In a victory for democracy, mass protests in Sri Lanka recently led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. A strongman who gained popularity for overseeing the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 (when his older brother, Mahinda, was president), Gotabaya was elected in November 2019 and has vowed to uphold national security and to ensure prosperity. He failed miserably.
Despite the allegations of Corruption, war crimesand attacks on journaliststhe Rajapaksa government had a strong mandate, which was strengthened nine months later when the brothers’ party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (the People’s Front of Sri Lanka), won two-thirds majority in Parliament. Yet during his short tenure, the Rajapaksas lead the country into bankruptcy, food insecurity and spiraling inflation.
In March, hospitals were reporting shortages of essential medicines and two old men died while queuing for gas.
Gotabaya announcement his candidacy only a few days after the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, promising a strong response to terrorism. In the months that followed, newspapers and radio stations frantically cover increased people’s fear of Muslims (who understand 10 percent of the population), and attacks on them increased. Gotabaya capitalized on this environment, presenting himself as a defender of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority that would transform Sri Lanka into a Singapore of the Indian Ocean. The clergy, the media, the military, political elites and local business moguls all adopted the same rhetoric, linking their fortunes to his.
The Buddhist clergy, for example, continue reaffirmed their confidence in Gotabaya throughout his presidency. In return, he established a Buddhist Advisory Council notable monks to help guide his political decisions. Even in January of this year, when families were starting ration foodand that the central bank sold its remaining gold reserves to repay an international obligation, the Buddhist establishment took the floor for Gotabaya, arguing that he was still the only leader who could save the country.
The struggle of Aragalaya
In March, hospitals reported shortages of essential drugs, and two old men died while queuing for gas. Unable to pay for fuel to generate electricity, government instituted rollover power outages = blackout which resulted in 1 p.m. power cuts at the height of a suffocating heat wave. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. protesters stormed the streets and asked the Rajapaksas resignations.
The political class replied playing musical chairs in the Cabinet of Ministers, while protesters occupied the area surrounding the presidential secretariat. The space that Rajapaksa had reserved as ‘agitation zone‘ – a decision heavily criticized for limiting people’s freedom of assembly – has been renamed ‘GotaGoGama‘ (‘Gota Go Village’). The GGG has become the home of the Aragalaya (struggle) against the government, which has now looted the site and arrested protest leaders.
The Aragalaya thus became a place where people experienced the alternative to Rajapaksa politics.
The Aragalaya was unusual in that it hosted Sri Lankans of all ethnic backgrounds. In April, demonstrators in front of the presidential secretariat included activists from the Muslim community â a direct rejection of the jingoistic sentiment that Gotabaya had stoked. The protesters too cooked a mixture of water and rice (kanji) at commemorate tamil civilians who died during the final stages of the war, when indiscriminate bombardment prevented them from obtaining other food.
The Aragalaya thus became a place where people experienced the alternative to Rajapaksa politics. The protesters celebrated unity in diversity, demonstrating that hope does not come from leaders but from people power.
A new social contract
But does this solidarity reflect a simple marriage of convenience? Just two and a half years ago, many current anti-government protesters endorsed the Rajapaksa majority policy. Today they complain that Parliament is full of cheaters and liars. Yet they are the ones who voted for the charlatans in free and fair elections.
The Rajapaksas were given a mandate despite their well-known history of corruption, authoritarianism and violence. The protests began not when the family stole public funds or trampled on minority rights, but when Sinhalese were called âextremists and terroristsâ simply for demanding food.
In each case, the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist had a window into the decades of deprivation suffered by minorities.
The institutions that supported Gotabaya’s rule have now lost their credibility. Companies and others who have aligned themselves with the Rajapaksas are shamed on social media, and any elite Buddhist clergy who dare to show up at protests are castigated. The army and the police, once rented for their service, are now seen as vehicles of state repression, and mainstream media have been condemned for stoking anti-minority sentiment.
The question now is what will fill the void. Sri Lankans have a rare opportunity to build a new identity based on this struggle for dignity. After having been tear gas and beaten by the policeSinhalese protesters glimpsed violence and mistreatment of Tamils suffered. After watching their businesses collapse from lack of electricity, they now have an idea of ââhow Muslims feel when their businesses are set on fire by angry mobs. And after feeling the effects of soaring inflation, every household now recognizes that plantation workers cannot live on $3 per day.
In each case, the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist had a window into the decades of deprivation suffered by minorities. Sinhalese Buddhists connect with their inner Tamils ââand Muslims. But only by building on this shared trauma can Sri Lankans turn resentment against the Rajapaksas into a new social contract. By renegotiating our community ties and relationships, we can build a new collective identity. It means rejecting majoritarianism and corruption, and embracing our common struggle for a free and prosperous future.
(vs) Project union