It has been another long week in Sri Lanka. On Monday, May 9, a crowd emerged from the precinct of the Prime Minister’s official residence in Colombo and proceeded to attack two sites of protest, beating protesters, burning tents. The police showed little resistance — when they turned on their water cannons and fired tear gas, their action also served to decimate a protest ‘village’ that had been in place for a full month. In numbers, the protesters did not retaliate.
By evening, however, the Prime Minister had resigned and groups of angry vigilantes were attacking the buses on which the morning’s provocateurs had travelled; government supporters were variously stripped, beaten, pushed into a lake. Across the country, houses of government politicians were burnt, eerily empty. Journalists returning to their homes by bus, late at night, reported being confronted by angry groups who insisted they should not reach for recording devices and demanded to know if they were with the struggle or not.
By Thursday, May 12, the President (whose resignation is the protesters’ primary ask) had appointed a new Prime Minister. Or rather, he appointed an old familiar Prime Minister, who has held the office five times previously since 1993, and who lost his own seat at the last General Election. He is in Parliament through provision for a party seat, his party having won just one. As we speak, this Prime Minister is appointing his cronies to committees, many of whom also lost their seats in the last election. Arrests are being made for the violence of May 9, though reports differ as to who is being arrested.
A diary of hope
Oppression, provocation, violence, disappointment, betrayal — these things are dispiriting because they are so familiar. I write instead about a protest movement that has brought us hope of late because it is so unfamiliar. I write about minor details of this movement, to keep them safe in the record as we face the weeks ahead. I write as one citizen whose qualification to comment is only that I write and am the sort of person contacted by international media. You will find no authoritative commentary here on the sum of protests in Sri Lanka: multiple and diverse gatherings each of differing genesis. That is one of the things that makes them remarkable.
I have been attending protests against the current crisis since March 6. I attended small neighbourhood protests in the city of Colombo and its suburbs, but they also took place in other cities. At the first, I met one of the eldest of my aunts. This is not something that has happened to me before. The same evening, my husband spoke to two women who told him it was their first ever protest. At another, we shared our posters with four young women who had not been sure what to expect. If appearances can be trusted, we stood with other members of the less-to-more-comfortable middle classes, not usually easy to bring out to the road.
Among the most committed of these neighbourhood protests was started by a small group of young men who worked in a recording studio. Needless to say, it was impossible to work or sit in their insulated environment during the power cuts driven by fuel shortage. So they came down to the road, a busy junction in an outer-Colombo neighbourhood. After a while, they said, they thought they may as well hold placards of protest. Residents of their neighbourhood, and others beyond, joined them night after night for over a month.
These protests felt like safer spaces because many of the people present were each other’s neighbours. People brought their elderly parents, newcomers could join without receiving supercilious looks from seasoned activists, the bar for belonging seemed to have been relaxed. With limitations, admittedly: on one occasion I witnessed a group of men, some drunk and less orderly, attempt to join in a protest. No one stopped them, but other protesters edged away, less welcoming now.
An accumulation of protest
Nor were these the only groups out in March — there were also others from more established traditions of protest. For example, on International Women’s Day, the Ceylon Workers’ Red Flag Union staged a protest outside the Labour Ministry over wage guarantees offered to plantation workers that have yet to materialise. On March 20, families of the disappeared, among the standard-bearers for long-running protest in Sri Lanka, were stopped on their way to Jaffna, where they intended to intercept the Prime Minister on a visit to the area.
This is not to suggest these various protests were explicitly connected, nor that they began the momentum for change. But it seemed that suddenly, across the country, there was a chorus of calls for better accountability and governance. It didn’t matter that only 15 people came out in one place if in a neighbouring area there were 100 more — the connections between injustices had been made more apparent. I feel this proliferated momentum had a lot to do with why the current wave of protest has been irresistible, despite the best efforts of the government to stamp it out.
The dam broke peacefully
In fact, we have the government to thank for pushing the wave higher. When they cracked down on a protest in the President’s neighbourhood, when they announced a state of Emergency, a social media ban and a police curfew to stop a convergence of protests, when people defied orders and came to the street anyway and legions of lawyers showed themselves ready to offer the public their protection, the dam seemed to break. Most amazingly, the dam broke peacefully.
The protests that followed you are more likely to have read about, especially at Colombo’s Galle Face where GotaGoGama (a ‘village’ named for the President’s desired departure) includes a legal aid tent, a library, an artists’ tent, a people’s university and more. Elsewhere, in the ceremonial hall that is Colombo’s monument to independence from British rule, activists have been organising ‘teach-outs’ by individuals able to bring others up to speed on a range of subjects — be it the long oppression of Malaiyaha Tamil communities or understanding the Constitutional options available in this crisis or taking apart the idea of ‘unity’. One notable feature of the current protests is this emphasis on learning better. Early in April, I saw a poster for a protest that had a banner across it saying – I paraphrase – ‘we are new to this, call if you can help.’
This is not to romanticise the current moment. The national flag is waved liberally, as if to signal that monolithic majoritarian oppression is here too; we hear reports of sexual harassment; from the outside I read an ever shifting balance between the tides of erasure and acknowledgment. But, unusually for Sri Lanka, we don’t seem to have created an entrenched dichotomy between those who valorise and condemn the site.
Over weeks, more groups have entered, deepening its meaning. A friend described the moment in which women’s groups from Batticaloa chanted funeral laments at the gate of the Presidential Secretariat, a focal point of GotaGoGama usually held by student activists. Others captured on video the cheers and applause for student unions entering the village after a march — a show of solidarity rarely seen, student protests being more often dismissed by the middle classes as disruptive and a waste of time and public money. There have been placards held up about war crimes, a rare sight in the South.
The daily routine
These are things I have learnt by report. I visit the site during the daytime, once or twice a week. We wore our children out in March, so now we engage differently. I take my five-year-old son to the children’s corner of the GotaGoGama library where he reads books and draws pictures on cut-up pieces of old cardboard boxes. It is almost unbearably hot inside the tent, I drag home a wilted child. But my son always wants to return, and I volunteer for an occasional shift in the same space. Intriguingly, my husband and I each chose to spend a part of our birthdays at GGG, as it’s known.
When we have not got ourselves to the site for days, we start itching to return. We have come to know it as a cultural space as well as a site of protest. When I reported to my son a slightly moderated version of what happened on May 9, his greatest anger was with the police “because they wet the library”. We go to GotaGoGama because it is a place in which we feel we live in a functioning society.
And yet we don’t, of course. I worry that we are all too focused on the protests and politics of this moment. We know too little, don’t report enough, how people are surviving or not surviving this crisis, as they try to get by without consistent supplies of electricity, fertiliser, fuel, food, functioning public institutions, milk, medicine, money or peace of mind.
This is a first-person account by Sunila Galappatti. Based in Colombo, she has worked with other people to tell their stories as a dramaturg, theatre director, editor and writer. She is the author of ‘A Long Watch’, recounting the memoir of a prisoner of war in the Sri Lankan conflict.