As Sri Lanka trundled into its worst economic crisis since Independence - partly due to corruption, terrible policies, vampiric politicians, and mismanagement - the public rose with one main demand: for its reigning (former) President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave immediately. In this piece, we follow the birth of the protests, the runaway ex-President, and what it all led to.
Story by Aisha Nazim and Amalini De Sayrah Edited by Tineeka de Silva Translated by Kesavan Selvarajah and Nishadi Gunatilake
- Bad policy decisions took Gotabaya Rajapaksa from being a venerated war hero to one of the most detested presidents in SL history
- First recorded People’s Protest began in March, as silent roadside vigils. These snowballed into larger, louder movements
- Approximately 35 people died during this period — from sheer exhaustion while waiting in queues, to police violence and brutality
- Gota fled the country, accruing a cost of millions of rupees while at it
In 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election and became President, 6.9 million Sri Lankans who voted him in envisioned a ‘disciplined’ society. They trusted his promise for a greener, better, and more functional country, despite serious misgivings from journalists and those in civil society organisations.
Given the history of repression under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, people were initially unsure if they could protest against the new Rajapaksa regime at all. However, several policy decisions which proved to be complete failures — such as tax cuts, stagnant wages, the militarisation of education in the Kotelawala National Defence University Bill, and the overnight chemical fertiliser ban — brought farmers, trade unions and working people out into the streets in as early as 2020, as it catapulted the country even faster into socio-economic ruin.
At first, excuses were made because of the pandemic — it was COVID-19, and Gotabaya never had a chance to have a ‘normal’ tenure, especially as he came riding on the outrage caused after the Easter Sunday Attacks (in 2019). He was given leeway for the first couple of years: to get the ‘terrorists’ under control (which never happened) and then to deal with how COVID-19 disrupted the economy.
By early 2022 however, hope in the ex-president began to wane even more rapidly. With money, food, and fuel fast disappearing, the people’s anxiety started rising. And as price hikes, power cuts, kilo-meter-long queues grew so did the death toll.
The effects of the rapidly rising public resentment brought forth the birth of the Aragalaya - the People’s protest.
Why did the tables turn?
To put it simply, the Rajapaksas overpromised and underdelivered - spectacularly. As we highlighted earlier on, Gotabaya came into power riding in on the Easter Sunday attacks and promised heightened security. The first point in his manifesto (titled The Ten Principles of Inclusive Governance) was ‘National Security Above All’.
The other nine were - consistent foreign policy, defeat corruption, flourishing human resources, people-centred economy, technology-integrated society, physical development, sustainable environment development, a reformed constitution responsible for the people and a lawful, disciplined, ethical & impartial society. This may read like an ambitious, albeit vague, manifesto.
In his attempt to create “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” as per his campaign manifesto, Gotabaya implemented a fertiliser ban overnight in 2021; causing countrywide food shortages and crop losses.
Due to more poor decision-making, the number of crises began piling up one upon the other. Power cuts became more frequent, prices of essential goods shot up, and the country plunged head-long into fuel and medical crises; all as a result of terrible economic policies.
It is also important to note the misguided advisory that contributed to these decisions. A prime example would be of Ajith Nivard Cabral, former Central Bank Governor’s insistence that everything would be fine, and that Sri Lanka didn’t need the IMF’s assistance - opting to consider a Chinese loan instead.
At the end of the day, everything came down to bad decisions and the government’s denial of there being any problems at all.
Eventually, people had enough.
Widespread vigils, snowballing protests, and GGG
The first recorded people’s protest began on 01 March, 2022, at Kohuwela junction. A small group of people gathered with candles and signboards, in silent protest as power cuts began extending over eight hours a day.
With long power cuts rapidly becoming the norm, these candlelight vigils began to grow in numbers throughout the neighbourhoods in and out of Colombo. The protests were decentralised, and initiated by civilians who simply decided they had had enough — and often featured the elderly, women, and children. Word got around fast through Facebook posts and WhatsApp forwards, and these drew bigger crowds.
As the number of protests grew, politicians jumped in on the movement, with main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leading a protest in Colombo on 15 March.
Soon, protests started spreading like wildfire across the country as living conditions continued to worsen. You can see how the protests spread across the country here — Watchdog tracked over 400 separate protests in April alone.
On 31 March, with no relief in sight, the people’s protests snowballed into a huge gathering outside Gotabaya’s residence in Mirihana, and things started to get heated. As the protestors attempted to storm his residence, police and military retaliated — leading to approximately 50 injuries and a number of arrests. Following this, on 01 April, over 300 lawyers appeared at the Mirihana police station to represent those arrested, for free. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) stood by the protestors literally and figuratively — calling for investigations on the attacks against GGG, and standing against illegal curfew orders.
