Dispatch

Inside Sri Lanka’s Unprecedented Mass Protests

Demonstrators have already made an impact but lack a unified agenda—and face a state notorious for crushing dissent.

A man carries a child on his shoulders during an anti-government demonstration in Sri Lanka.
A man carries a child on his shoulders during an anti-government demonstration in Sri Lanka.
A man carries a child on his shoulders during an anti-government demonstration near the president's office in Colombo on April 16. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images
By , a journalist from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—On April 20, vendors went about their usual business at Galle Face Green, a stretch of grass overlooking the Indian Ocean bordered by five-star hotels, upscale malls, and high-rise apartments. But as they sold popsicles, pineapples, and isso vade (shrimp fritters), the seeds for a revolution were being planted. A mass of children, university students, professionals, and retired citizens had gathered to protest the government on the 17th consecutive day of mass citizen-led protests that have broken out across the country.

“Go home, Gota. Go home,” they chanted, referring to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “Gota. Hora. Hora. Hora.” (“Gota. Thief. Thief. Thief.”) Motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses, and trucks beeped to cheer on the protesters and imitated their chants.

As the country faces an economic crisis and a largely absent government, Sri Lankans are exercising their freedom of speech and assembly to a degree unprecedented in the country’s history. The grassroots protests, which have no clear leader, formed organically and have been funded, structured, and sustained by the people themselves, rather than by a rival political party. They are primarily calling for an overhaul of the country’s political system and the resignation of the president and prime minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. Protesters accuse the family, which has controlled Sri Lankan politics since 2005, of corruption, nepotism, and authoritarianism.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—On April 20, vendors went about their usual business at Galle Face Green, a stretch of grass overlooking the Indian Ocean bordered by five-star hotels, upscale malls, and high-rise apartments. But as they sold popsicles, pineapples, and isso vade (shrimp fritters), the seeds for a revolution were being planted. A mass of children, university students, professionals, and retired citizens had gathered to protest the government on the 17th consecutive day of mass citizen-led protests that have broken out across the country.

“Go home, Gota. Go home,” they chanted, referring to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “Gota. Hora. Hora. Hora.” (“Gota. Thief. Thief. Thief.”) Motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses, and trucks beeped to cheer on the protesters and imitated their chants.

As the country faces an economic crisis and a largely absent government, Sri Lankans are exercising their freedom of speech and assembly to a degree unprecedented in the country’s history. The grassroots protests, which have no clear leader, formed organically and have been funded, structured, and sustained by the people themselves, rather than by a rival political party. They are primarily calling for an overhaul of the country’s political system and the resignation of the president and prime minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. Protesters accuse the family, which has controlled Sri Lankan politics since 2005, of corruption, nepotism, and authoritarianism.

The protests, or aragalaya (struggle), have already had an impact: On April 4, the governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, resigned along with the entire cabinet. Some 41 members of the ruling coalition have since decided to form a separate party or stand as independents, showing a loss of faith in the Rajapaksas’ leadership.

But whether the hundreds of thousands of protesters can build on these gains—and bring long-lasting change—will depend on whether they can sustain their disparate, ad hoc demonstrations into a long-term and united political movement. If they fail to do this, the ethnonationalism and state-led violence that ruptured post-independence Sri Lanka after 1948 will continue to fracture the country’s future.


People stand in a queue to buy Liquefied Petroleum Gas cylinders in Rathgama, Sri Lanka, during the economic crisis, which has spurred protests.
People stand in a queue to buy Liquefied Petroleum Gas cylinders in Rathgama, Sri Lanka, during the economic crisis, which has spurred protests.

People stand in a line to buy liquefied petroleum gas cylinders in Rathgama, Sri Lanka, on March 27. ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

The main reason for the unrest is the country’s dire economic crisis, which is more than a decade in the making. After the country’s 26-year civil war ended in 2009, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa took on a number of international loans to fund infrastructure projects. But a series of economic shocks, including the 2016-17 drought, the 2018 constitutional coup, the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic—which has delivered a major hit to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry—left the country without enough income to service the external debt. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tax cuts upon entering office in late 2019 did not help the situation.

In early 2020, credit agencies consistently downgraded the country’s rating, and Sri Lanka lost access to international financial markets. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies to address the crisis—including strict import controls, forced U.S. dollar conversions at banks, and a failed bid to transition to fully organic farming—have only made things worse.

