In the recent past, public- led protests have sprung up all over Sri Lanka as people took to the streets demanding for the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down. Historian Shamara Wettimuny shared that even though Sri Lanka has had a long history of protest with identity, ideology, interest groups and issues being significant drivers of such protests, that perhaps, for the very first time all the drivers of protest are present in these public-led protests. Comparing the current protests to the ones during the colonial period, she shared that those protests were confined to those affected or aggrieved by an issue. “They remained confined to ethnic, religious, class, caste of gender-based lines. Today, we seem to have overcome those divisions and have a stab at unity,” she remarked.
Why are we protesting?
Protests have been held island-wide with some protests spanning days. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Piyumi Wattuhewa, an undergraduate from Bandarawela shared that she protested because that was the only way she could make her voice heard. “I protested because I want change. I am not someone who can pack up and leave the country when things get rough. This country and the opportunities it presents to me are all I have to make a living for myself. And when those opportunities are being taken away, I have no choice and no option but to stand and fight. I cannot let my future be tampered with for the benefit of politicians,” said Piyumi.
Sharing similar sentiments, Tarrushith Sivananthan, an undergraduate from Colombo shared that as a 21 year old from a minority community, the only way he could feel his voice was heard was by protesting alongside other Sri Lankans. “At 21, I already feel my career has ended before it started because it has been extremely hard to find a job with the current economic situation. This has also affected my friends who are in a similar situation like me. I wanted to be here to ensure that our voices will cause those in power to resolve this soon,” said Sivananthan.
Onali Ariyabandu, a university lecturer and also a mother, came to the protests to protest for her daughter’s future and the futures of the next generation of Sri Lankans. “The future in this country is uncertain but we have to somehow stand up and try to be the change. If we don’t stand up against corruption and all the bad policies now, there is no use complaining about it later. This is our country; it belongs to us. We have to ensure that we can live here,” said Onali.
Hope is the silver lining
Protests are also being held by Sri Lankans residing abroad in countries like the UK, Netherlands, Canada, USA, Malaysia, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Australia. Sheza Meelaud, a protestor in London, shared how they protested because they felt helpless watching their friends and family back home suffer. “I only hope and pray that this momentum we have gained doesn’t fizzle out in the time to come. If people forget, then we can never hold them accountable. That’s what’s been happening all this time,” said Sheza. While hopelessness, anger and frustration were common feelings, many were still hopeful. “My hopes – as unrealistic or excessively optimistic as they may be – are that we can claw ourselves out of this situation and find stability again; perhaps if we have a better educated voter base, we can see through the lies and false promises of politicians and vote in better leaders,” shared Shanya Sadanandan, an undergraduate currently studying in Singapore.
Sharing similar sentiments, Mithsandi Seneviratne, a protestor in Colombo, shared that people should critically examine the country’s situation and politics and hold those in power accountable while also educating themselves on how to vote better. Tehani Rassool, another protestor in Colombo, shared that since everyone was victimised and experienced what minority communities have felt all along, people have been sensitised to issues. “I just hope that the unity remains because united, we are all powerful.” Seeing the newfound unity among Sri Lankans, protesting as one gave some protestors like Aarefa Hussain hope that Sri Lanka’s future would not be bleak and things would get better.
Changes we want to see
Birendra Siriwardhana, a graduate residing in Colombo, believes that the educational system in Sri Lanka should change to create more politically aware citizens and also to create individuals fit for the global world of work. Melissa Fernando, another protestor in Colombo, demanded that when politicians are appointed to the cabinet and when they are elected to the parliament, they should declare their assets and that audits on their finances have to be done. Luwie Ganeshathasan, Attorney at Law, tweeted on Twitter that all those involved in major corruption should be prosecuted via an independent prosecutor. He also called for strengthening the anti-corruption framework and politicians should be held to account. “Increase direct taxation. People need to see that everyone is paying his or her share and also cut government expenditure on politicians,” he shared.
In terms of law reforms, Swasthika Arulingam, Attorney at Law and member of the National Labour Advisory Council, shared that there should be constitutional reforms to abolish executive presidency and the centralization of power should be removed. “The power is centralized in Colombo and Colombo is not sensitive to the needs of Sri Lankans around the island. Only a few people or one person cannot have the power to take decisions on behalf of the entire country. Provincial councils should be strengthened and they should be held accountable to People’s Assembly, this way power is given to people’s organizations on the ground like co-
operatives, rural development societies, farmers organizations, fishermen’s organizations. The constitutional reform should also allow for accountability and decentralize the power of decision making. If not, the most vulnerable will suffer like how farmers suffered due to the ban on chemical fertilizers,” said Swasthika. She also added that during the crisis people who contributed to the economy like FTZ workers, migration workers and plantation workers were most affected. Therefore, she believed labour laws also have to be strengthened. “Sri Lanka hasn’t ratified the C119 ILO convention which will help protect all workers from workplace harassment. We should ratify it. Also the labour department should proactively get workers to unionize, so that they can be protected within the workplace and demand for better working conditions,” said Swasthika. She also said that the recent amendment to the land reform policy should be removed as it posed a risk of people losing their
grant lands to private companies and banks. “We should strengthen laws, so that the most vulnerable people in the society do not take hits when we resolve the economic crisis. “If we have structures in place to protect the most vulnerable then, as a country we can resolve the economic crisis through proper economic policies,” said Swasthika.
Chayu Damsinghe, Product Head of Macroeconomic and Thematic Research at Frontier Research shared that to deal with the economic crisis, urgent action to be taken is monetary stabilization, beginning IMF and debt negotiations, and setting up stability to ensure the continuation of the process. “My view is that sharp rate hikes, removing surrender requirements and bringing confidence by opening proper negotiations with creditors for debt restructuring and with the IMF is needed. Beyond this, reducing expenditure and raising revenue on the budget side can help create space to directly support low income groups, for example through direct cash transfers. For the long-term, my personal view is that Sri Lanka needs heavy investment in education and upskilling of its labour force, that can help us access high-value service and knowledge exports,” said Chayu. He also noted that the country needs to reduce its reliance on debt to finance its consumption or expand its earnings. “This would likely mean making sure that there are fewer subsidies that help the rich, and more that target the poor, more market reflective pricing in what Sri Lankans consume, and measures that can improve foreign earnings that have low import components,” he shared.
Nevanka Jayatilleke, lecturer in International Relations, shared similar sentiments in the term of economic reforms and added that in the long-term, the country has to commit itself to strong macroeconomic reforms and have strong safety nets for the most vulnerable. He is also of the opinion that the government should resign immediately respecting the wishes of the people. “The only reasonable option is to resign, and handover government in the interim to the next able in the Opposition to secure the confidence of Parliament. If MPs vote along party lines, however, we will remain at an impasse which will not be conducive to international confidence in us as a state. It is therefore important to showcase political certainty, by heeding the voice of the people, and handing over government to a party not affiliated with the present regime, to get the job done,” said Nevanka. He also shared that Sri Lankans have to be politically mature. “We must demand for greater accountability from politicians. We need to abolish institutions that vest tremendous power in the hands of one or few, and demand and work towards checks and balances between the pillars of the state. We need to keep the political pressure, and be mindful of what our leaders say, and hold them to account. We cannot afford to be divided by arbitrary symbols or labels. We need to emphasize a culture of tolerance of multiculturalism – while also being intolerant of the typical tales peddled by the political class. Now is the time for a revolution of thought,” he shared.
Disclaimer: Time for Revolution of Thought Protesting for hope and change - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view