From the Streets of Sri Lanka
25th of August, 2022: The Sri Lankan government has launched a large-scale investigation into the protests that took place, and is determined to prosecute those who took part. Names of the interviewees/demonstrators who spoke to Political Pandora have been changed due to concerns for their safety.
Living in an area close to a petrol station in a school district, there was always minimal traffic on the roads as far as Mara could see from her house in Colombo. However, in December, she started noticing masses of long queues along the petrol station. January onwards, the roads would often get blocked as queues began extending into the main road. This was an occurrence across the country.
“Late December, [early] January is when we started realizing that there were a lot of problems in terms of everyday things – milk packets were difficult to buy, the prices of rice, everyday food, eggs and all went up. My parents also mentioned that the price of fertilizers was increasing by about 300%,” Mara (she/her), a 19-year-old high school graduate, said in an interview with Political Pandora. Her parents weren’t entirely wrong.
The prices of fertilizers had gone up 250% in the last 14 months prior to April, affecting an already impoverished and vulnerable sector of the population. As the farmers argue, expensive fertilizers make for expensive food. According to the World Food Programme, food inflation reached a drastic 80%. Sri Lanka’s economy took a nosedive, announcing bankruptcy, while facing fuel shortages, rolling electricity blackouts, uncopable inflation and varying levels of impact across the island nation. Its people woke up to the discrimination, corruption and weak administration of the Rajapaksas’ governance. Then, the people decided to take action.
The COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a tsunami crashing onto a land crippled by the constant shifting of political tectonic plates, a series of disasters punctuated by greater ones. Sri Lanka was finally awake and would make it through the crisis the only way it knew how: dissent. And seeing fellow citizens on streets holding candles and posters— some just standing in silence— youth protestors such as Mara and Priyantha found themselves joining the mass protests.
Mara felt the time for political apathy was long gone. They had to overcome many fears for any change. She shared how it would not have been the safest to come out and protest. ”Were the crowds safe? Did I know anyone in the crowd? What if there was violence? Would the police be there? Would they let us protest?”, she shared, when talking about her apprehensions.
These fears were heightened when a state of emergency was imposed and people could be arrested arbitrarily – the perfect opportunity for the government to silence the people’s voices. Continuity in the suppression of people’s right to dissent, post-Rajapaksa in late July, is a global disappointment. This is despite international calls to end the state of emergency by the likes of Amnesty International, European Union, International Commission of Jurists, foreign ambassadors to Sri Lanka, lawyers, activists, and global citizens.
It wouldn’t be the first time the government used abhorrent measures to quell dissent either. A repeat of the pandemic protests bludgeoning was a very real possibility. However, she thought and put it into action: “If I make the crowd, that incentivizes others to do the same and step out of their bubble. I couldn’t vote in the previous election but I can change the outcome of the next election, by putting pressure, by showing up, by protesting for what I need and for the future I want.” This line of thought highlights the pertinence of the youth’s voice in politics, also considering how they make a fairly blameless crowd in the midst of the Sri Lankan kleptocracy.
Completely unaware of the change they’d make and the response they would receive, Mara and her friends mobilized the people around them. The whole of the demonstration is made up of similar fractions of people – students, trade unions, non-profit organizations, corporate employees, and more.
Mara was not the first to protest, but they made sure they wouldn’t be the last, for a long time. In what some call a second Arab Spring, the youth resourcefully employed social media and put out information about how they would enact change. They shared logistical information such as where they would meet, and when and how they would gather.
They were careful to consider what their intentions were, and deliberate the manner in which they would achieve their demonstration. Mara hadn’t missed the mark when she said she would make the crowd. Soon enough, hundreds had gathered, attracting hundreds more.
On their Instagram stories were information and guides on how to stay respectful of people of various ages and abilities – how to steer clear of any queerphobia, ensure inclusivity, and prevent any negativity from slipping. This included avoiding expletives so children could join and keep the chants appropriate. They also made sure no resource was going to waste and advised others not to go on car parades and burst fireworks.
The youth was conscious and aware of what they wanted: not just “GotaGoHome” (referring to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former President of Sri Lanka), but “Do Away with the Executive Presidency”.