Since January, cars, vans, and tuk-tuks have lined up for hours near petrol stations. People wait just as long for cooking gas, and several people have died in these lines. Food emergencies have ensued, and the price of basic staples such as rice and lentils has skyrocketed. Money that many families saved for decades has lost value overnight. There is no paper for exams, and students use kerosene oil lamps to study. Every day, there are electricity cuts—on March 31, one lasted for 13 hours. In recent weeks, pharmacies and hospitals haven’t had enough essential medicine and equipment.

The impact on regular citizens is hard to overstate.

“The price of petrol is my husband’s daily earnings. Words fail me when I have to describe the daily expenses,” said Champika, who did not want to give her surname, at Galle Face Green on April 20. Her husband is a tuk-tuk driver and the family’s breadwinner. “We find it hard to source money for even one meal,” she said as she pushed back tears and cleared her throat.

Champika, like other Sri Lankans, has identified a clear cause for the economic crisis. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa has to leave,” she said multiple times. “Whoever comes [in his place] has to provide a lifeline for us and our children.”

Protesters shout slogans during an ongoing anti-government demonstration near the president's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as they hold a sign depicting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Protesters shout slogans during an ongoing anti-government demonstration near the president's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as they hold a sign depicting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Protesters shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration near the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 16, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over the country’s economic crisis. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

The protests, which started sporadically last year among underpaid teachers, rural farmers, and Tamil citizens—who have faced persecution for decades—have spread across the country at a breakneck pace since April 4. Sri Lankans have demonstrated peacefully outside of legislators’ houses, assembled near overpasses, lined up near bus stands, and stood on roundabouts. They have hosted silent sit-ins, played music, performed plays, and exhibited art. They marched 23 miles from St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo to St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo. They set up a “people’s university” for public education and discourse. They have performed counter-charms and exorcisms to protect the protests from black magic performed by pro-state practitioners.

They are joined together by a shared sense of the government leaving them to fend for themselves.

“I have no hope for my future,” said Oshadi Viranga, a 21-year-old student at the National Institute of Business Management, while protesting with her sister and mother in front of the presidential office on April 20. “My education is stalled, and I can barely cover my personal expenses with my part-time job. …We have dreams and should be able to achieve them in this country. But, for that to happen, all 225 [members of Parliament] have to leave.”

Nalini Jayatilaka, a 67-year-old lawyer, sat in front of the makeshift memorial for disappeared and killed journalists on April 20, a national flag wrapped around her shoulders. “This economic crisis has impacted me a lot, particularly when I have to meet remotely based clients,” Jayatilaka said, explaining that there are hardly any bus services and that tuk-tuk rides are too expensive. As a result, she said, “I am unable to provide my services because of the situation in the country.”

Galle Face Green, now called Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village), has become the heart of the aragalaya. Demonstrators camp on the site, which is a few miles from the president’s office, president’s house, and prime minister’s official residence. Water bottles, drinks, biscuits, and fruit—all free—are handed out regularly. Meanwhile, demonstrators have set up medical tents, psychosocial services, a canteen, a library, and an art center.

Gayan Maduranga, a 26-year-old student in his final year at Wayamba University, has camped at Gota Go Gama for nine days straight. “I plan to stay as long as possible, even if it takes months or a year,” he said.

A protester with "Gota Go Home" on their arm takes part in an anti-government demonstration in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
A protester with "Gota Go Home" on their arm takes part in an anti-government demonstration in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A protester with “Gota Go Home” on their arm takes part in an anti-government demonstration in Colombo on April 25. ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

There is a real sense of community in the protests, which have become a place for connection and celebration across social strata. Buddhist monks and Christian priests stand together and converse; many Muslim families have broken fast together; Sinhala-, Tamil-, and English-speaking voices can all be heard.

Sri Lankan celebrities and influencers have joined in, parading around with selfie sticks. Papare bands, fire torches, and young people perched on the roofs of cars give the protests a festive air.

Women and young people have participated and served as organizers and leaders of chants, even as they remain underrepresented in government. (Women, for instance, make up only 5.3 percent of Parliament.) LGBTQ+ and visually impaired Sri Lankans have participated in and even initiated protests. The country’s Penal Code criminalizes same-sex relations and has been cited to arrest transgender people, yet members of the LGBTQ+ community have been demonstrating at Colombo’s Lipton Circus in defiance of a state that persecutes them.

The protests have led to demands for reform in areas beyond the immediate financial crisis. At Gota Go Gama, demonstrators have set up people’s protest boards to address specific demands, such as abolishing the executive presidency as it currently exists, resetting the political system, and demilitarizing the country’s north and east, where Tamil people have long faced persecution. Protesters have also adopted platforms to address structural issues, such as constitutional reforms, parliamentary reforms, state-sanctioned violence (particularly against Tamil people in the north and east), threats to free press, and environmental justice.