By then, the government also declared a State of Emergency, and kept imposing curfews in attempts to curtail and control rising protests: leading to more panic-buying and increased fuel queues. To block what would have been an islandwide mobilisation on 03 April, curfew was put in place and Galle Face was cordoned off. One week later came GotaGoGama (GGG, also known as ‘Gota Go Village’) at Galle Face; a popup protest village in the same area Gotabaya himself had declared a ‘designated agitation site’.
From 09 April onwards, protestors set about establishing stations at the site - tents for youth, the LGBTQI community, families of the disappeared, health camps, a community kitchen, media centres, and more.
This was followed by ‘Maina Go Gama’ (MGG), a smaller pop-up village set outside then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence, Temple Trees - demanding his resignation as well.
Voices at the protests
The culmination of GotaGoGama at Galle Face consisted of diverse groups who were fractured but whole — people from different political ideologies and backgrounds coming together with one core demand: for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, and for the Rajapaksas to be held accountable.
While the economic crisis catalysed the start of these protests, it also created a window of opportunity for many to bring their long-standing grievances to the table. They may not have been large in numbers but it’s important to record the variety of demands people were making of this family:
- Justice for people forcibly disappeared during the last Rajapaksa administration at the end of the war
- Justice for innocent Muslims arrested following the Easter Sunday attacks
- Justice for the journalists and media workers killed on the Rajapaksas’ orders
- The repealing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that had been used to target innocent Tamils and Muslims
However, in addition to those who were protesting against the Rajapaksa administration, there were also groups of people protesting for him. There were protests in Kandy, Tangalle, Monaragala, Anuradhapura, and of course, Colombo. A pro-Gotabaya protestor was also identified selling vadai at GotaGoGama, and handed over to the police; as anti-Gota protestors claimed he could poison their food.
Furthermore, there were several celebrities and influencers who initially campaigned for the Rajapaksa regime, but switched sides publicly during the protests.
The ‘Storming of the Bastille’
As the protests grew in numbers and intensity, the former president continued to refuse to acknowledge the part he played in the #SriLankaEconomicCrisis.
He also remained silent as the protests grew, leaving everything to the security forces. Gotabaya never acknowledged the protests outside his home in Mirihana. Nor were his whereabouts known when they escalated into violence on 09 July. Despite Mahinda and Basil both stepping down from their respective portfolios in May and June, Gotabaya refused to follow suit.
On the 09 July, a massive protest march began, converging on the site of Gota Go Gama. A stream of people of all backgrounds began to enter Colombo — from IUSF-led university students chanting “Go home Gota!!!”…
…to farmers with their families on tractors. We tailed them from Ratmalana on one side and Fort on the other.
Shortly afterwards, the crowd stormed through the gates of the Presidential Secretariat and into the building, making it our Bastille moment.
Almost simultaneously, the Presidential Mansion was stormed, with protestors videoing everything from a pair of discarded underpants to several million rupees in cash found in a cupboard. Famously, many celebrated by jumping in the pool and / or touring the previously little-seen gardens attached to the property.
Gotabaya appeared to have fled just moments before. Amidst a riot of misinformation, a timeline emerged for his Southeast Asian runaway tour:
- 13 July: arranges for a military jet and flies to the Maldives
- 14 July: flies to Singapore. Then emails his resignation within the same day
- 11 August: flies to Thailand. The Thai Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson stated that Gotabaya could enter the country for 90 days, especially as he holds a diplomatic passport
- 02 September: returns to SL, with bills running to several hundred millions of rupees
A brief timeline
Crackdowns on protestors
The questioning and intimidation of anti-Rajapaksa protestors at Galle Face and other regional locations escalated following the SLPP’s attacks on 09 May.
The military were granted powers to shoot on sight on 10 May, prompting local and international outrage. Former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe denied this in Parliament a week later, stating that ‘No shoot on sight order was given. There is nothing in writing…Like under any normal circumstance, the police has to use their discretion if they feel they have to open fire’.
In the weeks following, organisers of several small GGG locations across the country were questioned by CID or Police in their relevant areas. Others were arrested and eventually released on bail.
In July, the crackdowns suddenly rose in intensity and frequency after the protestors stormed the President’s and PM’s residencies resulting in the then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s residence being torched.