The Sri Lankan youth were keenly observant and responsive to the impact of the crisis. They saw that as a cumulative result of decades of ill-advised administrative decisions (both by the Rajapaksa clan and other politicians), a 26-year-long civil war, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka faces its worst humanitarian crisis in 2022.
The Sri Lankan Rupee was announced as the world’s worst-performing currency. Decked with foreign debt and having defaulted, the foreign exchange crisis has left Sri Lanka with hungry stomachs, fuel shortages, rolling electricity blackouts, driving transport to a halt in many parts of the state, and the public queuing up for food and fuel while many are also unable to afford medicine. Imports and exports have fallen. Businesses have closed.
At the forefront are the people of Sri Lanka, from all sections of society, fighting for economic security and against injustice. While the Western and international media has largely portrayed this as an economic crisis, it is a crisis of greater depth– a socio-economic crisis, a socio-political crisis with a complex history. The people fight for more than economic stability. They want justice for the aggrieved and equality for the discriminated, both often affected because of the state.
Through the 1980s and after, and sometimes even before, with high ethnic tensions, the youth, trade unions, human rights organizations and such would protest against state-backed violence, discrimination, torture, and enforced disappearances to increase awareness and accountability, not dissimilar to the situation today. The state responded with further violence.
After the disappearance of numerous victims post-war, their families protested for over five years, unyielding. Some do not seem to have ended at all. And as Mara shared, there have always been clusters of protests against state violence and discrimination and plenty of others against the government’s administrative decisions.
Just last year in 2021, Muslims and Tamil people, the oppressed minorities of Sri Lanka, marched from Pottuvil to Polikandi, almost 500 kilometers by foot— a pada yatra— to gain international traction and turn to agencies of the United Nations (UN). They wanted self-determination, accountability for war crimes, and a stop to institutionalized discrimination. All of this only tells us this: the struggles of the Sri Lankan people were always being voiced, but the world still has not managed to listen.
Political Pandora spoke with another youth protestor, Priyantha (they/them). For them, things started to worsen much earlier. They said, “it really struck me when they mismanaged COVID last year, without the curfews, the whole Muslim burial thing; it was a bit disgusting, to be honest, to witness all those things at the forefront. They should have been more responsible as leaders of this country.”
Priyantha had also referred to the state requiring any patient dying from COVID-19 to be cremated rather than buried. This denied Muslims the right to bury their family members if they’d died from the disease, despite the World Health Organization’s guidelines stating burial was safe and would not “contaminate groundwater” as Gotabaya Rajapaksa had claimed.
The policy was reversed after Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan had visited Colombo and urged President Gotabaya, a Buddhist with the backing of a Buddhist majority having a tradition of cremating dead ones, to stop the forced cremations. There is speculation that the President had sought the support of Pakistan at a UNHRC session.
Sri Lanka then allocated a remote region with military supervision for burials but without the presence of the deceased’s family. It was only in the early months of 2022 that the anti-Muslim policy was terminated, upon intense criticism and opposition internationally. Particularly, what got the policy repealed was the pursuit of the issue by the UNHRC, which was to have a meeting regarding the discrimination of religious minorities in Sri Lanka at Geneva.
The people demand only one thing: justice.
While there is plenty that has gone wrong and continues to, in the Sri Lankan political ecosystem, the immediate focus of the people is on the economic crisis and abolishing executive presidency. An important goal was to remove the Rajapaksas from the government and have them take responsibility for their crimes. They could only achieve the former.
As shared by a demonstrator on Twitter, “We were there [Galle Face] because we wanted a better democracy, and not the Rajapaksa dictatorship.” One of the many demands of the protestors is the abolition of executive presidency that gave way to Gotabaya Rajapaksa becoming an autocrat.
The 20th Amendment makes way for the President to control the appointment of the judiciary and other key public institutions. It was passed into law in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic’s peak in Sri Lanka, with merely two days of debate and a majority of votes, discarding the opposition’s request for at minimum, a couple days of cogitation. The amendment canceled out reforms brought by the 19th Amendment, which was only adopted in 2015. This includes replacing the Constitutional Council with the Parliamentary Council, the latter of which can consist only of members of parliament and is limited to making observations that the president is not subjected to hear. The President can remove the Prime Minister at any time. It also repeals the president's duty to ensure the Constitution is respected and upheld and promotes national reconciliation and integration, previously required by Article 33(1) of the Constitution.
