only happened because of economic problems, so people’s motivation only existed temporarily,” Leela Nadaraja, member of the Mothers of the Disappeared told me.

By contrast, she said, “We are motivated by our love for family and in our search for truth.” Leela’s eldest son was stopped at a checkpoint in the North by the army. They took him in for questioning, but he never returned. The movement seeking justice for the disappeared has protested continuously for 2,243 days.

While the 2022 protests connected citizens across class and ethnic lines, it also failed to facilitate a collective class consciousness or convert the momentum to a sustainable and inclusive foundation, such as class struggle.

Many key organizations such as student unions, trade unions, and professional associations can enact a transformation within their structures as a start. For example, the Inter University Student Federation recently met the Jaffna Student Union to join forces to oppose the Prevention of Terrorism Act. “Why did the IUSF ask Tamil people to join them? That is not allyship. What they should have done is join the Tamil people’s decades-long struggle against the PTA and work together,” Satkunathan told me.

She noted that these organizations needed to practice what they preach and lead by example to add to their credibility. The IUSF is one of the most prominent student unions at the moment. How democratic are they? What is their position on the National Question? Do they have women in decision-making positions? If the IUSF is to have any impact within the country, they need to consider these questions within their union first.

“The danger of perpetuating what they claim to challenge is always present and has to be guarded against,” she told me. “They have to be willing to be held to account if they want to hold others to account. If not, they will not be taken seriously or have an impact.”

The “system change” people demanded is still a possibility. The past provides evidence that it is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when.” However, there is still work to be done to translate the momentum of the protests into a sustainable movement that resembles the vision for a better country birthed at the protests.