The kernel of Sri Lanka’s waterfront protests

The future of Sri Lanka is volatile and uncertain but there is an undercurrent of hope being sustained by the people

May 14, 2022 12:12 am | Updated 06:49 pm IST

At the Galle Face seafront

At the Galle Face seafront | Photo Credit: Getty Images

For 30 days in Sri Lanka’s own ‘Gota go gama’, a space carved out by protesters in front of the Presidential Secretariat, Sri Lankans responded to a vision of an alternative Sri Lanka — one that was democratic, non-violent, inclusive and creative; where youth would find a special place and where fear no longer would be the governing principle. Music, theatre and traditional rituals filled the space along with political chants and slogans. People from every community sought refuge at ‘Gota go gama’ from the daily hardship of living, irrespective of class, religion, gender or ethnicity.

Aggression has seeped in

Then came May 9 and government thugs attacked and brutally destroyed that sacred space and injured so many. That spirit of violence has now seeped into the protest movement itself and is also exploited by angry people at the local level. As protesters confronted their Jacobin streak, government supporters were beaten, humiliated and the houses of government ministers burnt to the ground. Vigilantes roamed the streets while the police and security forces seemed surprisingly indifferent. Many of the private properties of the Rajapaksas were completely destroyed. On May 11, the government began to enforce the Emergency more purposely, deterring anti-government vigilantes, telling those who were rebuilding ‘Gota go Gama’ that they had to go home and that the curfew would be strictly enforced. Whether this is a temporary measure during curfew or whether this entails a more decisive role for the military remains to be seen. The situation remains tense and volatile.

Before May 9, Sri Lanka was witnessing a larger social movement in the making. It was youth-led but involved a large cross-section of the people. For over a year, young people in different spaces seemed to be organising things through social media. Sceptics dismissed their mobilisation as peripheral. No one writing in the mainstream could imagine any real threat to the Rajapaksa power and authority. Strongman authoritarianism still remained the ideology of political elites. All this changed with the novel coronavirus pandemic and the massive economic crisis accentuated by man-made folly in particular economic decisions that were taken. The remoteness and the lack of communication by the government, whose members continued with their conspicuous consumption, rankled the population. Foreign exchange shortages and a debt crisis combined to completely disrupt the lives of average citizens. Confronted by fuel and gas shortages, the lack of food availability and the spiralling cost of living, a desperate population turned to its youth to express its anger and frustration.

A forum and its vision

Youth mobilisation had several components united by anger against the Rajapaksa regime. Young social activists had been organising things over the last year for a new political culture. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, the Indian farmers’ movement and Shaheen Bagh, they created an enclave for an alternative vision of Sri Lanka. The emphasis was on non-violence, democracy, ethnic harmony and creative expression. Large crowds and leading celebrities flocked each evening to ‘Gota go Gama’ to express their solidarity. The security forces stepped back. Fear had been broken.

These young activists were then joined by all-island student and academic unions. There was a bit of unease when this occurred, since some of the groups had a violent history, but for 30 days they joined in and extended their ful support to the peaceful protest. Trade unions, the environmental movement, professional associations, and civil society groups from women’s groups to Rotary Clubs and religious leaders of all faiths including leading Buddhist monks, also made their way to the village. Democracy, ethnic harmony, corruption and the arbitrary alienation of assets seemed to be the major themes.

Perhaps the foremost group of heroes were the young lawyers. If any protester is arrested or manhandled, hundreds go to court to be present during the hearing and give the court some courage to stand up to the authorities. This created a safety net for the movement. Lawyers also mingled with the protesters and intervened if there was any tension or difficulty.

Every day the protesters held out the possibility of a united Sri Lanka and most observers at the site before May 9 described the scene to be vibrant and exhilarating. And, yet, the very broad-based nature of the movement made it clear that differences and tensions were also very much a part of the mobilisation. The nationalist, violent underbelly of Sri Lanka also came to the fore with the presence of some of the participants. Their active vigilantism remains a major concern. Only the active intervention of religious figures, civil society leaders and the legal profession has stopped violence in certain places.

A place for Tamil culture

One of the main questions that has been raised is why the north and the east have not participated as fully in these protests as expected. The Tamil nationalist narrative is basically to ask “Where were you when we went through dire economic consequences during the war?” and statements arguing that Tamil issues were not being addressed. What the protests have done has been to celebrate the Tamil culture and language as never before in a Sri Lankan gathering; but there is no discussion of devolution or a Tamil nation. There is also deference to the rank and file of the army — perhaps as a strategic move — that rankles many Tamil commentators. But despite this nationalist reticence, Tamils have participated at the local level and were very much a part of the hartals that have taken place throughout the island. Many from the Jaffna University Students Union and women from the north and the east have also come to ‘Gota go Gama’ and been quite active in their participation. On Thursday, leading northern civil society activists penned a letter in support of the protesters who had been affected by the violence on Monday.

At the political level

So where do we go from here? Until Thursday it was clear with the indefinite strikes called by all the major trade unions and the enormous uprising taking place that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must follow his brother (the former Prime Minister) and leave office for the sake of the country — that there will be no stability unless that happens. On Thursday, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister. For stability it is important that the new Prime Minister command not only the confidence of Parliament but also the confidence of the protesters as well. It is still uncertain whether Mr. Wickremesinghe is such a person though his knowledge of finance and economics is welcomed by some stakeholders.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to resign in favour of a national unity government. The lead Opposition party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have insisted on the implementation of the proposals presented by the Bar Association in Sri Lanka. This would include a return to the 19th Amendment, especially its provisions on the independent judiciary and independent commissions, the abolishing of the executive presidency through a 21st Amendment, and the setting up of the economic framework for International Monetary Fund (IMF) negotiations. After that, a general election is to be held within six months. The President, in his recent address, also committed himself to some of these demands. With the government Members of Parliament so divided and the Opposition fluid in its loyalties, many worry that nothing will come to pass without constant pressure from the protesters and society in general.

If President Rajapaksa does not resign, it is still unclear whether the public, for the sake of stability, would accept a Wickremesinghe-Gotabaya Rajapaksa combination. It is the kind of “deal” that the protesters have abhorred and highlighted. It is more likely that the unrest and turmoil in Sri Lanka will persist until President Rajapaksa leaves. He would be ruling with a very unpopular Parliament and if turmoil gets out of hand, Sri Lanka may be faced with the Myanmar option — an option that the commander of the army has vehemently denied. There have been cases of security force excesses, but for the most part, there has been a striking indifference. Many who are at the protest sites say that many members of the security forces appear to support their struggle. There will be strong resistance if the Myanmar option is considered and it is unlikely that the rank and file of the security forces will support such an operation against their own communities.

Meanwhile, the IMF has signalled that it will go ahead with its negotiations since there seems to be an all-party consensus for that to happen. The future of Sri Lanka is volatile and uncertain, being on the verge of economic collapse, but there is an undercurrent of hope. The active engagement of individuals, organisations and civil society in keeping people accountable for good governance is a movement that appears unlikely to go away.

Radhika Coomaraswamy is Chairperson, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka

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