With the 20th Amendment, it appears the president’s immunity to all civil and criminal proceedings is expanded in addition to the pandora’s box of power that the Rajapaksas hold. Although it is said that the actions of the President ‘continue to be subject to the Fundamental Rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court’, it is yet to be seen how the Supreme Court interprets and responds to the provisions made and power granted. The president can assign any ministerial subject or function to themselves. Furthermore, the limitations imposed upon dissolving the parliament are lifted, with a few minor conditions added. Essentially, the Amendment leaves concentrated and consolidated power, as tens of thousands prove and believe, in the wrong hands.
A similar demand of the protestors is the repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Under the PTA, about 200 Tamil political prisoners remain detained (some for over a decade) by the Sri Lankan authorities, for which families continue to call them out on discrimination and injustice. The Rajapaksa government proposed two problematic amendments to the already precarious PTA in January which passed despite public and political opposition two months later in March 2022.
The PTA has long been abused to punish the government’s critics, minorities and journalists who are reportedly tortured, and unlawfully so. The PTA has a vague and evasive definition for ‘terrorism’, allowing for dissent and freedom of speech and expression to fall under ‘terrorism’. The PTA enables arbitrary arrests, passes confessions for evidence and allows detention of any suspects without trial for up to a year and provides no specific provision on guaranteeing anyone detained or arrested with a criminal charge to appear before a judge and put on trial. The Act violates international law in various ways and also forgoes many rights guaranteed in the multilateral treaty of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Hejaaz Hizbullah’s arrest under the PTA was one that drew the attention of civil rights activists and more across the country and with ripple effects outside. With a flimsy link to a possible suspect of the Easter Bombings, the attorney-at-law was arrested and barely given any of the rights he was entitled to, such as a right to an attorney without police interference. This irked the people for two reasons: Hizbullah was being discriminated against for believing in Islam, a minority religion, and the fact that the investigation into the attacks was being derailed by this injustice. The authorities have used the PTA to detain hundreds of Muslims since the Easter Bombings and arrested over 600 in the last three years, according to the Human Rights Watch.
Holding candles in silence, and some with posters and voices, protestors are demanding justice for what is called the Easter attacks/bombings of over 300 victims who died and about 500 injured and those that went missing. Nine suicide bombers killed themselves and they targeted church-going Christians and tourists across the country simultaneously. This seemed a new development on two fronts. One is that Islamist extremism was not an active threat and the target having been the Christian minority, suggesting ethnic tensions. While the government had maintained that the Islamic State (IS) was responsible for the bombings along with a local terrorist group called the National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ), and despite a claim from the IS for the same, there was no evidence given to back that up.
The people continue to feel insecure and angered over the lack of progress made with the investigation, with even rumours laying blame on the security and intelligence detail directed to handle the situation and ensure safety. However, this attack allowed Sinhalese Buddhists, including politicians, to further attack and oppress the minorities where Muslims faced severe danger by these groups, especially considering the steps taken by the government to discriminate against them.
Mosques and Muslim-owned shops were attacked and looted, seemingly backed by the government upon reports of a Sinhala-majority security detail not putting in sufficient effort to protect the community. The amendments made to the PTA widened the perimeter of power abuse by the Rajapaksa government.
Ranging from corruption to war crimes, there are few laws and ethics that the Rajapaksas haven’t violated. The public demands justice for both and everything in between. The 26 years of civil war left Sri Lanka in blood and tatters, and particularly from 2005-2009 and even into 2015, six years after the war had ended, the crimes hadn’t- the Rajapaksas were still in power.
In 2020, it came as no surprise that Gotabaya Rajapksa withdrew Sri Lanka from its agreements with the UNHRC for ethnic reconciliation and accountability for war crimes that the government had initiated under Sirisena as President, however ineffectively. The state witnessed haunting murders and betrayals, shellings of civilians in supposedly “safe zones”, enforced disappearances and setting up ‘rape camps’ for the state security forces, full of enslaved women.
The crimes had a distinct feature: victims largely belonged to the Tamil minority and anyone remotely suspected of being supporters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Gotabaya was directly responsible for many of the war crimes as defense secretary, and post-2019, he appointed multiple people implicated in war crimes and famously pardoned a former sergeant, responsible for the Mirusivil Massacre, sentenced to death. Most of these people enjoy the freedom they steal from everyone else.
