It started off with small groups of people, gathered on street corners, roundabouts and outside buildings. They held posters and lit candles and occasionally chanted a slogan or two. Tooting the horn in support as motorists passed protestors, became the norm. However, with more queues to stand in and more shortages to contend with, more and more people joined in – and it was people, in a collective group, that led the protest.
A housewife, a pensioner, an entrepreneur, a teenager and a war veteran joined a three-wheel driver, a shop owner, a pavement hawker, a teacher, a nun, a construction worker, a doctor and a university student. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Moors and every conceivable race joined hands with people with disabilities, LGBTIQ community, the clergy, the old, the young and everyone in between. Toddlers were brought in prams, nuns came in their habits as did leaders of all faiths and senior citizens trudged along with walking sticks. It was time to unite; eschew the divisions, accept each other for who we are – Sri Lankan.
The reason: the sudden dawning that for too long the nation had relied on politicians to do what’s right by them and had in the process been duped, robbed, plundered and even murdered within a culture of impunity and arrogance that kept exacerbating.
This realisation, which some say is too late, placed the spotlight not just on political and economic mismanagement and blatant thieving of the country’s assets, but also on the mountains of debt and swathes of corruption that cut through unapologetically on the future of entire generations.
And all this by just one family, which came into power with 6.9 million votes just over two years ago. The damage done is manifold but the resilience of a nation that holds within its core the courage of a lion carried proudly in the hands of those waving the Sri Lankan flag, sounded a clarion call: Enough is Enough. Go Home!
Those street corners, roundabouts and street protests took on a new conscience with the knowledge that sovereignty rests with the people. Gatherings at Independence Square, Nelum Pokuna, Fort Railway Station and in prominent places around Sri Lanka gained momentum with people joining in the protests in their hundreds.
Some catchy ditties and verses were composed, megaphones were brought, portable sound systems were put to good use and never before seen creativity in a vibrant poster culture emerged. Black became the designer colour for the season.
It was a singular cry – #GoHomeGota. Some cries were polite, some were loud, some were angry but all were in the name of peace. There were no singular leaders; just people getting together to change their collective future.
These protests were dismissed by those in the highest seats of power as politically driven or led by radicals. Curfews were clamped, roads closed, disparaging remarks made, roads barricaded sometimes with blood-drawing spikes and tear gas and live bullets used. But determination was fuelled. “You were voted in by us and you will be sent home by us!”
On 9 April 2022 – Ground Zero happened. Millions marched to Galle Face Green in a peaceful protest with the same message. There was renewed energy, a feisty vibrancy and sense of purpose. The power of the people emerged. A never before seen chapter in the history of Sri Lanka was being written and the lion flag was being waved with great gusto as people came together in one force to push for collective change.
The message spread far and wide. Protests sprouted in cities around the world. Sri Lankans and friends of Sri Lankans banded together to spotlight the injustices meted out to their fellow countrymen by an authoritarian money-grabbing corrupt ruling family.
From Sydney to LA, Melbourne to Toronto, Austin to London, Perth to Atlanta, New York to Washington and every single city that had any Sri Lankan presence anywhere, protestors brought out their creative best to open the eyes of the world to the strangled cries of their paradise isle.
The first Sri Lankan to win an Olivier in London for his role in the Life of Pi at the West End Hiran Abeyasekera held up his award at the presentation ceremony in London and said, “My Sri Lanka, my friends in Sri Lanka, I’m with you. Jayawewa,” before he stepped off the stage, only to step onto a plane and step off in his motherland, going directly to GotaGoGama at Galle Face Green to join the protest.
The hugely popular duo Blok & Dino carried the flag high as did a 100 voice choir that amplified to over 500 singing “Do you hear the people sing?”. Nuns stood across barricades as a human shield to protect young university students facing military force.
The film industry joined in as did the lawyers, singers, entertainers, artists, theatre actors, directors, dancers, models, choreographers, event producers, sportspeople, media, writers and publishers.
And as each day passed, the corporates which had stayed silent for the most part, joined in bringing to light one fact – when the economy is crashing, you have to pull your socks up and rely on the citizens of this country and not the politicians, to get you back on track.
Each day, the crowds swelled. They came in their hundreds and then their thousands, they brought their children and their parents, they brought their employees and their families, they brought their maids and chauffeurs.
They helped the limbless soldier walk, held water to the lips of a thirsty old lady, held up the old ‘mudalali’ who stumbled and sang when others couldn’t.