“The new government in Sri Lanka has continued resorting to the unlawful use of force, intimidation and harassment to subdue protestors, sending a chilling message to the people of Sri Lanka that there is no room for dissent.” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia Regional Director.
Less than 24 hours after Ranil Wickremesinghe took oaths as President, armed troops marched in to remove the protest site at Galle Face. At 2am on 22 July, videos were sent by folks staying overnight at the site, of Sri Lanka Army and other state-funded security personnel destroying tents between the Presidential Secretariat and Baladaksha Mawatha. The troops also beat several of the protestors and arrested people. This was despite protestors promising to vacate the premises following the President’s appointment.
The armed forces should not be involved in the policing of public assemblies, since they are trained to fight against enemies and not to protect and control civilians. Amnesty.org
In the aftermath, the crackdowns continued as people were arrested based on videos and photos they or others had posted from within the Presidential Mansion or Temple Trees during the people’s occupation. Watchdog spoke to activists who’d been summoned to the CID for interrogation into their involvement in the protests. The officers had presented them with photos gathered via social media, to try and make them identify other protestors.
One of the key targets of this government repression has been the leaders and activists of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF). Three student leaders were arrested following a protest march on August 18th. They have since been held with a 90-day detention order under the PTA. Their families have also been subject to surveillance and questioning with authorities also making it difficult for their families and lawyers to visit.
Some of the more eyebrow-raising arrests include that of youth arrested for sitting on former-president Gotabaya’s chair, jumping in the pool, and for counting cash found at the president’s house that was later handed over to the police by the same youth.
During the last few protests against this repression, police chased after protestors and picked them up off the streets. Watchdog witnessed the police fire an initial round of teargas so as to disperse protestors, and then followed the fragmenting group down small roads. Many have since been granted bail. Those arrested were a mix of IUSF members and other activists.
However, only eight people were arrested for the attacks on GGG and MGG, despite the Attorney General’s Department naming 22 suspects, including 04 MPs.
Deaths in queues, deaths in protest
- From 19 March to 29 July, 24 people died as a result of fuel and kerosene queues, between ages 19 - 76.
- A 53-year-old man died of electrocution outside former President Gotabaya’s residence, while protesting against the power cuts.
- Eight people died during clashes on 09 May, including an MP, two police officers, and four civilians.
- A 26-year-old father of two died after the police teargassed protestors outside the Prime Minister’s office on 13 July. Police claimed he was a drug addict, sparking outrage as that detail appears to be irrelevant to his cause of death.
- On 19 July, one protestor was killed by police in Rambukkana as clashes erupted when protesting against fuel price hikes. Reports say at least 24 more were injured.
With President Wickremesinghe at the helm, Gotabaya returned to Sri Lanka on 02 September — and was greeted with quiet fanfare and a host of his old allies. In discussions with Wickremesinghe before Gotabaya’s arrival, his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), requested special security for their deposed president — which was granted.
He remained out of the public eye but emerged to congratulate the Sri Lankan cricket team on their win; the only public statement he has made since his ousting.
What happens now?
Since August, prices of items have begun to stabilise after shooting up for months. This was mainly due to the exchange rate stabilising and the Central Bank providing necessary foreign currency for businesses to continue imports and meet local demand.
Early September saw more positive news — Sri Lanka finally received confirmation of a potential IMF bailout; a staff-level agreement for an Extended Fund Facility for approximately USD 2.9bn. This is subject to approval from the higher-ups, and on Sri Lanka’s willingness to restructure debt, improve tax collections, and fight corruption among other things.
However, the country is still at a ‘critical juncture’, with human rights being affected in the wake of political and economic turmoil. As the United Nations stated, ‘underlying factors …have contributed to the economic crisis, including embedded impunity for past and present human rights violations, economic crimes and endemic corruption.’
“The Sri Lankan State, including through successive governments, has consistently failed to pursue an effective transitional justice process to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations and abuses accountable and uphold victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations…Rather, they have created political obstacles to accountability, and actively promoted and incorporated some military officials credibly implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of government.” - ohchr.org
Additionally, the People’s Tribunal at The Hague found the Government of Sri Lanka guilty of murdering journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge on 19 September.
How will we — Sri Lanka — be moving forward? The SLPP seems to have a plan — they launched a political leadership academy under the patronage of the Rajapaksas.
But what about the rest of the country? Although the protests have downsized, it did get Gota ousted. Criticism of a ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ government exists; alongside those who are supportive of the new government and are anticipating a more stable future. And yet, power cuts continue and a bigger food shortage looms around the corner while the economy still remains unstable. Where will the country go from here?
We wish we knew.