My Experience Of Sri Lanka’s Big Protest

Protest art at the semi-permanent protest village, Gotagogama

Sri Lanka is in the midst of huge protests which are really the culmination of months of protests, following even more months of misery. Let me walk you through what today’s experience was like for one person. Me.

Decades of neoliberal capitalism have completely collapsed in Sri Lanka and there’s no fuel, power cuts, and less and less to eat. Protests built and built until the government violently attacked them on May 9th, and the momentum never really recovered. Two months later, however, people (no one in particular) called for everyone to somehow assemble in Colombo today. And people somehow did.

People walked. People came on bicycles. They came in moving vans, in vehicle transporters, in lorries, they even commandeered trains that the government had tried to stop from running. The government cut fuel supplies even further, they tried to call a curfew, they thought about blocking internet, but—like the Grinch—they couldn’t stop the Aragalaya (struggle) from coming.

We went out on our bicycles to look and there were a few people, but just a half-hour later there were so many that they had taken over the flyover. And they were marching on Colombo.

If it was just me and my wife we’d cycle, but we had our kids. We haven’t used our car for weeks and it’s completely empty. We borrowed a vehicle from her parents that had some petrol and took that into the city. We didn’t know if the protests would be attacked so we didn’t want to take the kids into them, instead we went to a friend’s apartment just above the whole thing.

When we got there, this is what it looked like:

Note the patch of green at the top right, with what looks like statues. Those are soldiers, guarding the Presidential Secretariat (which was the old Parliament). More and more people flowed into the city and suddenly we heard a shout. They’d broken into the Presidential Secretariat and the soldiers fled. They took the first piece of symbolic territory, and took it peacefully.

I went down there and this is what it looked like:

Honestly, this is what public property should look like. Why are we kept away from power from soldiers anyways? The people here were completely peaceful, musical, and wonderful.

Families and children were there. Revolutionary violence is legitimate, but this was completely non-violent. I never felt safer in that usually armed and foreboding place.

Young protestor standing on a statue of DS Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Ceylon who kept colonial systems largely in place

The police had been brutalizing the steadfast young protestors, many of them from the IUSF (Inter University Students Federation) for weeks already. The IUSF has been protesting for education and public spending for decades and getting nothing but water-cannoned and tear-gassed for their troubles. But today the police fled in the face of massive people power, because reinforcements came.

The water cannons were abandoned, and painted, and a site for selfies, not inflicting pain.

The police were hooted into military quarters (quite peacefully, which is honestly much more than they deserve). The military itself was withdrawn behind gates. One shirtless drunk guy tried to barge in the phalanx of Navy men with guns, but other protestors quickly dragged him back, gently chiding him. No one else was drunk. The people were highly disciplined.

The military couldn’t do anything in the face of this. They stayed withdrawn behind their gates.

The next place to fall was the President’s House, formerly the Queen’s House. Neither Presidents nor Queens really lived there, though I think our current despised President had been staying there after protestors mobbed his home in Nugegoda.

I’ve never been to the President’s House before or even seen pictures, so I got a people’s tour of the people’s property today.

The President’s House has big lawns that people were sitting on, a pool they were swimming in, people were banging on tables and singing and dancing, but not breaking anything or causing any problem at all. It should always be like this. We don’t need palaces for our leaders, that’s just elitism with voting. Power to the people means space to the people, and today we just took it. We should never give it up again.

Inside the building, I saw this wood plaques with colonizer names, and then our Presidents right next to them. All we did was take the poison pill of Parliamentary Democracy from the British without questioning it. And we ended up with elite rule and continuing colonial exploitation, just with voting.

Sri Lanka got performative political independence but not economic independence. Every bit of socialism Sri Lanka got we had to protest and fight for, and it was systematically whittled away since the 1980s, when the Presidential system was first introduced. That President (the current Prime Minister’s uncle) introduces militarization and neo-liberalization, the two boots that have stomped Sri Lanka into the ground today.

As Pasan Weerasinghe said, “These two strands, of neo-fascism and neoliberalism, have been pursued at different intensities by the govts since, leaning alternately on one over the other, but still at great cost to ethnic minorities, the working class and the poor.”

But today fuck it, all of those people were in the President’s House, looking around. It was the people’s house now.

I looked around a bit but then I had to go. I walked back through the crowd, feeling really happy for the first time in months. For the past few months everything has sucked. Not only was there shortages and suffering, but the Aragalaya (struggle) had lost momentum. We weren’t resisting, we were just suffering. I could see it on the face of everyone in the kilometers long fuel-queues, and just everyone.

Today when I was walking through the streets I could see happiness again. We still had the same material conditions, but we were resisting, we were together, and that was beautiful. As I said, there is a place for revolutionary violence, but in this case non-violence was the action required, and people took it. People took these horcruxes of power by singing, by dancing, with their children.

Of course, no one has resigned yet, neither the despised President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, nor the unelected schemer Ranil Wickremesinghe who tried to bail him out as Prime Minister. I now heard that people have taken the Prime Minister’s official residence, but his goons assaulted people outside his private residence. Now that has been breached, and reportedly lit on fire. Like I said, revolutionary violence is legitimate, and property damage is nothing. More power to them.

Anyways, that’s where we are now. I’ve been up and down enough times to not tell you what’s coming next. I don’t know. The President hasn’t resigned, the Prime Minister hasn’t designed, and we don’t know if what’s coming next is worse. But we have today, and today was good.

Aragalaya means struggle and people have been struggling for a long time. The young people who occupied Gotagogama (the makeshift protest village) have had a lonely struggle sometimes, but when they called for reinforcements today, people came. And people showed power. Holding power is another thing entirely, but for today at least people had it. Aragalaya Jaya Wewa.