They brought their paints and easels, their torches for light and tents and raincoats to shield each other from the rain. They came together with their Buddhist and Christian priests and nuns, imams and aiyars.
They broke fast together, washed the feet of the people on Maundy Thursday, celebrated Sri Lankan Avurudu with sweetmeats, held a memorial service for the Easter bomb victims, fed the five thousand with Pol Roti post Easter Sunday and chanted healing stanzas to add positive energy.
They waved the flag when others didn’t, used technology to map the message of unity on the Presidential Secretariat, highlighted politically motivated murders and the fearful white van culture, cried to the emotive response of a bilingually sung national anthem, shouted witty slogans, sang catchy rhymes, carried creative posters and donated food and water.
Through it all, they had the backing of the legal eagles at every turn when the powers that be attempted to thwart the protests, whether deviously or by force.
It was called the world’s most peaceful protest and rightfully so. Driven by Gen Z and Gen Y, these were no ordinary protests. There was decency, mutual respect, equality and most of all love for fellow human beings. There were no arguments, no skirmishes, no catcalls, no eve-teasing, no fisticuffs – just people coming together to put the country right by demanding that corrupt leaders leave and bring some stability to a torn and haemorrhaging nation.
The protests also coincided with the third year anniversary of the Easter bomb attacks which todate has had no conclusion. This then added to the cry of #GoHomeGota, a man is now widely believed to have masterminded the attacks that left hundreds dead, maimed and literally bleeding.
While the priests and nuns continued their call for justice, television actor Jehan Appuhami took the cry many more steps further by embarking on a three-day 40 kilometre trek from the bombed Katuwapitiya Church in Negombo to the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo – carrying a cross for justice.
The irony is that these protests are held in a place of some significance. The people gathering on Galle Face may not have known that the Dutch first laid the green so they would have a strategic line of fire against the Portuguese and later that a British Governor made it the playground of the colonists with horse races, polo, cricket and even tennis being played. The ‘natives’ as the Ceylonese were called then were not allowed in this space.
Then there’s Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s statue which has become the meeting place for all groups and had the resonating words of “Do you hear the people sing?” and the national anthem sung lustily. It was SWRD who is widely blamed for the Sinhala only policy that was introduced to the country resulting in divisions of our countrymen in more ways than one.
The Presidential Secretariat which remains the bastion of the incumbent president and now renamed GotaGoGama had its origins in 1912 on the idea of Governor Sir Henry McCallum who chose this spot for the State Council building between the military barracks and the Beira Lake enjoying the cross breezes of the Indian Ocean.
And it was in these cross breezes that Sri Lankan flags waved in 2022, long after colonisation, but yet undergoing a different colonisation – slaves to a far more vindictive and pervasive wound that just won’t heal. That wound keeps festering and threatening to explode but nothing is over yet. As one poster stated: You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people, all of the time.
This is a crucial moment in Sri Lankan history. It’s certainly not a time to be silent, but to speak out and be heard. Our collective voices have been silent and silenced for too long. But now, Sri Lankans are finally taking to the streets with a deafening, united roar that is impossible to ignore, as we exercise our democratic right to protest peacefully.
