The black, red and yellow sign written in bold letters across the white walls of Temple Trees, the official residence of Sri Lanka’s prime minister, stated ‘mahajanathawa sandaha wivurthai’ (open to the public). The public needed no invitation to occupy these government buildings, which up until then had excluded them. The grounds inside Temple Trees were full of unsolicited visitors who were relaxing on the lawn, strolling, taking selfies, possibly ruminating on the fact that the lush, well-maintained grass they ‘trespassed’ on would have housed posh events for diplomats in the recent past. These scenes of calm and levity following the massive ‘Whole Country to Colombo’ protests on 9 July 2022, are sometimes invisibilised in international media coverage that focuses more on the ‘hurly burly’ of violent clashes.
In contrast to the inquisitive public inside Temple Trees, two months prior, on 9 May, there was an angry, frustrated crowd on the other side of the enormous black gate at the prime ministerial residence. They were using decrepit police barricades as battering rams. I still remember the screech of the wheels as the ‘battering rams’ were pulled back and then pushed towards the gate by people who were running along with it to maximise momentum. ‘Bang!’, the impact was heard by onlookers and probably felt by the ones ‘driving’ the barrier. ‘Bang!’, another barrier made a dent, and the gate shuddered and moved an inch. The successive bangs were rhythmic and pulsating. The tension and anger in the air were palpable.
On that night, the scenes along Beira Lake were surreal, reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie with rain, smoke, faint street lights, and of course, the buses that were on fire. I will never forget seeing a young man kicking a toppled bus with his bare feet, epitomising the repressed frustration of the working class who had been subjected to every form of suffering due to the economic crisis and skyrocketing inflation. The kicking must have hurt his legs the next day, but it looked and probably felt cathartic.
Truly apocalyptic scenes near Beira Lake where angry protestors have overturned a number of buses and set fire to them.
They are demanding bystanders not to video and it’s a tense, volatile atmosphere.
— Marlon Ariyasinghe (@exfrotezter) May 9, 2022
Early signs of dissent
The wave of organised citizen-led protests in Sri Lanka began on 1 March, 2022 at Kohuwala junction with a handful of people holding candles and placards standing on one side of the road. Dubbed silent protests, they also spread to other urban centres of Colombo. However, before Kohuwala, there were protests by farmers demanding redress for the fertiliser crisis, caused by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banning chemical fertilisers virtually overnight. Other protests also began around gas and fuel queues. In the north and the east, protests by the families of the disappeared, for example, have been going on for over 2000 days, since 2017. Therefore, different facets of the Janatha Aragalaya (People’s Struggle) have long preceded the 2022 protests.
The Kohuwala protests culminated in a protest in Mirihana on 31 March, bringing together a multitude of people from around Colombo. While this protest was similar to the previous ones, it was far from silent. The crowd was invigorated by numbers and the constant encouraging hoots from the vehicles that passed by. Mirihana also housed the private residence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and most who had come out to protest were his constituents, the ones who contributed to voting him in with an overwhelming majority in 2019. Now, they were on the streets with their entire families holding placards demanding his resignation. Around 8 pm, it seemed like the protest was winding down and some of the groups who had brought sound equipment played the national anthem to signal its end.
Sri Lankan rights activists have long cited systemic issues such as routine police brutality and an overall lack of accountability, and have called for an overhaul of the system rather than papering over cracks.
Then the idea came – it was unclear whether it was organic or organised – that the crowd should move towards Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence. What started as a small group of people grew in number as they got closer to his residence. It was heavily guarded by the police and the Special Task Force (STF, the paramilitary police unit). ‘Go home Gota!’ was chanted over and over at the premises. One of my friends pointed out the irony of screaming ‘go home!’ to someone who was already literally at home – this became quite a clichetic joke later on. My friend was flippant, and trying to see the absurdity of the chant. Yet to many, the phrase has a much more loaded meaning. This slogan represented the voices of Sri Lankans who had fought against injustice for decades. It is an invocation of past struggles, a manifestation of the present and an imagination of a future Sri Lanka.
At around 9 pm, the initial crowd of protesters began to disperse. As we were walking back, we saw many others walking toward the residence. News of the protest had spread like wildfire through social media and news outlets, and people wanted to be a part of it. At 10 pm, riot police were deployed, and anti-riot armoured vehicles were moving towards the premises. The situation had escalated as the police started firing water cannons and tear gas at people. At around midnight (the earliest reports were posted at 11:35 pm), we saw on the news that a bus had been set on fire. Later, there was disturbing footage of the police beating people on the streets, on alleyways, and, in some cases, inside private property. A total of 54 protesters were arrested, several journalists were brutally attacked, and over 30 people were hospitalised.
