‘The Heavy Footed State, Which Made a Mess’

By Vindhya Buthpitiya*

August 31, 2022

In February 1990, Richard de Zoysa – a renowned 31-year-old Sri Lankan poet, dramatist and journalist – was abducted and murdered by a death squad allegedly dispatched by the United National Party- (UNP) led Sri Lankan government.

In August 2022, 32 years after De Zoysa’s body washed up on a Moratuwa beach, Sri Lanka is in the wake of a mass public struggle that saw President Gotabaya Rajapaksa compelled to flee the island following the dramatic storming and occupation of his official residence, the presidential secretariat and Temple Trees, the former prime minister’s official residence. Articulated as an act of reclaiming public property, protesters appeared to display a great deal of care and concern for the maintenance of these premises. Makeshift signs reminded a steady stream of eager sightseers that the buildings did, in fact, belong to the people even though these are usually heavily guarded and reserved for the sole use of those in power. Images of levity and triumph, epitomised by gleeful protesters swimming in the presidential pool, frying short-eats in the palatial kitchen, marvelling at the buildings’ colonial opulence, and wrestling on the presidential bed, flooded the international media. Footage of protesters being battered and shot at with live ammunition by state security personnel remained overlooked.

Neighbourhood protests like these that took place across the island earlier this year have almost wholly subsided as threats of violence from the state have escalated and organisers and activists have been arrested or brought in for questioning. Photograph by Shwetha Srikanthan (April 2022)

Earlier in May, Gotabaya’s Prime Minister, brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was compelled to resign after a brutal attack on protesters by supporters of the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party. Following this, Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister causing further anger and outrage. Wickremesinghe’s office would also soon be stormed and occupied, and his private residence burned down in the shadow of a violent assault on media workers by members of the Special Task Force (STF) during a live primetime news broadcast. As these mass protests intensified, Wickremesinghe emerged out of this period of intense crisis as an unlikely frontman, marking the pinnacle of a 45-year-long political career facilitated by his late uncle and former President J. R. Jayawardene.

Ranil Wickremesinghe served as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister on no fewer than six occasions with no meaningful political contribution or legacy to speak of. He failed to secure a parliamentary seat in the last general election, and was consequently nominated to parliament by the UNP as the sole representative of the party. The UNP, once among Sri Lanka’s oldest and most notable political parties, had been splintered with the 2020 formation of a new alliance, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (United People’s Power), led by aspiring presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, the son of former UNP President R. Premadasa who was killed in a suicide bombing in 1993. Despite this, Wickremesinghe swiftly moved from a national list parliamentary seat to Gotabaya Rajapaksa-appointed Prime Minister, and eventually president with the support of the majority SLPP government. The latter cemented the view of Wickremesinghe as an implicit ally and protector of the Rajapaksas. Noted for his repeated electoral failures, the presidency obtained by way of a simple majority parliamentary vote that has been widely rejected by the Sri Lankan public, but quietly welcomed by the country’s elites who have long favoured the neoliberal ethos of the UNP.

Viewed as a proponent of neoliberal policy and a friend of the West, Wickremesinghe’s tenure as unelected president would begin with violence harking back to the rule of his late uncle. Through the 1980s, Jayawardene complacently presided over some of the worst ethnic and state violence Sri Lanka undergone. Jayawardene also actively invested in the consolidation of state power, securitisation and repression with guarantees of indemnity for state security personnel deployed to crush anti-state subversion, and market liberalisation that authorised the exploitation of the island’s working classes. Sri Lanka continues to be burdened by the enactments of Jayawardene’s rule including – most notably – the executive presidency (1978), with few constraints on powers, and the cruel Prevention of Terrorism Act, weaponised time and time again to viciously quash dissent.

Pawn shops offer a rate of LKR 150,000 (approx $425) for a sovereign of gold. Photograph by Shwetha Srikanthan (August 2022).

Wickremesinghe himself was notoriously connected to a state-sponsored torture camp run out of the Batalanda Housing Scheme (in southwest Sri Lanka) during the 1987-89 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection, where suspected insurgents were brutally detained and tortured. Despite a damning report by a government-appointed commission of inquiry, Wickremesinghe faced no consequences, signifying a long tradition of impunity for both the architects and perpetrators of state violence. Gotabaya Rajapaksa also faces credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as Defence Secretary during the final phase (2006-2009) of the Sri Lankan civil war where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed, alongside numerous cases of abduction and torture of political opponents and dissidents. Rajapaksa has also been implicated in over 700 cases of enforced disappearances while serving as a district coordinator for the Sri Lanka Army during the ‘bheeshanaya’ (the terror; 1987-1989) when tens of thousands of extra-judicial killings and ‘involuntary removals’ were reported.

