Over the summer, news of massive unrest in Sri Lanka briefly captured the world’s attention, culminating in viral videos of crowds invading the President’s House on July 9. Since then, events in the country have largely disappeared from international headlines. Compact’s Nina Power recently sat down with a Sri Lankan dissident to re-examine the summer’s events and the path forward. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and the subject of the interview has been granted anonymity amid the uncertain security situation.
Over the summer, the political uprising in Sri Lanka made it into the international news. But many who saw the dramatic video footage of this popular revolt had limited context for understanding what had prompted it. Can you tell people unfamiliar with the situation what has been happening in Sri Lanka over the course of this year?
Sri Lanka, a small island nation at the periphery—geographically as well as politically—of the global capitalist economy, is not a place one often hears about, other than in occasional news of a suicide bomb attack on tourists or similarly grim happenings. The civil war that used to promise a time slot for Sri Lanka in global media ended in 2009, and nothing much of interest remains, in general, for those in the affluent West. Like Hobbits of the Shire, Sri Lankans just get on with their usual business, barely noticing, or being noticed by, the outside world.
I should say at the outset that our recent return to newsworthiness does not end well, at least for now, and therein resides, perhaps, the biggest lesson to be learned for anyone interested in what could loosely be called emancipatory politics today. To be sure, there are the significant political gains of this phenomenal people’s struggle—not least, perhaps, the sudden reappearance in Sri Lankan discourse of the word “struggle” (aragalaya in Sinhala) for the first time in decades after the disintegration of left politics at the end of 1980s. In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, aragalaya forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office just shy of three years after his resounding victory in the last presidential contest.
Only once before in Sri Lanka’s modern history, since we gained independence from the British in 1948, has an elected leader of the state been forced to resign off the back of mass demonstrations, and that was in 1953. Organized by the powerful left parties of the era, the Hartal [strike] of 1953 lasted a day and forced the then-prime minister to resign. But 1953 was a different time and a different world.
The people’s struggle of 2022 lasted—and it has by no means decisively ended as yet—for almost four months, without a centralized organizational structure. Many organized political forces tried to position themselves as its legitimate representatives; but the truth is that it was a remarkable and genuine uprising of the masses that surprised the organized left as much as the ruling political class. The country’s leading left-wing party, the People’s Liberation Front, even cautioned the public at the beginning against taking part in these unregulated protests, even if they were quickly forced to change their position and to claim a leadership role in the mass uprisings.
What were the immediate causes of this uprising?
It began with small protests outside private residences. The onslaught of the Covid pandemic, and the consequent forced shutting down of the country, had dealt a severe blow to Sri Lanka’s already weak economy. With the tourism industry, one of the country’s main sources of foreign-currency income, severely affected, the government was struggling to secure the basic fuel supplies necessary for essential services like electricity and public transportation.
This was the immediate catalyst of the aragalaya: people beginning to protest against the unprecedented disruption of middle-class suburban life, with professionals belonging to the higher echelons of the society being forced to wait for days in queues for food. A decisive turn occurred on March 31, when a crowd of several hundred gathered for a protest outside the president’s personal residence. This was violently repressed by the military, with several individuals sustaining severe injuries. The following day, massive protests erupted throughout the country, and the government responded by imposing a nationwide curfew and banning all social media—to no avail, of course, as many were already well-educated in using VPN connections, which forced the government to take a step back and lift the ill-thought-out ban.
What happened after these events?
That was the beginning of the end. It quickly appeared that the curfew was utterly meaningless, so people marched across streets, in large numbers, with the police reduced to helpless bystanders. For the first time in a long time, the state appeared not to be in control of the country.
On April 9, a mass demonstration was announced on social media, outside the Presidential Secretariat, a colonial-era building facing the Indian Ocean. Ironically, the president himself had allocated a nearby strip of land as the official “agitation site.” Protesters, in a rare moment of agreement with the law, duly occupied the adjoining area—and began an occupation that continued for almost four months. Much needs to be written and studied about the various developments of this remarkable occupation, with thousands gathering, supporting each other with food and medicine, organizing and conducting speeches, street art, performance art, all amid the powerful shouts calling on the president to step down. The occupied territory was named Gota Go Gama—literally, “Gota Go Village.” “Gota,” of course, is short for “Gotabaya.”
One month later, on May 9, a government-led mob attacked the occupied ground and temporarily chased away the protesters, which turned out to be the final nail in the coffin. Violent outbreaks throughout the country saw the houses of many government ministers being set on fire at night, with masses of people violently striking back against the government-led goons who attacked the protesters. One member of parliament was assassinated by an angry mob. On the same day, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the de facto leader of the regime and the president’s brother, handed in his resignation and was forced to take refuge in a naval military base on the eastern coast of the country.
Gota Go Gama was immediately reinstated, its power as a space of absolute freedom outside the law of the state, acknowledged by virtually everyone, including the police and the army. It became, for a brief but an extraordinary period of time, a place where ordinary citizens gathered and discussed politics, expressed their anger at the way things are, and asked the government and powers-that-be to step down. A mini cinema was installed, and a makeshift public “university” and library were quickly formed.
With the resignation of the prime minister, and the whole political class in a state of panic, the president held onto power, perhaps more concerned about the safety of his extended family—in many ways, the most powerful political family in the country. In an attempt to shore up alliances between rival factions of the ruling elite, a prime minister was appointed from the opposition: Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had served two prior terms in that office in the 1990s and 2000s.