I’m glad that, when the community finally chose to claim agency on their future by speaking out, they chose to articulate their voice through art, music, performances and creativity as well. That’s a peaceful, positive and progressive way to grapple with a disastrous situation. It’s also a method of coping, by celebrating unity, community and strength in the face of adversity, when all join as one. To me that’s the ‘power of ONE’ – the united power of the people! – Jehan Aloysius – Actor, Director, Choreographer and a member of the 100 Voice Choir at GotaGoGama
Being a member of a minority, I know my presence, however small, changed some things in the system. It inspired my family and friends to join the protests and made people realise their suffering was universal in this context. It’s not a racial struggle; it’s a national fight. The older generations are to blame for wavering in front of greed and politics, staying ignorant to the problem of the regular citizen until it impacts them personally. That’s why I protest and why my introverted mum protested, to rectify mistakes of their past choices – Hafeezah Munas – Executive, 24 years
Seeing so many people at the protests from all social strata inspired us to do the Roti Project at GotaGoGama. Funded by the old boys of Royal College, we also had funding from well-wishers and fed over 10,000 that day. What surprised us was how volunteers joined in helping us until 4 a.m. and the fact that the number of people who came to our tent genuinely needed a meal was staggering. We can be better, do better and it gives me hope to see that unity at GotaGoGama – Michael David – Manager and Organiser of the 10,000 Pol Roti Distribution, 39 years
Seeing everyone stand up together made me realise that we all needed to be a part of this, if we are to be recognised and be taken seriously. Everyone was so friendly and respectful and even though they were tired, hungry and fed-up, every person would greet you with a smile that clearly said, “We are all in this together”. I want to see a systematic change in how our country is run because what has been happening in the past clearly hasn’t worked – Rayush Wijeyaratne – Company Director/Event Manager, 33 years
I want to do my part for my country, voicing our dissent against this regime and drive away corrupt politicians. We will build a better and brighter Sri Lanka with leaders who take accountability for their actions while working towards the betterment of the country and not just themselves. Sri Lanka can be the paradise nation I know it can be – Leanne Perera – Digital Content and Public Relations Executive, 25 years
The video mapping of the Presidential secretariat
Even though I’m just one person, my message and voice will count. It is the same principle as voting. Most often, a silent vigil or protest abiding by the Gandhian principle of non-violence even though the government provokes violence to enforce military control, makes your voice heard and message conveyed through the posters carried. You will be heard no matter what. It is the People’s Voice. The final objective is to show the ‘People’s Power through one united Sri Lankan People’s Voice’ – Lalith Dassenaike – Independent International Consultant/Activist, 61 years
The issue at hand is much greater than any one of us can imagine but together we can tackle it. There is power in numbers and we are seeing results of this already. I just want economic stability in Sri Lanka. When there is no financial stability, everything breaks down – cultural clashes, health and mental wellbeing – Mithara Fonseka – Law and Economics Student, 24 years
The Government is solely responsible for this crisis due to lack of planning and lack of action. The Government has failed us and they can’t remain in power. We need a system where checks and balances are in place, where the president does not have executive powers and Sri Lanka has economic growth translating to happy citizens – Shanaka Jayakody – Research Analyst, 24 years
We need responsible leadership where religion is kept away from politics and race will never again be used to incite violence. This came through to me as I saw the beautiful contrast of a quiet prayer service being held alongside the loudness of the protest – Nelaka Fernando – SEO and Content Manager, 24 years
The only way to end what each government has done is to give power to the people. Our duty is to support the youth in every way we can so they can carry their message forward. The older generation has sat back and watched for far too long, been unconcerned about the country and never blamed the government openly for fear of being penalised and also being selfish. Step out now and be bold. If well paid professionals are left to run the country there will be a difference and the private sector too needs to stop paying homage to politicians and inciting corruption – Roshan Wijeyaratne – Entrepreneur/Managing Director, 58 years
When an old lady served me a soft drink saying she came to serve drinks to the children who are thirsty, I realised that even though the protests are led by the youth, all generations are adding their support in whichever way they can. These protests didn’t matter to anyone until the situation became unbearable and people realised it’s time to fight for what’s right. Whoever comes to power in the future, must be held accountable. The people want it – Subani Anandavadivel
– Undergraduate, 24 years
If there’s one thing these ‘beach parties’ have taught me is that I can create without a government, express without a government and thrive without a government. I can excel without a government. I can be me without a government. I can be free without a government. But a government can’t express itself without me, a government cannot create without me, a government cannot thrive without me. A government cannot excel without me. A government cannot be free without me. A government is nothing without its people – Extract from Eric Heinrichs’ video – Hey You
We wanted to make a massive statement from an artists’ point of view when we put together the 100 voice choir in less than 48 hours. Hence, there was no better song than “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables as it’s very apt for the country’s situation. Everyone, regardless of who or what they were, sang together with tears in their eyes. We wanted everyone to feel passion and love for Sri Lanka. Artists are not merely decorative – we will stand against corruption and make our voices heard to overcome this together – Kevin Crusz – Theatre Director/Artiste/Organiser of the 100 Voice Choir at GGG
Enough is enough. We as the older generation failed to get involved in getting our politicians on the correct path. We were scared but why should we be? We were told – be careful, you have a business. But it’s time for everyone to come out and show your protest against the Rajapaksas and correct the political system, and have One Sri Lanka with respect to all races and religions. Identify ourselves as Sri Lankans – Janaka Botejue – Company Lead/Entrepreneur
courtesy daily FT
Disclaimer: Before the 9th of May – A look back - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view