By Vindhya Buthpitiya
May 3, 2022
Weeks of citizen-led protests in Sri Lanka have demanded that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘go home’. These protests began in early March, in response to the worst economic crisis the country has seen in decades. In this blog, Vindhya Buthpitiya (Associate Lecturer, University of St Andrews) reflects on questions of violence and the inequalities and hierarchies of citizenship in Sri Lanka. Dr. Buthpitiya draws on her ongoing research on conflict and civilian resistance to emphasize why demands for accountability cannot be selective.
A Sri Lankan Spring?
April is a month of celebration in Sri Lanka, marking the beginning of the astrological new year. This April, the mood in Vavuniya remained, as it has for many years, not one of merriment but frustration and despair. On the 14th, New Year’s Day, the Tamil families of the disappeared marked 1881 days of continuous protest. Their roadside demonstration, which began in 2017, demanded information on the whereabouts of their loved ones who had been forcibly disappeared by the state security forces during and after the end of the civil war in 2009. These protests were perhaps among the most visible among those which emerged in the north and east following the government’s military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was riddled with allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Protests resisting militarization, the unlawful occupation of private land, and state-sponsored land grabs have defined the region’s violent experience of postwar masquerading as peace. Similarly, in the island’s hill country and free trade zones, exploited labourers have long been demanding living wages and better living conditions. The beleaguered Indian-Origin Tamil tea plantation workers’ demands for a mere 1000 LKR daily pay have been unmet for years despite the current government’s paper promises.
This year, however, the Vavuniya protests take place alongside more than 250 protests as Sri Lanka sinks deeper into disaster.
Catastrophic mismanagement by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, combined with the economic impacts of the pandemic, would soon cause currency reserves to dwindle. Coupled with crushing debt, inflation, import restrictions, food, fuel, and medication shortages, and daily power cuts, Sri Lankans were rapidly burdened by untenable costs of living. An angry public took to the streets as the country announced a default on its external debt payments and looked to the IMF for a bailout.
On the 31st of March, protesters gathered in front of the President’s residence demanding a response. Government statements comprised practised denials and prevarications, as citizens queued for essentials. The protesters chanting ‘Go Home Gota’ demanded Rajapaksa’s resignation and that of other members of the Rajapaksa family who occupy key government positions. However, when the police attempted to disperse the crowds with tear gas and water cannons, arresting over 50 protesters (some of whom were allegedly tortured), more protests mushroomed across Sri Lanka. The largest continuous protest to date converged at Colombo’s Galle Face Green, in the shape of ‘Gota Go Village’, as protesters occupy the barricades in front of the Presidential Secretariat. Although the government has claimed ‘restraint’, demonstrators in Rambukkana, Kegalle were shot at by the police resulting in one death and several injured on 19th April. The President and Prime Minister have stubbornly remained in office despite mounting public rage.
A Many-Headed Monster
The Rajapaksas’ ascent to power was cemented by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 election victory, following his pledge to adopt a harsher stance on the LTTE as the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement deteriorated. The LTTE ‘discouraged’ voting in areas under its control, and this is believed to have favoured Mahinda’s victory. By 2006, Sri Lanka returned to an intense period of armed conflict under the direction of Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya, who assumed the role of Secretary of Defence. Gotabaya, a former army officer, had left Sri Lanka for the United States in 1991 following his involvement in the government’s brutal suppression of the 1987-89 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency led by largely Sinhalese youth. Mahinda famously advocated on behalf of dissidents persecuted by the then United National Party (UNP) government. From 2006 to 2009, the fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE escalated, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in northern Sri Lanka with nearly 300,000 displaced by the end of the war. Despite this, the Sri Lankan government has resolutely maintained a line of ‘zero civilian casualties’ enabled by what it described as a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ which was cinematically televised for the benefit of a largely Sinhalese audience in southern Sri Lanka.