Broadly, this was the context of the events of July 9. For a brief moment in Sri Lankan politics, from April to the end of July, a “dual power” was in operation. The government managed to keep a temporary tab on things with the appointment of the new prime minister and a minor reshuffle of the cabinet. The aragalaya, on the other hand, continued, as the Gota Go Gama occupation was in complete control of the territory, with the continuing support of ordinary citizens, helping the activists to hold the ground. There was a palpable sense of political awakening throughout the country and the belief that it is possible to bring about a radical change in the status quo—a “system change,” as it was popularly described.
It was on July 9 that this whole sequence of events came to its climax, ending with the now famous scenes of people storming the presidential palace, the Presidential Secretariat, and the official residence of the prime minister. This was an unprecedented moment in Sri Lanka’s political history. President Rajapaksa fled that evening to Maldives and handed in his resignation. There was something akin to a surgical cut of the body politic, where we could see the ultimate contingency that lies at the bottom of the state. The political class was shaken to its core, and the military seemed powerless and without a sense of guidance.
As I said at the beginning, however, all this did not end with the euphoria of a people’s uprising. Naturally, this does not mean that it is all gloom, either. There is no doubt, as far as I can understand, that this is the most powerful political novelty or, more precisely, the advent of a political novelty that Sri Lanka has witnessed for well over half a century. It has blurred the line of demarcation of possibility and impossibility, opening up new possibilities and new traditions on which future activism would be based. There was something truly magical—or, if one prefers to follow the philosopher Alain Badiou, something “evental”—about highly motivated ordinary people from all walks of life coming out in such large numbers, shouting slogans. There was a tremendous sense of collective existence manifesting. People in vehicles were offering free transportation for anyone who was looking to get to a main protest site. This is how I managed to join the protests outside the president’s house—I waved at the first vehicle I spotted, it stopped and picked me up. I have never done anything like that on a Sri Lankan road, nor have I ever seen someone else doing so. On that day, it was as if we all knew that we must help each other at any cost, without being concerned about our differences. We were all united by the shared hatred of the political elites and the unhindered power they enjoyed.
It is difficult to see how such a sense of political awareness could simply disappear. And we are likely to see radical changes in the upcoming elections that could potentially redraw the electoral map of Sri Lanka. These are the gains. It is now, quite simply, a historical fact that the people of Sri Lanka, after weeks of collective mass protests, one day came to the streets and successfully toppled the head of the state. And the fact that we know this, collectively as citizens, can never be a cause of comfort for the political class. Its intensity can only be maximized given that the economic crisis is unlikely to be resolved.
At the same time, after more than a month, it is difficult not to feel a sense of loss. What we are witnessing now is the return and the reorganization of the state. After the resignation of the president, the prime minister was sworn in as his acting successor. A few days later, the prime minister was officially elected, as per the constitution, by the majority vote of the parliament. The same allegedly corrupt MPs of the previous regime voted for him, meaning that their grasp on state power remains largely intact. With the former president out of the picture, the masses gradually but inevitably withdrew from the aragalaya. A violent repression has been unleashed by the state, with hundreds of activists arrested and thousands being even more questioned by the police. Three student leaders were taken into custody under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a draconian law that allows the police to hold a person for up to three months without bringing him or her before a court of law. Two people were imprisoned for the full duration permitted by this law, held in the Southern Province, far removed from the city center. After three months, they were again held on remand and one of them—the convener of the Inter University Students’ Federation, Wasantha Mudalige—is still in custody after five months.
What next for Sri Lanka?
It is perhaps not difficult to understand the rationale behind this turn of events. A mass uprising, no matter how spectacular and unprecedented it is, can never sustain itself in the long run, because it is something that resists the law, consistency, and perhaps even an idea. It is, in a sense, a pure eruption, powerful in its becoming, unsettling the existing state of things, but doomed to disappear sooner or later. It can certainly leave its trace and open up possibilities, giving rise to new traditions that did not exist until then. Most importantly, it has severely undermined traditional political divisions, compelling liberal sections of the political class to join forces with the ethno-nationalist sections—traditionally two opposing camps, united in their common opposition to the threat of radical change. In this sense, we can say that it has broken the back of the traditional hierarchy of power, unmasking false oppositions and we may very well see significant changes in the coming elections.
Having said all this, it has to be admitted that as a pure eruption, a mass uprising cannot be posited as an alternative to politics as such. At the height of the struggle, there was a fierce debate between the radical elements of the left who were calling for an independent council, outside the framework of the constitution, to represent the people in the struggle, and moderate sections who were calling for a general election off the back of the uprisings. The choice was clear for all. An election would have ended the steam of the struggle, re-absorbing it into the “statist” practice of the electoral count. It would also mean, however, that the radical political mobilization would have had a lasting effect, being converted into legislative representation.
In a certain sense, this is the choice between Slavoj Žižek’s often-repeated claim concerning the significance of “the morning after” and the idea of “the uncaused event” as catalyst of consequent change. Most Sri Lankans are now waking up to the statist nightmare of “the morning after.” But it is also clear that there was no way a rational and concrete program, to be implemented later, could have emerged from such a people’s uprising. Maybe that is not the point. Maybe we will have to wait for some time before the actual consequences of the events materialize in politics. What is for certain is that Sri Lanka went through an experience of radical political novelty and there are many lessons to be learned from this for all those who are interested in the idea of radical politics today, even if the Sri Lankan state’s geopolitical significance is minimal in the capitalist order.