Dusk was falling, and Colombo’s streets were yet again filling with protesters. Among the crowd of demonstrators, some of whom were clutching the national flag, stood Minal Wickrematunge, a poster in her hands.
Wickrematunge was there for hundreds of others and also for one man in particular: her uncle, editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, murdered in Colombo in January 2009. It was his birthday; he would have been 64 years old. His niece’s poster read: “For Bappi (uncle) & in solidarity with all those killed and disappeared under the Rajapaksas.”
“I think his murder and the years after have pushed me to engage and be sensitive to the voices left unheard,” Wickrematunge, a visual artist, told Asia Democracy Chronicles. “I know his life and spirit are what encourage me to create — so holding this poster in solidarity with our people is the least I could do for all the families who lost their lives, Tamil journalists that no one ever speaks of included.”
Since police teargassed a protest near the residence of the nation’s besieged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 31, 2022, thousands have poured onto the streets of the Sri Lankan capital day and night. They have demanded that the president, propelled to office three years ago by a PR machine that touted him as a hardline, derring-do technocrat, resign.
Spontaneous protests are actually unusual in Sri Lanka. And when Rajapaksa came into power in 2019, he did so with popular support, largely from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. Following the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks on hotels and Roman Catholic churches that claimed nearly 300 lives, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s image had been amplified by supporters led by sections of the Buddhist clergy as the tough ex-defense secretary who could stem the emergence of violent extremism.
Up till now, however, investigations into the attacks have not resulted in any convictions. A series of events including marches and protests at attack sites have been planned for the third anniversary of the attacks on April 21.
A slow burn
The protests have had a gradual build-up, much like the rumbling of a volcano getting ready to erupt. For months now, the island nation’s population of 23 million has been crushed by gas shortages, fuel lines, a currency spiraling out of control, and power outages. April is the month that Sri Lankans celebrate their traditional new year, and the country usually comes to a standstill for two weeks. This year, a week before the celebrations, some Sri Lankans were forced to put their activities on hold as they were without power for 13 hours on some days.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Sri Lanka in mid-2020, the country had been in the midst of a recovery from the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. The lockdowns ensued and were followed by a gas shortage, then fuel became scarce, and the Sri Lankan rupee spun out of control. It was trading at over LKR 300 per U.S. dollar in early April. A month before, it was trading at LKR 200. In the first quarter of 2022, things came to a boiling point when power cuts were imposed; the Rajapaksa government had run out of dollars to buy furnace fuel.
Vimukthi Dushantha Rawanasinghe has been trying to keep his small production house afloat for the last 18 months. In March, he joined the growing number of protests as he saw no other way to pressure the government into action.
The protests had first started when people waiting in line — sometimes for days — for fuel and gas began to complain about the delays. Political parties, like the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the People’s Liberation Front, also organized rallies. There is no denying, however, that the protests are rooted in the discontent felt by the public, who sees the Rajapaksa government as being lethargic at best and indifferently incompetent at worst.
One of the popular locations for the protests has been near the president’s private residence in the Colombo suburb of Nugegoda. This was where protestors gathered on the evening of March 31 and then tried to march onward to the president’s house. Police fired tear gas and several vehicles, including a bus used by military personnel, were set on fire as well. There is, however, a dispute over who set fire to the bus. Dozens were arrested and Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency. His office spoke of a conspiracy to initiate Arab Spring-style protests in Sri Lanka.
If the government’s aim was to use the emergency and the arrests to quell the protests, its plans backfired spectacularly. Hundreds of lawyers appeared for the detained protesters free of charge; several days later, all protesters were out on bail.
The government had also blocked social media, which was widely used to organize the protests. That prompted a tweet from Saliya Peiris, president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and one of those who appeared representing the detained protesters, that said, “The idiots who think they can block SM (Social Media) and deprive the public of their right to know are mistaken.”
Even Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s nephew, disagreed with the social media ban. Reports swirled that the Cabinet had resigned en masse. Most of the ministers did resign; the prime minister stayed. The ban was lifted after just one day. The emergency regulations were also withdrawn a few days later.
Recently, the president offered to talk with the protesters camped the President’s office in Colombo. His offer was rejected.