Police brutality: The norm and not the exception
Over the last four months, such displays of excessive force and lack of restraint on the part of police became commonplace. Sri Lankan rights activists have long cited systemic issues such as routine police brutality and an overall lack of accountability, and have called for an overhaul of the system rather than papering over cracks. There are many documented instances of arbitrary arrests, torture while in police custody and extra-judicial killings. But over the years, such criticism has remained unacknowledged by the state.
On 19 April, during a protest for fuel in Rambukkana, over 90 kilometres northeast of Colombo, the police used live rounds on protesters, resulting in the death of 42-year-old Chaminda Lakshan and a number of others being wounded. Witnesses claimed that they had seen the police set fire to a three-wheeler, and there are photographs of police officers damaging motorbikes that were parked on the road. The Inspector General of Police (IGP) later claimed they had used ‘minimum force’. An inquiry was conducted, and four officers were arrested, while some were transferred from their posts (transfers are often the only consequence for police officers who commit violations).
Different facets of the Janatha Aragalaya (People’s Struggle) have long preceded the 2022 protests.
Conversely, police inaction during protests also led to violence. On 9 May, the riot police were accused of standing by while a group of Rajapaksa partisans attacked Gota Go Gama (GGG), the node of the Janatha Aragalaya, and the main protest site at Colombo’s Galle Face Green. There were disturbing images and videos of men attacking peaceful protesters with sticks and weapons and setting fire to some of the tents. Videos shot from inside Temple Trees showed how government members of Parliament roused these groups. This attack was the catalyst for the burning of buses, the use of battering rams to enter buildings, and multiple incidents of arson around the island. A politician was beaten and killed, and unidentified groups torched houses and business premises of government-affiliated MPs. Investigations are still ongoing, with some citing state complicity and political jobbery.
In subsequent protests, I witnessed firsthand how the riot police were not shy about using tear gas and water cannons. I often heard protesters remark on the endless supply of tear gas and question how the police were able to obtain these supplies, when there is an economic recession coupled with a shortage of foreign currency. For instance, on the evening of 9 July, protesters had gathered near the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence on Flower Road. Earlier in the day, massive crowds had poured into Colombo from all parts of the country and occupied the presidential secretariat and the president’s official residence. While there were many accounts of protesters having a good time within the occupied public spaces after the initial tension had dissipated, the situation at Flower Road was tense. The police, too, were relentlessly firing tear gas and using water cannons. As journalists on the ground recounted, when tear gas is fired indiscriminately, they are usually never spared. In addition, on 9 July, several journalists were assaulted with sticks and batons.
There are no tear gas veterans. You never really get used to tear gas, it hurts the same every time. You always smell it before it hits you, a subtle coppery, acidic smell that creeps inside your nostrils. On the night of 9 July, when I felt the burning sensation in my eyes, I ran back to find cover. My vision had blurred, and I could feel the gas in my throat. Luckily, a white building to the side was open, and I followed the others running into it. The security was operating a tap helping those who were coming in. My hands feverishly fumbled inside the bag, and I took out a t-shirt and my water bottle, then quickly poured water on it and onto my face. The burning sensation continued as cool water dripped off my face onto my clothes and then to the floor. In the distance, I could hear the ‘plop!’ sound of the tear gas canisters being fired one after another. Suddenly, one fell inside the building, and it was once again a scramble to safety. I ran to a corner filled with about a dozen people. I kept wiping my eyes and face with the wet t-shirt and realised that I had left my water bottle behind. Someone offered me a bottle which I hastily used to wet my t-shirt. I was in a corner in darkness and when my eyes adjusted to the low light, I realised that the crowd who shared the space with me were the police in uniform. Some policewomen were coughing while others were washing their faces or profusely rubbing their eyes. They were hit with tear gas as well. From their conversation, I understood that they too were disoriented and did not know where to go. Ironically, some even commented on the brutality and the meaninglessness of the relentless attacks. Tear gas does not discriminate and affects everyone the same, regardless of which side of the barricades you are on.
Fast-forward four days to 13 July, and I was yet again at Flower Road. The 9 July protests led to Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country, yet neither the president nor the newly appointed Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe had officially resigned as the protesters demanded. Once more, a large crowd at Flower Road was trying to get into the prime minister’s office (his private residence was burnt down on 9 July.) The military, the police and STF were deployed to stop protesters from reaching the office. It felt almost like an absurd pantomime as they were guarding about 30 metres of road outside the office, sandwiched between two sets of protesters. Water cannons and tear gas were shot at the crowds in quick succession. The area was filled with the sharp zinc smell, déjà vu: I saw STF personnel with their eyes red and coughing uncontrollably. They were helped by some protesters who had recovered from the effects of tear gas.