Barely hours into Wickremesinghe’s presidency that started in July this year, a state of emergency was declared granting the state and the military powers to crackdown. The military was ordered to use ‘necessary force’ to prevent the destruction of property and life, in a further escalation of militarisation. Sites of protest and occupation were soon fearfully vacated both voluntarily and under duress. Activists, prominent protesters, trade union leaders, journalists and detractors were rapidly arrested and even occasionally abducted. GotaGoGama, in the south of the island, has been the principal Galle Face Green campsite of protesters who had gathered for over a hundred days demanding resignations from key government actors deemed responsible for the current crisis; it was brutally attacked and demolished by state security personnel under the cover of darkness despite the protesters’ agreement to vacate the next day. It was not long before support for the janatha aragalaya – the struggle, as the movement was called – was vocally withdrawn by Colombo’s wealthy and middle classes. Those critical of the continued demonstrations observed that the protest had been co-opted by ‘extreme’ groups and ‘leftist political parties, some with a history of violence’ intent on destabilising the government. Furthermore, Wickremesinghe was seen as being capable of bringing in much needed political stability required for the government to pursue negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international donors and lenders. Indeed, this vocabulary of dismissal, scepticism, and occasional disdain had been skillfully disseminated over the previous weeks, with student protesters and trade unionists being repeatedly referred to as militants, fascists and terrorists by Wickremesinghe and other government representatives, who were quick to blame the lack of donor confidence on the continuing demonstrations.

Despite the announcement of a 25-year plan, the government has so far failed to restructure debt, increasing taxation, and support the island’s most vulnerable who continue to face extraordinary hardship as food inflation has reached 80 percent. Seemingly satiated by a fuel rationing enabled by smart phone QR code queuing and more frequent cooking gas deliveries, demands for accountability have all but vanished. Even as crime has seen an alarming uptick, parliamentarians reimburse themselves lavishly for houses purportedly burned by protesters, and the government moves to pay compensation for state officials subject to ‘political victimisation’, including a former military official allegedly involved in abduction, torture and disappearance. Sri Lanka has returned to a complacent silence; it is one that is all-too-familiar to its political minorities, and a ringing endorsement of a racist, classist security state.

As the cost of living crisis intensifies and fuel rationing continues, Sri Lanka’s public transport system is more burdened than ever. Photograph by Shwetha Srikanthan (August 2022).

In August 2022, a young Muslim poet and school teacher, Ahnaf Jazeem, who had already spent 579 days in detention after being arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, was named as a person “designated” for “terrorism related activities” in a government Gazette. While normalcy and stability are drummed and declared loudly and insistently by those in power as if it might be willed into reality by the echoes of its supporters, we are reminded that the Sri Lankan state has reliably placed little value on the lives of the poor and the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.

As evidenced through the violent excesses of the state in years that followed the 1971 insurrection, the abuse of emergency regulations and expanded securitisation has also always operated on the lines of ethnicity and social class through the conflict years and their aftermath. Sri Lanka’s many conflicts have also always taken place at the intersection of ethnicity and class and have been repeatedly politically maneuvered to feed into myopic electoral gains. The state and political apparatus has consistently wielded ethno-religious and class-based politics and prejudices to embolden structural discrimination and failures to guarantee parity and accountability. Without empathy and solidarity across ethnic, geographic and social class lines and a willingness to recognise that these cycles of violence underpin an overarching system of oppression, Sri Lankans are doomed to fail, forget and repeat.

Since June 2022, no fewer than 5 bodies of unidentified men have drifted ashore along the capital Colombo’s shoreline – as both requiem and prophecy for the enduring violences of the Sri Lankan state, reminding of both dark days past and perhaps even darker days to come.

*Title is an excerpt from Richard de Zoysa’s poem ‘Lepidoptera’. From This Other Eden: The Collected Poems Of Richard De Zoysa (1990).

Vindhya Buthpitiya is an anthropologist and curator working at the intersection of conflict and visual culture. She is a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. Her current research focused on war, photography, and civilian resistance in northern Sri Lanka, and 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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