This is, in fact, the second Rajapaksa administration to come under fire. Seven years ago, the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother and the current prime minister, came to an unceremonious end with Mahinda’s defeat at the polls. Mahinda was president for almost a decade and had appointed his brothers to choice posts: Gotabaya as defense minister, Basil as the economic minister, and Chamal as speaker of parliament. (When his turn as president came, Gotabaya appointed Chamal as agriculture minister, Basil as finance minister, and nephew Namal as sports minister, and another nephew, Shasheendra, as minister in charge of paddy production.)
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government was able to end a three-decade-old civil conflict, its military might crushing the separatist Tamil Tigers. But scores disappeared without a trace during those dark times. Families have been seeking justice for missing loved ones for years. Indeed, a group made up of families of the disappeared was prevented from meeting the prime minister when he visited the north just days before protests erupted elsewhere in the country.
There were also other abuses, like murders of critics such as Wickrematunge that have gone unresolved. Moreover, the Rajapaksas have been unable to shake off allegations of nepotism and corruption — allegations that had been potent enough to spell doom for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.
But the Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback using their ultra-nationalist connections within the majority Sinhala Buddhist population, which also became instrumental in their continued hold on power. Vocal members of the Buddhist clergy formed a fiercely loyal public support group and have been used to quell public criticism directed at the family. The worsening misery of much of the public, however, is proving too much for that defense to hold up.
As the power cuts and shortages continue, more protesters pour onto the streets. Rawanasinghe now leaves home early in the morning and does not return till after midnight or even later. He says that people are frustrated and helpless and points to the lack of electricity as a key motivator for crowds to get on to the streets initially.
“There is nothing for the people to do, and this boiling heat makes it hard for them to stay inside,” said Rawanasinghe. “On top of all this, they blame the government for this mess.”
The protesters seem to become more set with their demands every passing day. Since April 9, 2022, the Galle Face Green, Colombo’s iconic beachfront park which sits right in front of the presidential office, has been a popular daily protest site.
Rawanasinghe said that protests have spread because they are personal before they are political: “Everyone feels it in their gut.” Ruki Fernando, a civic activist who has worked with marginalized groups for over two decades, agreed, saying, “Widespread neighborhood spontaneous protests have been heartening and inspiring.”
Rawanasinghe observed that protests in Colombo are populated by university students, retirees, housewives, professionals, and what he described as the “TikTok generation.”
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. Neither has the Rajapaksa political behemoth, which had used street protests to propel its agenda in the past and has years of experience planning them and stemming their impact with equal vigor. Recently, the chatter on social media was that the Rajapaksa propaganda machine was even trying to turn the focus of the protests from the president to the incompetence of the entire 225-member parliament.
Civic activist Fernando, though, is skeptical that the protests will lead to something substantial. He thinks the protests would lose momentum once the shortages ease. Still, he said that he does hope for real changes, such as clipping the powers of the presidency and repealing draconian laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
“I hope protests will be the moment and the movement for drastic changes,” Fernando told ADC as he geared up for yet another round of protests. “Immediate solutions to immediate problems like gas, electricity, fuel, medicine shortages, food and nutrition [are needed]. And we also need solutions to long-term problems like the search for disappeared persons, land, discrimination, and violence based on gender, religion, and ethnicity.”
So far, the protests just keep on growing. A day after ADC met with Fernando, rain and protesters poured onto the Galle Face. Three days later, there were makeshift tents, food, medicine, and health staff on hand as more protesters occupied the park. On April 14, the day Sri Lanka celebrates its traditional new year, over 100,000 were at the site.
There are increasing indications that shortages and power outages are no longer the only grievances the people are airing out. At Galle Face, posters have begun to appear that read, “Who is Lasantha, look around, he is everywhere.” They were answering Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself, who during a 2009 interview referred to the slain editor as a tabloid journalist.
“Who is Lasantha Wickrematunge?” Rajapaksa had asked. “That is just another thing. There are so many murders, in the whole world there are murders, why are you asking for Lasantha? Who is Lasantha? He is somebody who was writing for a tabloid. Who is he? I am not concerned about that.”
Sri Lankans now say that he should have been, and about thousands of other cases like that as well.
* Amantha Perera is a Sri Lankan researcher at the School of Education and the Arts of the Central Queensland University, Australia. He is in the final stages of his master’s research project on the impact of online trauma threats on journalism during the COVID-19 lockdowns.