The Galle Face protests which commenced on April 9th 2022 cannot be described as a mass uprising by the majority of the Sri Lankan population representing all sections of the communities particularly the middle and upper class sections besides the minority communities, the Tamil and Muslims.
It was necessitated and forced upon on the low wages earning working population who could not remain passive and silent due to the unbearable burdens which were heaped on them mainly due to the spiralling cost of living and price rises including scarcity of essential commodities all of which were the products of the President Gotabaya’s Government and its administration. The President’s inexperience as a politician was exposed when he deliberately delayed seeking IMF’s assistance. His lackadaisical attitude and callous indifference also contributed to the frustration of ordinary citizens which dragged the country to the economic mess.
The remarkable feature of these protests is that they were neither political nor party initiated. It was spontaneous in which no leader organizing it or conducting, directing, managing and supervising. The stealthy attempts by some political parties to infiltrate and claim some credit was nipped in the bud when they were chased away, particularly Samagi Jana Balawegaya, led by Sajith Premadasa.
The Tamils and Muslims largely abstained and failed to participate particularly due to the reasons that they are living with a loads of baggages of unsolved problems and grievances caused and heaped upon them by the successive Sri Lankan Governments since 1956. However, the main slogan of the campaign is ‘GOTA GO GAMA [Gota Go Home] entirely blaming him for the present predicament and plight of ordinary citizens who have been forced to stand in queues for several hours to buy flour, bread, milk, rice and dhal which the middle and rich class came out in vehicles to buy petrol and other items without any inconvenience.
The main demand of the protesters is to call on the President to resign from his Presidentship and go home without any replacement. The protesters were dissatisfied with the President and Prime Minister placing the entire blame on them for the present mess mostly appear to have been created due to the advice of his elder brother Basil Rajapakshe.
President Gotabaya chose a sacrificial lamb and scapegoat namely Mahinda Rajapakashe, his elder brother to steer and tide away to extricate himself unscathed by dousing the fire and fury of the protesters. At the request of Gotabaya. Mahinda Rajapakshe resigned his Premiership and found shelter at the Trincomalee Naval Base Headquarters. He later returned to his residence in Colombo. During this conflicting period, he was considered as the instigator of widespread burnings and lootings of houses of Government supporters and some ministers located at various parts of the country. His speech at the Temple Trees before his supporters encouraged (aroused) them who went on in an uncontrollable free rampage to assault and attack the protesters at the Galle Face not even sparing the Buddhist Priests. As usual and expected. The Police force watched the criminal performance silently but later due to public outcry arrested some of the attackers, mostly anti government supporters.
The destroyer of the United National Party [UNP] Ranil Wickremasinghe and defeated national list elected Member of Parliament seized this opportunity and crept in as Prime Minister which provided the saving rope to a sinking Gotabaya and his government suspected as result of a deal between them. Ranil is now dubbed as the redeemer and savior of Sri Lanka from its economic mess and this depends on how far this opportunistic alliance will last, survive and perform, and how long it will take to achieve the said results is still uncertain.
To go back to the Galle Face protests which focused on flour bread, milk, rice and sugar even Ranil has not escaped the protesters’ wrath and fury when the slogan “Gota Go Gama” has now changed to become “Gota-Ranil-Rajapakshe -Go-Home} The protesters are still continuing with grit and determination braving away the heavy rain and sun and it is likely it will not end soon until the core demand of “Gota-Go-Home” is fulfilled by the Government.
The ominous signs are that the President appears to be adamant and will not yield to this demand and he could continue to cling on to the rattled Pesidentship with the support and eventually the military to provide the necessary safety and security for him and the Government and not for the country.
It is appropriate to mention the results and lessons learnt from this rather small but significant uprising in Sri Lanka.
- The protests have inspired new awakenings and courageous defiance of emergency regulations by the public to highlight their grievances particularly the growing hunger and poverty among them.
- The protesters have finally exploded their dormant anger and frustration by launching their agitations against the brokers and plunderers of state and public wealth, including their commissions and unpunished crimes committed against the innocent.
- One of the gleaming and heartwarming features is the slogan calling for accountability and justice to the victims of war crimes implicitly accusing the alleged war criminals in the Government including the Rajapakshas’ as reported by UN Officials and Special UN Rapporteurs.
- Another refreshing finding and development noticed among the protesters is the involvement of a section carrying the slogan “Remembering May 18th as National Remembrance Day for all those killed in the war” instead of the National Hero’s Day celebrated in Galle Face. The realization, endorsements and enlightenments of the ordinary Sinhalese citizens who raised the slogans in Galle Face is a much-needed gesture of goodwill which stands as a beacon of hope and confidence to uphold and dispense accountability and justice for the war and political victims who lost their lives due to state terrorism.
Another important and most appreciable feature is the discarding and sparing of communalism, racism and instead maintaining the status and standing of a Sri Lankan citizen. Though a small fraction of the protesters participated, yet it is a unifying and politically significant one promoting national unity which is a much-needed panacea for the present conflict-ridden Sri Lanka.
Though this uprising is not on a massive scale like what happened in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, yet it should be recognized as one which has established a precedent for more massive agitations and possible uprisings on a larger scale leading to the downfall of the Government with Ranil Wickremasinghe who failed to obtain the popular mandate of the voters on his electorate dictatorial government. It has to be stated that the Tamil parties and politicians must not fail to seize this opportunity and utilize the much needed goodwill and change of hearts and minds of the public to make it spread and capture the hearts and minds of the entire population of Sri Lanka.
It also has to be stated that the protesters have given notices of warning to all political parties and leaders not to thrive and exploit communalism, racism and majoritarianism to reap political gains but instead to concentrate and focus on the wider interest of the people, their hardships while promoting national interests and unity.
Thambu Kanagasabai – LLM London, Former Lecturer in the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.