by Sharmini Serasinghe
For the first time in the history of Sri Lanka, the nation experimented with a ‘Peaceful Protest’ to oust a leader they came to hate. And they succeeded! Sri Lankans across the nation, crossing boundaries of ethnicity, religion and social class came together in what came to be known as the ‘Aragalaya’ (Sinhala term for a protest), with one aim in mind — to rid the country of the once hero-worshipped Rajapaksa regime.
En masse, they literally chased away the Prime Minster, Mahinda Rajapaksa from Office followed by his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The latter was forced to flee the country. It all began in early March, 2022 with small candlelight vigils against long-drawn-out power blackouts. The protesters who gathered in the evenings after working hours were mainly peaceful. But the protests rapidly spread throughout the country.
From power blackouts, they then went on to also agitate against Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence. Survival for the average citizen had become difficult with the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic but the hardships reached the next level with the Rajapaksa regime’s mismanagement of the country’s economy and blatant corruption.
A severe shortage of basic essentials – food, fuel, medicine and cooking gas – was the last straw for the suffering average citizen. Their fury was further fueled by the blatant extravagances of politicians and their families and an over confident government with a two-thirds majority in parliament, turning a blind eye to the suffering of the masses. The cries of the vox populi fell on deaf ears.
Frustrations peaked around the middle of March, as pockets of people across the country took to the streets to voice their dissent against the President and the government. On April 9, these scattered protesters came together at Galle Face Green, adjoining the Presidential Secretariat in the capital Colombo to form the largest ever unarmed, unified protest movement Sri Lanka has ever seen.
Thus, the ‘Occupy Galle Face’ protest was launched on the April 9, 2022. The collective clarion call was “Go Home Gota” and “Go Home Rajapaksas”. Over six million Lankans who voted for the Rajapaksas with their hearts and others had had enough.
From a mere protest site, the Galle Face evolved into a dynamic hub. It was christened ‘Gota Go Gama’ (Gota Go Village) and tens of thousands from all walks of life began, literally flooding Galle Face in droves along with their children, kith and kin to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Waving Sri Lanka’s national flag, their clarion call was, “Go Home Gota”.
Generous donations from the wealthy who wanted to see an end to the destructive and corrupt Rajapaksa regime and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ousted, turned the protest site into self-contained centre equipped with a community kitchen, portable toilets, first aid and recycling centres, solar power, a makeshift library, a legal aid office, a people’s university, an art gallery, free food and drink.
Until all hell broke loose on May 9, ‘GotaGoGama’ was an orderly, peaceful and disciplined protest site, with music, art, poetry and dance portraying the fervor of the people’s demands. Further, it became a symbol of ethnic and religious unity as well as political enlightenment with its spirit spreading across the nation and across the seas to Europe, Australia and the USA where many Sri Lankans are domiciled.
However, the internationally acclaimed peaceful protest turned sour after supporters of the much maligned Rajapaksas went berserk and stormed into the protest site on 9 May. They vandalised ‘Gota Go Gama’ and beat up the peaceful protesters who fled —many of them never to return.
Thereafter, violence erupted across the country plunging the nation into utter chaos. Houses and vehicles of some forty ruling party MPs were torched and burnt to the ground, one legislator and eight others were killed. The government accused the radical Leftist JVP and its youth organisations of instigating the violence, which the JVP typically, denied.
With a semblance of law and order subsequently restored after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, ‘Gota Go Gama’ saw a lull in protests. For a while, people seemed content with one Rajapaksa gone. But, not for long.
People’s pain exploited
Though the pre-May 9 Aragalaya was apolitical, opportunistic political factions subsequently emerged amongst the protesters seeking to exploit the Aragalaya and ‘Gota Go Gama’ for partisan ends.
Sri Lanka’s radical Leftist political parties, mainly the JVP (Janatha Vimukti Peramuna) and its breakaway faction, FSP (Frontline Socialist Party) galvanised the Aragalaya into an aggressive movement that eventually ousted the two Rajapaksa brothers from power. These two parties – JVP and FSP – have been in recent times, attempting to carve a niche for themselves on the back of the country’s socio-economic and political crisis.
The JVP’s nationalist youth front, the IUSF (Inter University Students’ Federation) was at the forefront of the post May 9 Aragalaya, persuading and mobilising trade unions, student organisations and Left-oriented citizens to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The IUSF is believed to be now affiliated to the FSP.
Political analysts define the involvement of the JVP in the Aragalaya as an attempt to establish itself as a potent ‘third political force’ by taking advantage of the political vacuum created by the Rajapaksas falling from political grace.
JVP leader and MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake continues to claim that the parliamentary majority is being held by “a group rejected by the people”, referring to the ruling SLPP government.
Though the electoral strength of the Leftist JVP was 3% in 2019, it was able to mobilise thousands of people, especially the youth, to force President Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office and flee the country. The subsequent resignation of the President further boosted the JVP’s confidence.
Priority for Sri Lanka is political stability without which economic recovery is not possible.
Political instability in neighbouring Sri Lanka is undoubtedly a cause for concern for India. Though the latter stepped in to provide a US$ 3.8 billion credit line to Sri Lanka as the economic crisis worsened in April this year, there are several attempts being made to involve India in the country’s political crisis by portraying it as a supporter of the Rajapaksa regime.
On several occasions the Indian High Commission in Colombo was forced to refute various such claims through its Twitter handle while reiterating that India will ‘continue to stand with the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realise their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values as well as established institutions and a constitutional framework’.
There is cause for suspicion that the Left parties – FSP and JVP – who are openly opposed to India and the West, are responsible for instigating these anti-Indian rumours.
The JVP, which is a breakaway faction of the pro-Chinese Left party, is deeply anti-India and strongly opposes the devolution of power demanded by Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. It is also against the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which made Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the country and declared English as the “link language”.
Further, the ultra-nationalist JVP considers Sri Lanka’s plantation workers of Indian decent, as the fifth column of India.
Though the JVP has transformed into a parliamentary political party, recent events prove that it has not renounced its violent past. Meanwhile the FSP appears to share the JVP’s suspicions regarding India extending a US$ 3.8 billion credit line. The FSP also opposes Indian investments in Sri Lanka.
The primary lesson learnt from the Aragalaya is, when the masses – sans ethnic and religious biases – converge in unity to voice their dissent, they can make elected leaders flee and governments fall. Such unity is the fundamental requirement for a nation to demand good governance viz. transparency, accountability and justice from the legislators the voter sends to parliament.
With a lesson hopefully learnt, Sri Lanka may now be able to finally rise from the ashes to build a better tomorrow for our future generations.