“This is the first time I am experiencing a situation like this. Even my children feel it and say, ‘Gota, go home,’” said Sulfatul Majith, who works at a phone repair shop and whose two young sons were running around Gota Go Gama with fish buns and plastic cups of hot tea. His family comes to the protests regularly.

“We need a positive change with these protests. I am worried about my children’s future,” Majith said. “Even if it takes months or a year, if these protests do not change things, there is no God.”


Buddhist monks and university students take part in a demonstration against the economic crisis near the parliament building in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Buddhist monks and university students take part in a demonstration against the economic crisis near the parliament building in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Buddhist monks and university students take part in a demonstration against the economic crisis near the parliament building in Colombo on April 8. ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

The protesters face several challenges, including the threat of state violence under a government notorious for crushing dissent. The police have already assaulted several journalists, and Rajapaksa’s administration has labeled the protesters “extremists.”

On April 2, police took Thisara Anuruddha Bandara, the administrator of the “GoHomeGota2022” Facebook page, into custody for posts that apparently created public unrest. Pro-state actors have since stirred up tensions with their own pro-Gota rallies, and in a veiled threat, Mahinda Rajapaksa has compared the protesters to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna militants in the 1980s and the Tamil militants in the north, whose violent insurrections brought state retaliation and, with it, civilian deaths.

All protest sites are heavily policed and surveilled. The police trucks that drove into Gota Go Gama on April 16 have since left, but drones still circle the air. Meta apps—Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—are jammed at the site, making it hard to coordinate and upload content. On April 19, police first used tear gas and then fired bullets at protestors in the town of Rambukkana, injuring 12 people and killing one, Chaminda Lakshan, a father of two and the sole breadwinner of his family.

“We are afraid. They could come and hit us or kill us, but if we back down, there is no stopping them,” said Ramathi Rajapaksa (no relation to the ruling Rajapaksas), who came with her friends to Gota Go Gama. “We hope the politicians open their eyes and feel that we, the people, have so much power. We voted them into power, and we can remove them from it.”

Another major threat may come from within the protests.

While many reports claim the demonstrations are a great equalizer, there is still the question of whether minorities’ concerns will be taken seriously. As Sri Lankan writer and journalist Andrew Fidel Fernando put it recently in the Hindu, the protests have “linked arms with minorities only symbolically.” For instance, on April 16, a choir sang the national anthem only in Sinhala, neglecting Tamil, Sri Lanka’s other national language.

As Ambika Satkunanathan, the former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, told me over the phone, people need to understand that the “roots of successive crises in Sri Lanka are the same.” While excessive militarization and police brutality have haunted Tamil people for decades, Sri Lankans across the country have only recently started to understand the state’s dangers. They have much to learn from Tamils, who have sustained protests for decades despite limited resources and threats of violence.

Satkunanathan says of the protests’ “big tent” approach that it includes people who have “supported, enabled, and benefited from the Rajapaksa regime”—a threat to those who are not part of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. For instance, Meththika Vithanage, who advocated for a now defunct policy that denied Muslim Sri Lankans their burial rites, sat on the barricades outside the presidential office on April 13; a monk who falsely accused a Muslim doctor of sterilizing of his female patients has blessed the protests.

Protesters need a plan, which they’ve yet to create. In particular, they must articulate what kind of protection and guarantees minorities—and especially Tamils—can expect for their participation. As Fernando noted, that will require Sinhalese people having difficult conversations about topics such as Buddhist monks’ role in politics and the prioritization of Buddhism in the 1978 Constitution. Protesters also need to absorb Tamils’ demands into the heart of their protests, particularly those concerning justice for war crimes, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention.

Furthermore, neither the president nor prime minister has resigned, and to bring around real change, the aragalaya will likely have to be sustained for months or even years. The protesters thus need funds and political support from opposition parties, civil society, and experts. So far, the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party has reportedly collected support for a no-confidence motion and impeachment motion in Parliament. It has also submitted a proposal for a 21st Amendment to the constitution, including plans to abolish the executive presidency, establish a tripartite separation of power, and set up independent commissions such as a National Security Council. Whether these will have any chance of success is currently unclear, but the political momentum is undeniable.

For now, at least, protesters continue to voice their discontent, and at Gota Go Gama, vans still carry food, fruit, and flasks to the campsite—providing more support to Sri Lankans than the government has in years.

Correction, April 27, 2022: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Ambika Satkunanathan’s views on the protests.

Devana Senanayake is a journalist from Colombo, Sri Lanka. She focuses on gender, race, class, and the environment and has reported from several countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia. Twitter: @dsenanayake16

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