Sri Lanka is facing an exceptional political and economic crisis that has sparked months-long protests across the country. Its citizens have demanded that the president resign using the tagline #GoHomeGota, that the powerful Rajapaksa family relinquish power (after having been active in politics for several decades), and that the government address systematic corruption and usher in political accountability. Despite the government’s attempts to disrupt these protests, tens of thousands have joined demonstrations across Sri Lanka in a reawakening of peaceful political activism. The massive mobilization and sustained pressure jolted the presidency of the previously all-powerful Gotabaya Rajapaksa, prompted mass resignations from the government at the time, and solidified existing spaces and created new spaces for dissent and discussions on much-needed reforms.

Bhavani Fonseka

Bhavani Fonseka is a senior researcher and lawyer with the Centre for Policy Alternatives based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Despite troubling trends of authoritarianism, democratic backsliding, and ethnomajoritarianism sweeping across Sri Lanka, key moments in recent history have united diverse groups in a show of peaceful pushback. These events have enabled the most recent wave of citizen mobilization, which has the potential to significantly transform Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s History of Political Activism

This recent upswell of mobilization builds on Sri Lanka’s rich history of political activism attributed to multiple actors, including victims’ groups and civil society organizations from across Sri Lanka, trade unions, and political parties. Activism has focused on a range of issues, including civil and political rights as well as socioeconomic issues on which street protests, legal challenges to public statements, and political debates have been used to press for progressive reforms.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, opposition groups, civil society, trade unions, and victims of political violence worked to oppose state-sponsored violence and enforced disappearances. These efforts include the powerful work of the Mothers’ Front, whose members mobilized in raising awareness of enforced disappearances and pushing for accountability. This mobilization came at huge personal cost to the participants, with many protesters facing sustained harassment and violence. For instance, after the country’s civil war, which ended in 2009, the families of disappeared victims have held continuous protests for more than 1,900 days. Other issues have also received attention including farming and fishing communities whose members’ livelihoods were affected by disastrous government policies, communities opposing government-initiated land grabs, and teachers and trade union members who opposed attempts to militarize higher education, among many other causes. These and many other protests have contributed to a rich history of opposition mobilization in Sri Lanka.

Authoritarian practices and impunity under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (who was in office from 2005 to 2015 and is the older brother of current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) sparked new levels of activism by victims of political repression, civil society, and opposition groups. These critics of the government called out the atrocities committed during the civil war and creeping authoritarianism such as threats to freedom of the press and the wrongful impeachment of the country’s chief justice who dared to rule against the Rajapaksa government. Democratic backsliding during this period prompted groups to coalesce under a common cause, leading to movements such as the National Movement for a Just Society, which demanded regime change.

Notably, the first movement to unify both Tamil and Muslim citizens during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential tenure was a February 2021 march from Pottuvil in eastern Sri Lanka to Polikandy in the north. Thousands united to march and demand equality and justice for minority communities. The protesters faced surveillance and intimidation and defied court orders to cease and desist.

As protests in Sri Lanka have evolved, so have government efforts to quell dissent with violence, intimidation, and other tactics including arbitrary restrictions. For example, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, public health challenges were used to suppress protests. Scenes of protesters violently attacked and dragged to military-run quarantines were widely broadcast, sending a chilling message to potential protesters. The government also used broad regulations under the guise of pandemic control measures to stop opposition rallies. Yet these attempts failed to deter activists as protesters stayed resolute in their opposition to the government.

The Latest Crisis

Much of the recent crisis can be blamed on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency and his family, with several family members holding multiple government portfolios. The Rajapaksa family has dominated Sri Lankan politics for several decades, carving out a massive constituency among the majority Sinhalese community by espousing populist ethnomajoritarianism and touting the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group that was involved in Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade-long civil war. Even after losing the January 2015 presidential election while facing allegations of corruption and nepotism, Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to politics later that year as a member of parliament. Since winning a seat in the August 2015 parliamentary elections, he has, with the help of family members, built a new political party (the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or the Sri Lankan People’s Front) and entrenched the Rajapaksa family as the most powerful political family in Sri Lanka.

In the wake of the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist attacks that rocked Sri Lanka in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerged as a presidential candidate, projecting himself as a strong leader capable of restoring security, stability, and economic growth. Within months, he was elected president by a margin of more than 1 million votes, despite having held no prior elected office and facing allegations of serious human rights violations linked to the civil war.