The period of 2006-2009 was beset by attacks and atrocities attributed to state security forces, intelligence operatives, and pro-government paramilitary groups. As documented by human rights organizations, this included: targeted killings, massacres, artillery shelling, abductions leading to torture, disappearance and death, extortion, attacks on journalists and non-governmental organizations, sexual and gender-based violence, restrictions on movement, and the denial of humanitarian assistance. The effects of this all-encompassing state of terror define the lives of minorities in Sri Lanka today, as evidenced by reports of continued harassment and torture. In a climate of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism espoused and propagated by the Rajapaksas, there has been little solidarity between the majority and the othered ethnic minorities.
In 2009, the Sri Lankan state declared a military victory at the cost of tens of thousands of Tamil lives. Political bluster around Rajapaksa’s presidency coupled with heightened evocations of triumphalism demarcated along Sinhala Buddhist nationalist lines peaked as Rajapaksa submitted a successful early bid for a second presidential term. The regime’s postwar reinvention focused on an aggressive push for mega-development projects as outlined in the ambitious 2010 Mahinda Chintana Vision for the Future Development Framework. This ‘economic philosophy’ unilaterally underpinned Sri Lanka’s development trajectory. In Sri Lanka’s north and east, the war-ravaged terrain – including the cemeteries of fallen Tamil fighters – was belligerently razed to make room for opulent victory monuments that hailed Rajapaksa and Gotabaya’s role in ‘defeating terrorism’. Military fortifications resembling European fortresses occupied private lands, while civilians were forbidden from returning to their homes or mourning their dead.
In the south, particularly around Rajapaksa’s home base, Chinese loans enabled spectacularly expensive failures including the Mattala International Airport, harbour and Southern Expressway. Colombo was reimagined in line with the Rajapaksa’s symbol of a lotus bud, laden with Buddhist significance, materialized into a tower, as homes were demolished and urban communities were subject to widespread forced displacement and resettlement in blocky, poorly-built complexes adorned with flex banners of Rajapaksa’s face. However, these grand gestures were not matters of benevolence, but rather widespread corruption benefiting the Rajapaksa family and their political and corporate allies.
The expansive ‘beautification’ and ‘urban regeneration was brought under the purview of Gotabaya in a wider institutional and ideological enterprise to amalgamate the military, development, and heritage apparatus. These extended to military-run tourism developments. Enticing a public that for decades had little access to spaces for recreation or leisure on account of wartime fears and restrictions on mobility, the post-2009 construction opened up military-administered public parks, landscaped to concretize the symbols of the regime. Through these carefully contrived, foreign debt-bolstered endeavours, the ruling party perpetuated its particular ideology, animating a variety of ethno-nationalist politico-aesthetic tropes that were strikingly Sinhala-Buddhist in their articulation. The violent recasting of Colombo’s urban environment into one of steel and glass modernity was engineered at the cost of extensive and militarized development-induced displacement, with the eviction and slapdash relocation of hundreds of families who have made homes for themselves in Colombo for generations.
While successfully mobilizing Sinhala Buddhist nationalist sentiment and loyalty among the majority voter base, the Rajapaksa’s mass atrocities against a contrived enemy ‘other’ were integral to their electoral success. The regime systematically dismantled already unstable structures, mechanisms, institutions for accountability with little opposition or consequence exacerbating impunity, state terror, corruption, and nepotism.
The UNP and SLFP opposition-led Yahpalanaya (good governance) coalition government led by common candidate former President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe would come into power between 2015-2019, in a surprise electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa who was seeking out his third term in office. Sirisena’s victory was enabled by minority votes following a decade of Rajapaksa tyranny. However, by 2018, as the ‘good governance’ coalition deteriorated, the Rajapaksa-led SLPP attempted a constitutional coup to regain power. In November 2019, SLPP candidate Gotabaya was elected President. Former President Mahinda was appointed as Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks carried out by Islamic State-inspired suicide bombers, Gotabaya’s popularity was reinforced by the island’s Sinhalese community and based on a campaign anchored to ‘virtue’, ‘discipline’, and ‘national security’ embellished with visual reminders of the war. The return of major perpetrators to positions of power in the new government left thousands of Tamils who suffered through the war, other ethnic and political minorities including the Muslim community, and journalist, academic, activist critics of the Rajapaksa regime in a state of fear and uncertainty. Key positions in government were distributed to former security forces officers aligned with Gotabaya, in an active militarization of state institutions and services. Those credibly accused of war crimes during the war years are among the appointed.
