Los Angeles Times

Our long, bloody road to Sri Lanka’s fragile harmony

- By Vajra Chandrasek­era In Colombo, Sri Lanka Vajra Chandrasek­era is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His debut novel, “The Saint of Bright Doors,” is forthcomin­g in 2023. @_vajra

After months of turmoil and severe government repression in Sri Lanka, July 9 was meant to be a big push from protesters. Despite dire fuel shortages and few transport options, people stockpiled gasoline, shared trucks and filled trains to join the day of protest. Many of us from Colombo, the capital, walked across town, rivers of humanity merging. The atmosphere was electric.

My friends and I were near the presidenti­al secretaria­t — a colonial-era building that served as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office. But the crowd was so dense that we couldn’t see what was happening: Families with small children, students, artists, blueand white-collar workers, trade unionists, academics, profession­als. Street carts did brisk business on the margins selling ice cream and cups of noodles.

Despite spotty internet service, we caught glimpses of what was unfolding in surreal videos. Demonstrat­ors had made it not only inside Rajapaksa’s office, but to his residence, diving into the president’s pool. Rajapaksa eventually fled last week to Singapore. Ranil Wickremesi­nghe, who is Rajapaksa’s strongest ally, became acting president and declared a state of emergency on Monday. Protesters are calling for Wickremesi­nghe’s resignatio­n, though he’s seen as the front-runner as lawmakers are set to vote Wednesday on a new president to complete Rajapaksa’s term.

From our July 9 protest, there’s one video clip that I keep rewatching, perhaps taken from a tall building or from a drone. It shows people surging up the steps of the secretaria­t. The scene fills me with joy — and with grief, that it took so long and cost so much for us to get here.

Since April, the protests have represente­d a cross-section of the entire Sri Lankan polity, a rare and fragile harmony, a belated mass opposition to the Rajapaksa family and the crisis they’ve nurtured for two decades. Sri Lanka has never seen this degree of civil disobedien­ce and protest before.

People argue about where this all began. They point to different flashpoint­s in our history: This year’s collapsing economy; Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election in 2019; the beginning of the civil war between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and Tamil minority in 1983; the anti-Tamil language discrimina­tion of the 1950s and ’60s; the denial of citizenshi­p to Tamil people in the Ceylon Citizenshi­p Act of 1948. The struggle has many roots, and with every fresh turn of crisis, people suffer and die for it.

It’s painful to witness today’s protests and remember that there wasn’t a similar uprising against the Rajapaksas’ role during the civil war’s bloody end in 2009. The 26-year war of the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was, in those final years, directed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then-defense secretary, and his brother, who was president at the time. The government is accused of being responsibl­e in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the last months of the war. The United Nations estimated 70,000 civilians were unaccounte­d for during the war’s final phase. Tamil activists call it genocide and say the true death toll is more than twice as high. No one has been held accountabl­e.

Until 2020, most of the Sinhala polity supported the Rajapaksas, reflecting a deep-seated SinhalaBud­dhist supremacis­m. Since Sri Lanka’s independen­ce from the British in 1948, the engine of Sinhala politics has been to profit from racial and religious divides: Sinhala against Tamil, Buddhist against Muslim, driving decades of discrimina­tion and violence. The Rajapaksas refined that machine to its peak of cruelty in the final years of the war.

The result? Brutal militariza­tion; decision-making as disconnect­ed from reality as the racism that drives it; ruinous debt from the Rajapaksas borrowing massively from internatio­nal capital markets to fund their war; and the ongoing military occupation of the north of the island. The Rajapaksas’ inability to keep the lights on and maintain affordable food prices for millions of people finally created mass Sinhala resistance.

Since April, protesters have built tents and temporary structures to occupy the area outside the secretaria­t: stations for medics and legal aid; forums for political discussion; a makeshift library and protest art exhibit. This is not mere unrest but a decentrali­zed popular movement after months of hunger and economic devastatio­n, sending a clear message to a despotic, failed government to step down.

For many of us, our joy at Rajapaksa’s resignatio­n is tempered with wariness. The videos that surfaced of July 9 were not only of citizens jubilantly occupying the palace of the oligarchs, but also of the army shooting at protesters on the street outside. Negotiatio­ns with the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund for a bailout and support from other countries are still underway.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is gone, at least for now, but the poisonous legacy of his family is still with us: the crisis they built, the debts they left for the people to pay and the long vigil for justice, for an answer to everything that happened on their watch.

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