Many of his policies have had catastrophic effects on Sri Lanka’s democracy and economy. For example, the 2019 tax cuts he enacted significantly reduced government revenues, hindering Sri Lanka’s ability to purchase essential items such as food, medicine, gas, and fuel. Further, a ban on chemical fertilizer in 2021 harmed the agricultural sector and food security, leaving many Sri Lankans to struggle with securing meals and their livelihoods. The ban also impacted the country’s tea trade and other industries. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns also shriveled the economy, which is heavily dependent on the tourism sector. Government mismanagement on a range of other areas has contributed to high inflation and has compounded the crisis, leading to uncertainty, instability, and new triggers for violence.

Sri Lanka has experienced decades of unrest, violence, and uncertainty punctuated by a lengthy civil war, several humanitarian disasters, and a constitutional coup in 2018. However, the country was still ill-prepared for the current crisis; thousands of citizens have been affected, and many are struggling to find essential items and manage long power cuts brought on by fuel shortages, problems that have disrupted essential services, education, and people’s livelihoods. In a sad indictment of the dire conditions, multiple people died after collapsing following long waits under the hot sun for basic goods and services. There are also increasing concerns about the impact of malnutrition and medication shortages on Sri Lankans.

Amid this unprecedented crisis, Sri Lankans’ political activism has reawakened, prompting months-long peaceful protests. Rallies have protested shortages of essential items and long queues to obtain such items, the skyrocketing cost of living, and the disruptive power cuts. After several weeks of peaceful protests, however, violence erupted on March 31, 2022. On this day, a peaceful protest outside the private residence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa turned violent, resulting in mass arrests and prompting an ongoing police investigation. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a curfew. Despite these measures, the energy of the protests did not dissipate; thousands continued to peacefully protest, resulting in the largest outpouring of civil disobedience in recent times. The protesters continued with their demands of a systemwide change in Sri Lanka including political accountability, transparency in governance, the resignations of the Rajapaksa family from government posts, and an end to corruption. In response, the cabinet resigned en masse on April 3. For a time, however, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who still holds the presidency, and then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa remained in office, resulting in renewed calls for them to leave their posts.

The Rajapaksas’ refusal to heed these calls for their resignations and the country’s deteriorating economic situation further energized protesters. On April 9, protesters launched the largest protest site at Galle Face Green in the heart of Colombo. The occupied area was renamed “GotaGoGama,” reinforcing the demonstrators’ demand for the president’s resignation. After now being occupied for more than seventy-five days and counting, the GotaGoGama campaign has become the epicenter of the protest.

In Sri Lanka’s larger history of protests, this mobilization is remarkable for its diversity, perseverance, and relatively peaceful methods (except for some instances of violence largely sparked by government supporters, including deadly attacks on protesters on May 9). Much of the energy and creativity of the protests can be attributed to youthful participants, yet the protests have attracted demonstrators from a wide range of ages, including some in their eighties and nineties. The movement also has united members regardless of ethnicity, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, and profession, all demanding that the Rajapaksas resign. The protests also have displayed an unprecedented level of organization, with food, water, and healthcare being provided by well-wishers and space being made for creative forms of resistance like public discussions, a library, legal aid, street dramas, and memorials for past violence.

With pressure mounting and government officials fearing that a continuous hartal (strike) would bring the country to a standstill, a state of emergency was declared yet again on May 6, soon after the previous state of emergency had been revoked. As was already evident from the demonstrations in April, the state of emergency did not deter the many who continued to peacefully protest. On May 9, supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked the peaceful protesters, unleashing new waves of violence. The violence targeting the protesters subsequently spread to other areas, causing several deaths alongside looting and the torching of properties belonging to members of parliament from the ruling party. The violence did not abate, despite Mahinda Rajapaksa’s abrupt resignation from his post as prime minister, one of the protesters’ key demands. A national curfew was soon imposed, but it took several days for the tensions to subside.

The peaceful protests’ descent into violence was worrying for multiple reasons. Mobs took over streets and neighborhoods, raising concerns about the inability of the police and military to guarantee order amid the state of emergency and curfew. Investigations have since led to the arrests of several perpetrators including those who attacked peaceful protesters and those involved in the subsequent deadly violence across Sri Lanka. These arrests have also prompted questions about the potential culpability of key government officials, former officeholders, and those responsible for maintaining law and order.

Following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation, Sri Lanka had neither a prime minister nor a cabinet for three days. The president was isolated, and the opposition remained divided. The country’s deepening political, economic, and security crisis was alarming. On May 12, seasoned politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister, and some individuals allegedly linked to the crisis were subsequently appointed to the new cabinet, sparking questions about the new government’s legitimacy.

Diverse Forms of Pushback

Sri Lankan politics has evolved in recent years beyond traditional street protests. Nowadays, protests include diverse initiatives such as litigation, public statements, debates, art, theater, and social media campaigns. For example, social media have injected new levels of energy and creativity into protests and helped increase engagement among participants from all age groups and geographic areas.

