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Sri Lankan People’s Movement Makes a Splash, But Now What?

Issue 273

In July, Sri Lankan protesters savored the luxuries of the presidential palace after ousting their nation’s leader. Now the hardest part begins.

Amba Guerguerian Aug 19

On July 9, thousands of Sri Lankan protesters stormed the presidential palace and sent the country’s president, Gotayaba Rajapaksa, fleeing. 

In iconic images that flashed around the world on social media, Sri Lankans were seen taking selfies on the president’s canopied bed and splashing in his private swimming pool. As they wandered through the residence, Sri Lankans scrutinized the mansion’s luxuries and compared the air-conditioned space to their sweltering, often dark homes plagued by months of power outages that first sent them into the streets.

The Sri Lankan uprising offered a moment of inspiration to people everywhere saddled with corrupt, out-of-touch elites intent on upholding a rigged system that had failed them (sound familiar?). How did they do it?

The Indypendent spoke with sources on-the-ground in Sri Lanka, who have asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Taking over the presidential palace, it turns out, may be the easiest challenge they will face. With a new interim president installed by parliament until 2024, there’s much uncertainty about what comes next. 

•   •   •

The teardrop-shaped island nation of 22 million people just south of India has been in the throes of an economic meltdown. Beginning earlier this year, the country experienced an intense economic crisis under the Rajapaksa regime, whose policies included lifting taxes on the rich without planning other sources of revenue; making all the farmers start using organic fertilizer (literally) overnight, resulting in major crop loss; serious misuse of the country’s funds and international donations; and fuel shortages that resulted in 10-12 hour per day power outages by the time the GotaGo protests erupted. 

“The poor, the rich, the educated and the uneducated all went to the streets because they couldn’t take it anymore.”

The Rajapaska family owns resorts in the Seychelles and Maldives islands, hotel chains in Uganda, major shares in Ugandan airlines and several properties in the United States. They ran Sri Lanka much like a family business. The clan controlled the presidency from 2005-2015 and regained power in 2019 when Gotabaya took office, appointing two of his brothers and a pair of nephews to key government posts. 

Patience with the Rajapaska family dynasty finally ran out on April 9 when demonstrations erupted across the country. Many people traveled to the capital city of Colombo to protest with an assist from the railway workers union, risking police bullets when they took to the streets. On one occasion, angry protesters beat to death a member of parliament after he shot dead a protester.

“The people do have a threshold,” said Yathev, a medical student in Colombo, explaining that people from all classes were affected by the crisis. “The poor, the rich, the educated and the uneducated all went to the streets because they couldn’t take it anymore. There were doctors on the streets; there were engineers on the streets; there were taxi drivers on the streets; there were fishermen on the streets… There were cops who came onto the side of the people. In the middle of the protest, they would just throw away everything that they had, and they’ll just start walking around with the people.”

The first and largest GotaGoGama “Gota Go Village” occupation site formed in April in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. Photo by anonymous.
A family poses for a photo at the principal GotaGoGama. Photo by anonymous.

As Sri Lankans flocked to Colombo, a massive encampment called GotaGoGama (gama means village in Sinhala) formed on an ocean-side park in front of the Presidential Secretariat building and right next to Port City, an artificial city being built by China, which has 99-year lease on the property. 

At its height, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans participated in the occupation village, which was reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street and the Summer 2020 encampment outside New York City Hall that called for defunding the police. It was outfitted with people’s libraries, generous food donations, huge protest signs from different political factions and makeshift shelters for those sleeping outdoors.

HD and her friends organized the Gota Go Gama People’s University which encouraged public discussions of various topics. “They will hold talks about politics, or poetry, literature, stuff like that. But this is just one stall out of so many,” she said.

A second occupation site popped up in Colombo and then towns and cities around the country followed suit. People participated in these outposts of non-violent protest all over the country.  “This guy who delivered my pizza in Badulla one day told me he does pizza delivery at night. And then he spends the rest of his time at Gota Go Gama, working shifts,” said HD, who told The Indy that demonstrators also established 25 Telegram groups (one for each district in Sri Lanka) that managed webs of communication among protesters around the country. 

The same broad coalition of liberals, conservatives, socialists, LGBTQ+ groups, pro and anti-military groups, Tamil separatists and others that brought down Gotabaya has since struggled with how to coalesce around a shared vision for the country’s future.

“There are so many different opposing and contradicting ideas, people from all of these different ideologies in this space,” HD said. “But the interesting thing has also been, how do we do it when there’s so many different views? What actually tied the whole thing together?” 

•   •   •

On July 20, the Sri Lankan parliament chose Ranil Wickremesinghe as interim president — another political elite who has ties to the Rajapaksas. It turns out the new boss is even harsher to dissidents than the old one. 

When Wickremesinghe took office, he immediately cracked down on the protests. “The main protest groups declared they would vacate the occupied premises to strategize and not continue beating the same drum because the political set up has now changed,” reports DW, HD’s friend. 

“There were cops who came onto the side of the people. In the middle of the protest, they would just throw away everything that they had, and they’ll just start walking around with the people.”

Nonetheless, the military and police attacked the unarmed protesters around midnight on the day Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament. DW had driven by the GotaGoGama earlier that day. “Everyone was already packing and leaving. The few people there were in the process of vacating, so it was largely a display of power on Wickremesinghe’s part,” he said.

The new president has also benefited from the desire felt by many Sri Lankans to return to some sense of normalcy “because otherwise there’s actually the possibility that people would starve and everything would completely crumble, and there are already signs of [that],” DW said, pointing out that Sri Lanka can’t get funding from the World Bank, China, the United States or other world powers without the semblance of an established government. 

“Wickremesinghe’s election is of course undemocratic. But it is constitutional,” DW wrote in a text message. “We will have to wait for a [popular] election, and on many fronts this is what is being demanded,” A timeframe for the current provisional government hasn’t yet been announced, although most assume that the next election will be in 2024, when Gotayaba’s term would have ended. 

The economic crisis has eased, as “neoliberal short-term measures” have been adopted “in order to supply fuel, extra medicine and food and so on,” said P. Sri Lanka has also seen heavy monsoon rains this summer which feed the country’s hydroelectric dams. Power cuts have been reduced to around an hour per day which, he says, explains why “the public is less keen on protesting like before.” 

What will happen to this protest movement that quickly receded into the shadows? Smaller protests, rallies and press conferences continue even as the regime asks for the public’s help in tracking down individuals who participated in the July 9 takeover of the presidential palace and whose photos have been released to the media. Several activists have been arrested in “the most dodgy ways,” said DW. “The ongoing protests are against such practices — and Ranil Wickremesinghe has been renamed ‘Ranil Rajapaksa,’ so this is definitely seen as a continuation of the same.”

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