Tear gas can also be deadly. Over the past few months, I have seen many people who either lost consciousness or developed breathing difficulties after inhaling tear gas, being carried off protest sites and taken to hospitals. On 13 July, I saw an unconscious man being placed in an ambulance which then carved a way out through the crowd. Then another young man was carried by four people who were running through the crowd accompanied by health professionals. Later, it was reported that 26-year-old Jaliya Dissanayake from Daladagama, who had a chronic respiratory disease, had died. These are the forms of state-sponsored violence and brutality that have been unleashed on protests which were often peaceful.
A key observation from my experiences is that police and military presence often escalates tension. It was clear that the police, besides their readiness to use brutality to quell protests, were not adept at managing or diffusing such volatile situations. To make matters worse, the military was called to maintain law and order – which is not part of their stipulated duties. (Emergency Regulations promulgated in both May and July 2022 by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and then Ranil Wickremesinghe gave the military sweeping powers to enforce law.)
A trigger-happy military
Militarism was one of the pillars of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign along with ethnonationalism and the establishment of a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist state. Over his short presidential tenure, it was no secret that there was increased military involvement in public affairs, including the appointment of retired military officers to government posts, tasked with everything from managing the pandemic to pushing organic fertiliser to resolve the fertiliser crisis. Therefore, when protests mushroomed all over the island, with calls to unseat Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he naturally turned to the military.
Armed with the state of emergency, the current government has weaponised the law to create a climate of fear and intimidation against dissent and peaceful protests.
The military and the police played an integral role in unleashing state-sponsored terror on peaceful protests. A few days after the Mirihana incident, on 5 April, a protest took place in front of the parliament entrance where masked men armed with rifles on unmarked motorbikes came to intimidate the crowd – it was later revealed that they belonged to the army. On many levels, it was frightening and incomprehensible to witness the armed men provocatively riding their bikes amid a crowd of peaceful protesters not once but several times. This was an excessive, unnecessary display, and the immediate reaction was surprise and shock. For the south, these were war heroes (ranaviruwo) who were acting as common thugs to intimidate and instigate peaceful protesters. The discourse behind glorifying the military has a long history and played an intrinsic part during and after the ethnic conflict. Sri Lankan political regimes also used the military’s popular adulation in their campaigns. For example, the now infamous and mercilessly parodied campaign song of Gotabaya Rajapaksa fashioned him as ‘Wada Karana Ape Viruwa’ or the ‘our [war] hero who works’. Even his attire, with several medals attached to a white shirt, constantly recalled his military past.
Three Special Forces bikes came out to intimidate the crowd.
The crowd turned them away.
What is this government doing? Are they trying to shoot protesters down? @GotabayaR @PresRajapaksa and all gov ministers blood will be on your hands.#SriLankaProtests https://t.co/61OFBUPtBJ pic.twitter.com/b5U6FcXjoz
— Marlon Ariyasinghe (@exfrotezter) April 5, 2022
However, the incident with the army bikes led to a conversation about the role of the military in the north and the east. Many from this area, and from the Tamil diaspora, shared their experiences and revealed frequent encounters with such intimidation tactics, surveillance, and harassment where the freedom to protest peacefully was significantly curtailed. While these revelations spanned decades and were made during and after the war, they were largely invisible or ignored by those in the south, dominated by a Sinhala majority that was not ready to relinquish their mythicised, heroic image of the military. The invisibilisation of previous struggles also revealed a deep-rooted class and ethnic divide that needed first to be recognised. In Sri Lanka, the individual’s right to protest is by no means equal and contingent on how far one is from the centre – Colombo. Therefore, this blatant provocation by the military in front of the parliament served as an epiphanic moment for most in the south.
The same solidarity and awareness were displayed months later, on 22 July, after the military crackdown on Gota Go Gama protesters. This took place hours after Ranil Wickremesinghe was officially sworn in as president. The attack, which happened early in the morning, was calculated and executed with ruthless efficiency. Sleeping protesters were thrown out of the premises using brute force, and the makeshift tents which had been there for months were destroyed. This attack shocked many, especially since the protesters had agreed to hand over the premises at 2 pm the same day. Diplomatic missions, international media and rights organisations readily condemned this show of force by the newly-elected executive president.
Will the resumption of fuel supply and reduction of power cuts make Sri Lankans ask less questions from the ones they elect to positions of power? No one can say with certainty.