Citizens’ use of public interest litigation has also grown in recent years, with many activists filing cases to challenge proposed amendments to Sri Lanka’s constitution and legislative proposals as well as unjust and arbitrary government practices. Public interest litigation has also informed broader debates among policymakers and ordinary people, raising awareness on important contemporary issues through, among other things, social media updates on developments in relevant courtrooms and the implications of related rulings.

Some instances where public interest litigation and other forms of pushback have shaped debates and have propelled change are worth noting. In 2012, the Supreme Court, which had been considered pro-regime, struck down the Divineguma Bill, which attempted to consolidate executive power and remove checks and balances on governance. In a move now widely seen as government retaliation, the then chief justice was unceremoniously and swiftly impeached. Yet the move united a diverse range of activists and ultimately helped form a broad-based opposition that defeated then president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the country’s 2015 presidential election.

This is not the first time these figures have been at the forefront of political transitions in Sri Lanka. The country’s 2018 constitutional crisis, which involved an undemocratic power grab by Mahinda Rajapaksa and the arbitrary ouster of the sitting prime minister, also united political parties, civil society, trade unions, and academics, sowing political chaos in Sri Lanka. In a rare moment of unity, many took to the streets to challenge this development and litigated their cause in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Weeks of activism and litigation resulted in a historic judgment: the Supreme Court ruled that the actions of the sitting president were unconstitutional and brought an end to the crisis in December 2018 with the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and the reinstatement of Wickremasinghe to the post.

More recent examples also capture moments when different forms of protest forced powerful Sri Lankan government officials to change course. In 2020, a diverse range of actors united against the Twentieth Amendment proposal to amend the country’s constitution, a move that was designed to further consolidate the powers of the presidency and weaken independent institutions. These critics filed legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Activists also used protests, social media campaigns, and political debates to express their dissent, forcing the government to introduce several changes. Despite having a majority in the parliament, the ruling party was forced to incorporate several revisions to the amendment.

Protesters also responded in 2021 to the proposed Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act with vociferous opposition, as many critics saw the proposed legislation as another government attempt to cede control of Sri Lankan assets to external actors without accountability or transparency. Activists again took to the streets to show their dissent and challenged the proposed legislation in the Supreme Court. Opposition to the legislation was fueled by China’s increasing footprint in Sri Lanka, which protesters perceived as a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and economic wellbeing. The legal challenges and debates around the bill generated awareness among Sri Lankans of the problems inherent in the proposed measure and prompted the government to amend its terms and enact the law with changes.

These are a few examples when different forms of pushback chipped away at authoritarian practices. As these examples show, such political activism must also be considered in the context of Sri Lanka’s fragmented political parties and weak trade unions. The shortcomings of these groups coincided with the emergence of new entities and groups for protesting government actions, such as citizen-led initiatives and youth mobilization.

Potential for Transformation in Sri Lanka

These months-long peaceful protests reflect the resilience and creativity of Sri Lankan citizens. In a matter of weeks, a powerful government collapsed, and a previously untouchable political family was forced into hiding. Amid the bleakness engulfing Sri Lanka, the power of citizen mobilization and resistance has captured global attention and injected much-needed energy, ideas, and perspectives into the Sri Lankan opposition. These protests have also redefined the role of citizens and their relationship to the state.

But many challenges remain for protest groups, including intergroup suspicions, deeply entrenched and polarized political viewpoints, and societal fissures. While these protests have highlighted the need to address minority rights and a reckoning for past wrongdoing linked to the war, these questions are perceived by some people as secondary to today’s crisis. Thus, while the present crisis offers a promising opening for future social movements, there is also much to aspire to.

Additionally, the change of government in May 2022 coupled with protest fatigue has contributed to a decline in the number of protesters. While some people have adopted an accommodating stance toward the new prime minister, many others including younger protesters still argue that change can only occur if Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigns as president and systemwide change happens. They see the new government as a continuation of the old guard and a lifeline for the Rajapaksas and their supporters. These dynamics will continue to affect the direction of the protests, help determine whether they can be sustained, and have a bearing on their effectiveness.

Regardless of the setbacks and uncertainties, Sri Lankan citizens have an opportunity to build on this moment and create a new vision for their country. They can address structural inequalities and violence while demanding social and economic justice, political accountability, and a new culture of governance. This task will not be easy, nor will the results be immediate. However, the changes brought about in the last few weeks give hope that sustained, innovative, and inclusive citizen mobilization has a chance to transform Sri Lanka.

This article is part of the Politics of Opposition in South Asia initiative run by Carnegie’s South Asia Program.

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