An authoritarian’s favourite tool has always been ethnonationalism. Many of the policies crafted by the governments create the intended effect of kindling friction amongst different ethnic and religious groups to maintain the dominance of the Sinhalese Buddhists, who are known to capitalise on the friction and strife and allow them to maintain their positions of privilege. This includes the PTA, militarization of Tamil-dominated regions, enabling violence against Muslims by these privileged and majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhist troops.
They have been showered with bountiful power, acutely observed when Gotabaya Rajapaksa assembled (in 2021) and later extended the tenure (May 2022) of the ‘One Country, One Law’ (OCOL) presidential task force. It was formed to bring uniform law to all citizens and eliminate laws such as the Muslim marriage law and other regional ones. However, what truly came as a shock and proved the government to be an ethnocracy was the appointment of the militant Buddhist monk Gnanasara Thero of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Power Party. The Islamophobic group and its General-secretary Thero were credited with attacking Muslim businesses, starting boycotts against them, destroying their homes and mosques, allowed by the ignorance of its government leader. This is a trend seen in many parts of the subcontinent.
There are some, like the black saree-clad Mullaitivu women who continue to protest for justice for the enforced disappearances, for the hundred thousand people, mostly Tamil, who are reported to be missing. The people of Mullaitivu haven’t stopped fighting for accountability and justice, and they started over a decade ago, in 2009.
The palpable socioeconomic divide adds to the frustration of the Tamil people. They are surveilled, and face violence in all forms if they are seen protesting; they have to deal with the military, not the police. The women are groped and harassed by the police, the people responsible for their protection. Their lands are yanked away, temples destroyed, families torn apart. Tamil people are experiencing the effects of war for a second time and no one is blinking an eye: they are starving, no way to fight for justice and accountability anymore and are forced to flee, again. Just like they had to during the war, having sold everything they had in their names including land for a boat ride, risking their lives if they got caught, and all in hope of a day where their stomachs won’t go empty.
As in history, the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka has once again been left in the background with struggles the other majority is unable to comprehend or condemn. In the Tamil-dominated regions of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, most cannot afford to go on protests like those in Colombo and the South, and feel underrepresented in these protests both in terms of demands and literal representation. This is despite the great efforts taken to include the minorities such as the rare occurrence of singing the national anthem in Tamil, commemorating the war deaths of the innocent, and all other demands for justice that the Tamil people have as well.
The mistrust isn’t coming out of anywhere, though. They had gone hungry a long time before Colombo did, and they didn’t vote for the Rajapaksas, which the still majorly Sinhalese protestors seemingly did. The discrimination still exists in these groups, with many protestors mainly just looking for the government to provide them with necessities such as fuel and ousting Rajapaksa, unlike those demanding justice.
Waving of the national flag by the protesting urban-youth has been cause for another tension. While these flag-bearing protestors intend to assert their patriotic voice, the socially excluded minorities of Sri Lanka find the act to be one of arrogant supremacy, which is what the flag signifies for them. It is inescapable how the “lion flag” represents that: a lion, symbolic of Sinhalese pride, four peepal leaves with a religious meaning to Sinhalese-Buddhists and two strips of green and orange in the side to represent the Muslim and Tamil minorities.
Inter-ethnic tensions during the protest have sprouted in other ways too. There have even been some Sinhalese Buddhists fighting against the Tamil national anthem being sung and attempts to prevent the aforementioned memorials. In fact, the Mullaivaikkal Tamil Genocide memorial site in the Mullaitivu area had been heavily militarized, laden with court orders, and surveillance. The people in the region are repeatedly intimidated and harassed by security forces as they have been for years, in thick attempts to suppress the marginalised.
However, the specific demographic of young Sri Lankans and their drive to take collective action and the way that they did, proves to be a remarkable example of peaceful, conscious and righteous demonstrations. The youth have been particular about being inclusive, boasting a diverse mass across races, religion, age and gender and sexual orientation. This further involved staying respectful to previous generations, in spite of the general perception of the leaders having been responsible for validating the Rajapaksas and their crimes.
Their demands almost always included, and even primarily consisted of, justice and a better day where all Sri Lankan people could live peacefully. Piercingly aware of and resisting police brutality, and many claiming incitation of violence and provoking on behalf of law enforcement, the youth demonstrations have largely stayed peaceful.