Matters of Selective Accountability
In a country that has so often thirsted for political transformation, in insurrections and wars intended to challenge a violent state, there has been no dearth of revolutionary sentiment or articulation. Indeed, the Sri Lankan security state has succeeded in co-opting public support through the creation of enemies, be it the Sinhalese dissenters of the JVP or the Tamil militants seeking to carve out a sovereign Tamil homeland. Its neglect of education and the enabling of institutional decay has fostered a majority voter base existentially fearful of its place in the world, where the island, as they have been told for generations, is their only home and must be protected from mutable ‘others’. Enhanced powers for its political elites and greater militarization have been rationalized through a logic of securitization and counter-insurgency accrued over decades of extractive governance and the divisive and violent ordering of citizenship along ethnicity, class, and caste.
In Battaramulla, a stone’s throw away from the Sri Lankan parliament, demonstrators stand at Diyatha Uyana (Garden by the Water), one of the first undertakings of Rajapaksa’s urban beautification drive. It was once also the site of the ‘Shrine of the Innocents’, built in 1999 as a memorial to 33 school children who were abducted and murdered during the 87-89 bheeshanaya (terror). Designed by artist Jagath Weerasinghe, the monument rapidly fell into disrepair, and was eventually demolished during the Mahinda presidency.
One protester’s sign reads: ‘You have failed our nation’s past, present, (and) future. #GetOut’.
This fury is rooted in the Sri Lankan government’s decades of atrocities against civilians challenging its Sinhala Buddhist supremacist and elitist violence. While the protesters are largely Sinhalese citizens disillusioned by the Rajapaksas, their sentiments towards issues of justice and accountability that impact political minorities remain unclear and have indeed been called divisive in an otherwise important political moment of ‘unity’. Others have called for citizens to unite in an often-patronizing language of civic responsibility, failing to note that Sri Lankan citizenship has never been equal. While analysts are quick to suggest that the country has not known such economic hardship ‘even during the civil war years’, it is important to remember the years-long government-imposed economic embargo on the north and east to hinder access to basic goods and services. Moreover, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government curtailed essential food items and medical supplies reaching trapped Tamil civilians in the Vanni during the final months of the civil war aside from deliberately shelling hospitals and medical facilities in the No Fire Zones as well as those queuing for already sparse food deepening the humanitarian crisis. Despite such barbarism, for a section of the voting majority the Rajapaksas’ popularity endured.
For Sri Lanka’s political minorities, it is difficult to be optimistic about the protests demanding the removal of the Rajapaksas, when for decades their crimes against these communities as well as their grievances and resistances were ignored. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine support or solidarity with Tamil protests in the north and east which have persisted for years in the face of intimidation, harassment, and violence. A smattering of signs at the ongoing protests reminds us of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
While this mobilization suggests a greater sense of togetherness than previously encountered, it is necessary to remember that demands for accountability cannot be selective. They must not start and end with economic mismanagement and shortages of essential items and corruption tied to a vague call to send the Rajapaksas home. Instead, these demands must begin with accountability for the regime’s mass atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed against Sri Lankan citizens, as they should have years ago when there was little to no domestic pressure for justice. Where the government’s attempts at curfews, social media blocks, attempted abduction of a youth activist, the imposition of emergency regulations, the blaming of ‘extremist’ elements, and police brutality have failed – it is tempting to imagine the prospect of a political alternative and a resolution to the ethnicized impairments of Sri Lankan citizenship.
What of Sri Lanka’s systemic rot, though, where independent institutions have been deliberately undone over decades of bad governance? What happens if and when the Rajapaksas do indeed ‘go home’, facing no consequences for all that they have wrought on this island and its people? Perhaps this is at the very least a crucial moment to collectively re-imagine what is politically and practically possible.
Vindhya Buthpitiya is an anthropologist and curator working at the intersection of conflict and visual culture. She is an Associate Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her current research focused on war, photography, and civilian resistance in northern Sri Lanka considers the local and global aftermaths of civil conflict through the making and moving of images. Follow her on Twitter @vindib_
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.