What followed immediately were protests, in which ordinary citizens berated the military and the police forces for following orders to assault peaceful citizens whom they were meant to protect. Some very revealing remarks were made at these protests, where some protesters exclaimed that they had no choice but to believe that the armed forces committed war crimes during the ethnic conflict. This was an important moment in the Janatha Aragalaya, where people from the south saw beyond the heavily-marketed, mythicised figure of the ‘ranaviruwa’ (war hero) and recognised the invisible strings of the state attached to them. Those who spoke about war crimes during and after the civil war under Rajapaksas’ rule were labelled ‘traitors’. In a regime that silenced any critique through various sinister means, there was a thin line between treason and patriotism. The freedom to question without being labelled or prosecuted was greatly restricted. Therefore, ordinary citizens in the south questioning and holding the military accountable for their actions signalled a shift in how they engaged with the military. In the past, state repression that previous governments unleashed on the communities in the north and the east was either ignored by the majority in the south or at times cheered on. Rightfully, they looked at the Janatha Aragalaya and the calls of ‘unity’ with healthy scepticism. However, this recognition of state-sponsored violence in the south may be the first step towards accountability, reparations and achieving some form of trust between communities.
Ill-starred presidential honeymoon
One of the remarkable aspects of the Janatha Aragalaya is the awakening of collective public consciousness. The protests were asking difficult questions. The people found their voice and were emboldened to the extent of questioning not only the country’s corrupt, malignant political culture, but also the divisive, malevolent tactics used by the state to cultivate mistrust and ethnonationalism. How long this ‘wokeness’ would last is the million-dollar question. Will the resumption of fuel supply and reduction of power cuts make Sri Lankans ask less questions from the ones they elect to positions of power? No one can say with certainty. What we do know is that the work of the Janatha Aragalaya remains unfulfilled. The prime minister that protesters wanted to oust along with Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now the country’s executive president and promises to bring stability, political and economic. Yet, the support he received from the Rajapaksa-allied Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – whom most people in the country believe lost their mandate with the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa – is hardly an encouraging sign.
So far, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential honeymoon has been bloody, ill-starred, and prophetic of things to come. A state of emergency (SoE) has been declared, and many fear the state misusing the state of emergency (which remains in place at the time of writing) to crack down on protesters. Travel bans have been imposed on several leading Gota Go Gama activists, and arbitrary arrests have already started. In a parliamentary session on 27 July, the chief government whip, Prasanna Ranatunga, called protesters ‘criminals’ and ‘drug addicts’ whose behaviour was ‘uncivilised’, similar to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s labelling of protesters as fascists. While state actors engage in undermining the Janatha Aragalaya, the spectre of the Rajapaksas still haunts the halls of parliament.
The invisibilisation of previous struggles also revealed a deep-rooted class and ethnic divide that needed first to be recognised.
Further, Wickremesinghe has gained the moniker ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ which underscores his ‘unholy alliance’ with the Rajapaksa-led SLPP to seize power. The cabinet spokesperson, Bandula Gunawardena, recently stated in a briefing that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not in hiding and is expected to return to Sri Lanka (though Wickremesinghe himself said that it would be unwise for Rajapaksa to return any time soon). Rajapaksa’s return may spell disaster for ‘stability enthusiasts’ (staunch supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe) who count on Wickremesinghe’s experience and political acumen to restore some sense of normalcy in terms of resolving the economic crisis, even if it comes at the expense of the protest movement. The return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa may lead to the resurgence of the Janatha Aragalaya, and distance political and economic stability for the foreseeable future.
At present, the state is engaging in what is being dubbed a ‘witch hunt’ of key protesters who have become the faces of Janatha Aragalaya. At the time of writing, warrants have been issued for Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) convener Wasantha Mudalige and activist Ven Rathkarawwe Jinarathana Thero, YouTuber Rathindu Senaratne (Ratta) and others, while member of the clergy Fr Jeewantha Peiris has filed a Fundamental Rights petition with the Supreme Court, seeking an order to prevent his arrest. Several other protesters have also been singled out. On 2 August, 2022, a 38-year-old man was arrested for being the first person to forcibly enter the presidential secretariat on 9 July, and an 18-year-old along with two others, were arrested by the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) for suspected arson at President Ranil Wickremesighe’s private residence. On the same day, a 28-year-old man who sat and took photographs on the president’s chair was arrested as well. Another individual who had taken a beer mug from the president’s residence was also arrested, signalling the absurdity as well as the sinister nature of the ‘witch hunt’. Many also questioned the priorities of the government dealing with the worst economic recession in the country’s history. Sinhala-language newspaper Aruna reported that passengers who objected to the dramatic arrest of protester Danish Ali inside an aircraft destined for Dubai will also be identified and arrested on their return to Sri Lanka. Armed with the state of emergency, the current government has weaponised the law to create a climate of fear and intimidation against dissent and peaceful protests.
It is now dawning on many that the current composition of Parliament does not reflect the wishes of the people. Therefore, a fresh mandate or an election may be the only answer to get Sri Lanka out of this political impasse. However, with continued arbitrary arrests, the weaponisation of the law by the state, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s possible return, and Wickremesinghe continuing to exercise powers available to him as executive president, ostensibly to achieve political and economic ‘stability’ – Sri Lanka has many more miles to go.
Note: This article has been revised on 31 August 2022 to correct a typographic error.