Sri Lanka has taught the world important lessons about organizing protests. Within a week or two in April, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Galle Face Green. A coastal front located in the capital, Colombo, Galle Face had served as the site of several mass protests, including an island-wide hartal in 1953.
As the protests were now over the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government, the organizers saw fit to name their site Gotagogama. They then invented an equally appropriate line for their entire campaign: Gota Go Home.
The Gotagogama protesters feel vindicated in their anger. In 2019, the country saw its worst terrorist attacks – a series of bombings against mostly Catholic churches, the mastermind of which has never been fully identified, despite a presidential commission – since the end of the separatist conflict. of 30 years 10 years earlier. Banking on legitimate fears about the security and sovereignty of the country, Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to keep his promises.
Rajapaksa claimed the end of the old order, the start of a new era in the country. Coming from an established political family, he presented himself as a great outsider to the country’s long and messy tradition of electoral politics.
Less than two years after winning a massive and unprecedented mandate – rising to 6.9 million voters, in a country of 22 million people – however, Rajapaksa’s failures have started to pile up. Many of these failures were not entirely his own: they were the result of an array of internal and external causes, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of which undermined its export sectors, including tourism.
Yet, in Sri Lanka as in other countries, when the state is seen as having failed in its most basic functions, it is the head of state who is asked to leave. Thus, when the island’s foreign exchange reserves dwindle and gas and fuel shortages, as well as power cuts, test the patience of the people, the latter multiplies the calls for their resignation. .
The Galle Face Green demonstration site – Gotagogama – embodies the strengths and limitations of these protests. On the one hand, the protesters were, and are, united around a common goal. On the other hand, these objectives have served to mask the differences between the groups that make up the site. The result was that from time to time these differences surfaced, determining the course of protests across the country.
So far, protesters have kept those differences to themselves, maintaining a veneer of unity in a protest zone that continues to welcome people of almost all ages, from wizened seniors to newborns. Their ability to come together has been their greatest strength. This has boosted support for their cause across the country and around the world, allowing organizers to maintain water, food and electricity supplies.
However, this did not entirely rule out some crucial differences. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the protests in Gotagogama was the lack or absence of any cohesive leadership. If certain groups, belonging in particular to left-wing student formations such as the Interuniversity Student Federation, have dominated others, no group has yet captured the entire movement. However, for the past two months, a populist-radical student left, led by the IUSF, has asserted itself more clearly.
A criticism often leveled at these organizers is their lack of a common minimum programme. In response, protesters unveiled a manifesto late last week. Composed of a number of proposals, the manifesto focuses on the resignation of corrupt officials, first and foremost the president and his family. Other reform proposals include canceling farmers’ debts, incorporating the right to life into the country’s constitution and freeing political prisoners. These represent a range of views and opinions.
As a result, while emphasizing the Rajapaksa’s exit from politics, the protests – or aragalaya in Sinhalese – have also focused on secondary priorities, such as constitutional reforms. In most countries, criticism of political corruption has almost always been framed in terms of massive resignations of parliamentarians. This was also the case in Sri Lanka and Gotagogama: one of the most popular anti-regime slogans, “225 Ma Epa! or “Say no to 225!” “, targets the number of deputies.
These political slogans and campaigns intertwined with various political, social and even cultural contradictions, all within Gotagogama. To give an example, the from aragalaya The main focus has always been Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but since his appointment as Prime Minister he has also focused on Ranil Wickremesinghe and his support for the President. The Prime Minister’s personal life, unsurprisingly, has come under attack. In that sense, for me at least, it wasn’t a bit surreal to come across slurs targeting one’s sexuality, on a site that included a separate site for LGBTQ activists.
As intriguing as these contradictions may be, the protests resonated strongly across the country. In their own way, such contradictions reflect the origins of the protesters and the fact that they still lack definitive leadership. As Rathindra Kuruwita, a prominent political analyst in Sri Lanka said recently in The Diplomat,
“There is a lack of coordination between the protesters and a lack of clear political objectives. Most of the anti-Gotabaya protests seem to be a patchwork of people with different, even conflicting political goals. While many protesters have demanded that the government work with the IMF on a bailout, unions that are increasingly playing a prominent role in the protests are skeptical of IMF interventions.
In any case, in Gotagogama, one meets not only the detractors of the president, but also his former supporters. One such protester, Nissanka, from the village of Kegalle, once the heartland of the Rajapaksa, was candid about what he expected of him in 2019.
“We honestly thought he would give us some meaning, maybe even turn Sri Lanka into another Singapore. But because of his surroundings, he got bad advice and ruined everything. Having supported his brother [Mahinda] in 2005, 2009 and 2015 [when he contested the presidency]we now feel betrayed by him.
Unsurprisingly, the residents of Gotagogama are not all equally critical of the government. One person’s explanation of their failures may differ from another’s. Yet the overwhelming thrust remained the same: “Gotabaya must go”. If they do not predict who will succeed him, they believe that his departure will be the harbinger of a better future.
Such political analyses, which focus on individuals rather than the structural causes of an economic crisis, can be accused of being inadequate. Yet they captured the imagination of a predominantly young population in Gotagogama. In a context where different groups voice different concerns – the site has backed separate platforms for causes such as gay rights and legal aid – such populist calls have brought them all together.
These calls have, in turn, been determined by the trajectory of shortages, queues and price increases. In April, when the protests resumed, the biggest concern was to forever lengthen the daily blackouts, which could last up to 10 hours. By mid-May, power cuts and shortages were beginning to ease, largely thanks to lines of credit from India. By June, however, the shortages were back, peaking the following month. So on an otherwise ordinary Saturday, June 9, protesters broke into the president’s official residence. After occupying it, they finally achieved their goal of removing its main occupant.
Rajapaksa’s resignation, dated July 13, will not mean the end of Gotagogama’s campaign. Nevertheless, having achieved their primary goal, the protests are now likely to erupt, as they have in countless other countries and situations. A clear example of these ruptures appeared on July 13 itself, when, after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared himself interim president, some protesters stormed the public television station Rupavahini, announcing that they had resumed the transmission.
Although many supported this decision, many others criticized it for straying from the from aragalaya primary purpose of peaceful protests. It even forced “a group of people”, allied with the Gotagogama protests, to state unequivocally on social media that “what is happening now is not our aragalaya.” Such splits, almost unimaginable before, are becoming a reality in Sri Lanka’s vibrant anti-government protests – just as they have in Egypt and Lebanon. This is in many ways unavoidable and unavoidable.
(Uditha Devapriya is a Sri Lanka-based international relations analyst, researcher and columnist. Opinions expressed are personal)