‘Peaceful’ isn’t the only word that can be used to describe the range of protests, however. They have been expressive, colorful, and full of culture – everything the media failed to show and show accurately. It is a stark example of white-washed news and blatantly removing the heart of the protests to show an empty picture of misinterpreted masses. That is, besides the misleading portrayal and coverage of the issue, of course.
Sri Lankans have been quick to call out misrepresentation of the protests, and particularly, an instance of the same by The New York Times. The reputed agency was seen to use photographs that were misleading — one that shows demonstrators “clashing with security forces” and many even claiming some of them were of a different, outdated protest. They fail to account for the violence incited by the police force. They fail to show the solidarity of the people.
The infamous GotaGoGama— ‘Gota Go [Home] Village’— has been a collection of clusters, of Inter University Students’ Federation Union, the Government Medical Officers' Association, railway unions and many more groups. They started gathering in the Galle Face Beach, opposite the parliament. While there is no individual or group responsible for the protests at large, some had organised many events throughout the weeks.
Free food stations and open libraries were set up; educational camps were organized, with academicians and social workers giving informational speeches about the ‘divide and rule policy’ employed by the Rajapaksas, the ethnonationalism, and the economic and administrative decisions that have led to the crisis. The Sri Lankans didn’t miss out on embracing their culture and enjoying themselves while fighting either. Protests, across the country, showcased their rich arts as well – colourful paintings/posters, puppet shows, and vivacious baila music with socio-political satire-laced lyrics!
Self-labelled a “movement in the making”, the Fearless Collective is an artistic organization centered on South Asian women that have been using their art and social media to fight in solidarity with Sri Lankans.
A contributor of theirs entered the Presidential Residence and reported some phrases they heard the others say: a shocked, “The bathroom has AC!”, a hushed whisper, “Look at the lunch menu.” These were people who stood in queues for fuel and cooking gas for days on end, distressed by lengthy power cuts, limiting and cutting meals so their loved ones can have another morsel of rice. Could there be a better representation of the agony they felt?
The mass mobilisation, however, has surprisingly not gained a fraction of the traction it deserves internationally, and neither has it been particularly successful in regards to getting the people’s demands met.
Not unlike the coverage of other demonstrations and conflicts in the Global South, international media, particularly that of the West, majestically fails to capture the reality and depth of the protests. Police brutality and military violence are labelled “clashes” and “riots”, completely missing out on the true perpetrators of the crime – police, military and other groups dispatched by the Rajapaksas, pro-Rajapaksa groups, and the state under Ranil Wickremesinghe now.
It is also a painstaking truth that the violence instigated by these groups has gone underreported by newspapers internationally, as have the crisis and the protests as a whole! Countless protestors have been assaulted, mercilessly hit with water guns and teargas (sometimes ready with bullets to be shot) by the police and military, and robbed of their right to peaceful freedom of expression and dissent.
Another major failure of non-Sri Lankan media is the coverage of the issue as an economic rather than a socioeconomic or sociopolitical crisis that it is, with its people demanding not only better administration but also justice against longstanding discrimination, violence and war crimes. The greater degree of impact on marginalised sections of the society often goes unmentioned. The efforts of these gallant demonstrators are belittled and discredited when the media fails to portray the issue accurately and to the extent that it deserves and even more so when it misplaces responsibility for violence on the wrong party.
Misinformation spread catering to political propaganda of the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe is another threat to demonstrators. Discrediting the movement by claiming or insinuating all of the millions making up the demonstrations are associated with smaller communist parties such as the Frontline Socialist party is yet a disservice.
In August, with a relatively new president in office, neither has the crisis eased down and nor has a semblance of sociopolitical stability been achieved. Sri Lanka is still in shambles. Many students are unable to go to their educational institutions, transportation is still a luxury, unemployment reaching heights and 6.3 million people are food insecure. Peaceful protestors are ‘dispersed’ by force, GoHomeGota protestors are being hunted down, having arrested prominent demonstrators and human rights activists, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa isn’t even on Sri Lankan soil. But it seems his legacy never left; his ethnocracy stands tall in oppressing its people, free of accountability and justice yet again looking like a fairy tale dream.