World in View: Citizens’ revolt erupts across Sri Lanka

May 19, 2022

From the May-June 2022 issue of News & Letters

by Eugene Walker

A massive citizens’ revolt is taking place in Sri Lanka. It is focused against the authoritarian President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members, who occupy many government posts. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have taken to the streets in the capital, Colombo, demanding that the President leave.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, emeritus professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo, concludes in an extensive report on the ongoing events:

“[S]pontaneous action of citizens from a wide range of social backgrounds protest. A new people’s movement has emerged, openly demanding some fundamental changes in the existing political order. . . They are reclaiming their lost political agency as citizens.

DEMANDING MORE THAN RULER’S FALL

“Shaking the foundations of the Rajapaksa government is something that the country’s political parties could not do for nearly three years. Yet, through their voluntary, spontaneous, and direct political action, Sri Lanka’s citizens have now done that. While insisting on the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister, and all the MPs in Parliament, they also demand some fundamental changes and transformations in the overall system of government in Sri Lanka.

“[T]he citizens’ protests that spontaneously began to erupt throughout March 2022 should not be viewed as an isolated development despite their suddenness. They are the culmination of a series of protests against the government that broke out throughout last year. Tamil citizens of the North seeking justice, rural farmers expressing anger against the President’s fertilizer policy, and the public sector teachers and plantation workers demanding higher wages, inaugurated different phases of this wave of citizen resistance.

“Then came sporadic protests—evening candlelight vigils—by urban, middle-class citizens at road intersections in Kohuwala, Ratmalana, Rajagiriya, Pita Kotte and in a few towns outside Colombo. What seems to have really tested the patience of Sri Lankan citizens during the past few weeks is the absolute failure of Sri Lanka’s President and his government to ensure the basic everyday survival needs of the people—electricity, cooking gas, diesel and petrol, food and essential commodities, regularly and at reasonable prices.”

The President has undermined the criminal justice system, jailed dissenters and quashed the opposition, while stocking the government with his relatives, fellow military men and right-wing monks aligned with his law-and-order mentality.

Whether protesting Rajapaksa’s authoritarianism can evolve to become a full new beginning remains to be seen.

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