Thursday, Oct 06, 2022
Art of War

Sri Lanka Says 'Gota Go Home': The Protesters Of Gotagogama

Since the Sri Lankan protests are now focused on the resignation of the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his government, the organizers felt it apt to name their site Gotagogama. They then coined an equally fitting line for their entire campaign: Gota Go Home.

The protesters of Gotagogama
The protesters of Gotagogama Getty Images

Sri Lanka has taught the world some important lessons on organizing protests. Within a week or two in April, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Galle Face Green. A coastal front situated in the capital, Colombo, Galle Face had served as a site of several mass demonstrations, including an island-wide hartal in 1953.

Since the protests now focused on the resignation of the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his government, the organizers felt it apt to name their site Gotagogama. They then coined an equally fitting line for their entire campaign: Gota Go Home.

The Gotagogama protesters feel justified in their anger. In 2019 the country witnessed its worst terrorist attacks – a series of bombings on mostly Catholic churches, the mastermind behind which has never been fully identified, despite a Presidential Commission – since the end of the 30-year separatist conflict 10 years earlier. Banking on legitimate fears about the country’s security and sovereignty, Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to deliver.

Rajapaksa claimed an end to the old order, the beginning of a new era in the country. Hailing from an established political family, he promoted himself as a grand outsider to the country’s long, messy tradition of electoral politics.

Within two years after winning a massive and unprecedented mandate – amounting to 6.9 million voters, in a country of 22 million – however,  Rajapaksa’s failures began to mount. Many of these failures were not entirely his own: they were the result of an array of internal and external causes, including the COovid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of which battered its export sectors, including tourism.

Yet in Sri Lanka as in other countries, when the State is seen to have failed in its most basic functions, it is the Head of State who is asked to leave. Thus, when the island’s foreign reserves dwindled and gas and fuel shortages, and power cuts, tested the patience of the people, the latter amplified calls for his resignation.

The demonstration site at Galle Face Green – Gotagogama – epitomizes the strengths and limitations of these protests. On the one hand, the protesters were, and are, united under one common goal. On the other, such goals have served to conceal differences between the groups that make up the site. The result has been that from time to time, those differences have surfaced, determining the course of protests across the country.

So far, the protesters have kept these differences to themselves, maintaining a veneer of unity in a protest zone that continues to host people of almost all ages, from wizened elders to newborn babies. Their ability to come together has been their biggest strength. That has reinforced support for their cause from across the country, and the world, making it possible for the organizers to maintain supplies of water, food, and electricity.

However, this has not entirely excluded from view certain crucial differences. Perhaps the most significant feature of the protests at Gotagogama has been the lack or absence of any cohesive leadership. While certain groups, especially belonging to leftist student formations such as the Inter University Students’ Federation, have dominated over others, no group has yet captured the entire movement. Yet over the last two months, a populist-radical student left movement, led by the IUSF, has been asserting itself more clearly.

One criticism that’s often made about these organizers is their lack of a common minimum program. In response, the protesters unveiled a manifesto late last week. Comprising of a number of proposals, the manifesto centers on the resignation of corrupt officials, above all the President and his family. Other reform proposals include cancellation of farmers’ debts, the incorporation of the right to life in the country’s Constitution, and the release of political prisoners. These represent a range of viewpoints and opinions.

As a result, while emphasizing the Rajapaksas’ exit from politics, the protests – or aragalaya in Sinhalese – have also focused on secondary priorities, such as constitutional reforms. In most countries, criticism of political corruption has almost always been framed in terms of mass resignations of parliamentarians. This has been the case in Sri Lanka and Gotagogama too: one of the more popular anti-regime taglines, “225 Ma Epa!”, or “Say No To The 225!”, targets the number of Members of Parliament.

These political taglines and campaigns have dovetailed with various political, social, and even cultural contradictions, all within Gotagogama. To give one example, the aragalaya’s main focus was always Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but since his appointment as Prime Minister, it has focused on Ranil Wickremesinghe and his support for the President as well. The Prime Minister’s personal life, not surprisingly, has been a target of attack. In that sense, for me at least, it was not a little surreal to come across insults targeting his sexuality, at a site that included a separate site for LGBTQ activists.

As intriguing as these contradictions may be, though, the protests have resonated strongly across the country. In their own way, such contradictions reflect the backgrounds of the protesters and the fact that they still lack definitive leadership. As Rathindra Kuruwita, a leading political analyst in Sri Lanka puts it recently in The Diplomat,

“There is a lack of coordination among protesters and a lack of clear policy goals. Most anti-Gotabaya protests seem to be a patchwork of people with different and even contradictory policy objectives. While many protesters have been demanding that the government work with the IMF on a bail-out, the unions that are increasingly playing a significant role in the protests are skeptical about IMF interventions.”

In any case, at Gotagogama one comes across not just the President’s critics, but his former supporters also. One such protester, Nissanka, who hails from the village of Kegalle, once a Rajapaksa heartland, was frank about what he expected from him in 2019.

“We honestly thought he would give us some sense of meaning, perhaps even turning Sri Lanka into another Singapore. But because of those around him, he got the wrong advice and messed things up. Having supported his brother [Mahinda] in 2005, 2009, and 2015 [when he contested the presidency], we now feel betrayed by him.”

Not surprisingly, the residents of Gotagogama are not all equally critical of the government. One person’s explanation of its failures may differ from another’s. Yet the overwhelming thrust has remained the same: “Gotabaya must go.” Though they do not predict who will succeed him, they feel that his departure will herald a better future.

Such political analyses, which focus on individuals rather than the structural causes for an economic crisis, can be faulted as being inadequate. Yet they have caught the imagination of a predominantly young population at Gotagogama. In a context where different groups are articulating different concerns – the site has propped up separate platforms for causes like gay rights and legal aid – such populist calls have united them all.

These calls have, in turn, been determined by the trajectory of shortages, queues, and price hikes. In April, when the protests picked up, the biggest concern were forever lengthening daily power cuts, lasting for as long as 10 hours. By mid-May the blackouts and shortages were beginning to ease off, thanks largely to credit lines from India. By June, however, the shortages had returned, peaking in the following month. Thus, on an otherwise ordinary Saturday, July 9, protesters stormed into the President’s official residence. Having occupied it, they eventually achieved their objective of getting its chief occupant out.

Rajapaksa’s resignation, dated July 13, will not mean the end of the Gotagogama campaign. Nevertheless, having achieved their main aim, the protests will now likely rupture, as it has in countless other countries and situations. A clear instance of these ruptures emerged on July 13 itself, when, after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared himself Acting President, some protesters stormed the State-run broadcaster, Rupavahini, announcing that they had taken over the transmission.
While not a few supported the move, many others criticized it for straying from the aragalaya’s main objective of peaceful protests. It even compelled “a group of people”, allied with the Gotagogama protests, stating unequivocally on social media that “what is happening now is not our aragalaya.” Such ruptures, almost unimaginable before, are on their way to becoming a fact of life in Sri Lanka’s vibrant anti-government protests – just as they have in Egypt and Lebanon. This is in many ways inevitable, and unavoidable.
(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist based in Sri Lanka. Views expressed are personal)