Police barricades smashed aside by protestors on 9th July 2022, lie by the side of a street leading to Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, one of several government buildings stormed and sacked by angry mobs demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapakse. By the end of that fateful day, Rajapakse, accused of corruption and ineptness, and blamed for creating an economic crisis unparalleled in Sri Lanka’s history, would announce his resignation, and flee the country four days later. A full month down the road, Sri Lanka remains in crisis; led by a caretaker president picked as a successor by Rajapakse himself, and with a cabinet full of ministers who legislated the very policies that crushed the economy they’re now tasked with repairing. Much to the chagrin of large segments of the population, no charges of corruption have been brought to bear on Gotabaya Rajapakse, now living in self-imposed exile in Singapore, or on his brothers and nephew, powerful cabinet ministers in his government, and still members of Parliament. Instead, the authorities have focused on dismantling protests and targeting individual protestors with petty — though punitive — charges of trespassing, vandalism, and theft. While the past month has seen some easing of fuel shortages, mostly through much delayed rationing, Sri Lanka still hasn’t seen any of the economic measures necessary to begin the long process of recovery.
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A street food vendor sells fresh rotti and vadai at Gotagogama, the ad hoc village of tents, shacks, and portable toilets that have sprung up on Galle Face Green, in downtown Colombo. Set up almost a month ago, the village is home to a core of protestors calling for the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government, who’s corruption and ineptitude have been blamed for creating the worst economic crisis in the country’s modern history. In addition to the resident dissidents, Gotagogama sees a constant ebb and flow of protestors from all over the city and its suburbs, driven by widespread shortages of electricity, fuel, cooking gas, and medicine, to join in the strident call for the government to step down. Sri Lanka, May 2022.
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With an image of the Buddha tattooed on his forehead, this monk assured me he would one day be the leader of Sri Lanka; just as soon as Gota went home. He also told me he could drive any vehicle on land or sea, and knew how to use everything from a 9mm pistol to a T56 to an RPG. He said he’d lived in Jaffna throughout the war and that the ‘Koti’ had taught him everything he knew. ‘Gotagogama’, the ad hoc protest village of tents, shacks, and portable lavatories set up on Galle Face Green, in early April, attracts all sorts; from communist student bodies to local ladies’ book clubs; all united in wanting Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government to step down, accused of corruption and ineptitude, and the creation of the worst economic crisis in the country’s modern history. Colombo, May 2022.
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Anglican and Roman Catholic nuns calling for Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government to step down, protest against the backdrop of the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapakse Theatre, a stark reminder of the wasteful policies of a regime that has brought the country to economic ruin. Colombo, April 2022.
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“Church, Temple, and that Old Red Line” →
Protestors atop the barricades at the Sri Lankan Presidential Secretariat, at Galle face, Colombo, call for President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government to resign; accused of corruption and ineptitude that has created the worst economic crisis in the country’s modern history. The Galle Face demonstration, which began on 9th April 2022, is now in its fourth week, dubbed ‘Gotagogama’, after the protestors’ primary demand — “Gota, Go Home!” The protests have seen Sri Lankans turn out in hundreds of thousands, mostly middle and working classes, of all ages and ethnicities, united in suffering, and a hope of turning things around before it’s too late. An acute shortage of foreign exchange reserves has seen Sri Lanka unable to import essential fuel, causing widespread electricity cuts, some as long as thirteen hours a day, and forcing millions to stand in interminably long queues for petrol, diesel, and cooking gas. President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his Prime Minister, and older brother, Mahinda Rajapakse, have refused to resign in spite of the protests, prolonging the crisis. Vital medicines and essential supplies are running out, and the government has already indicated that it will default on its $51 billion foreign debt repayments due in June. With the country on the verge of bankruptcy, any recovery depends on a prompt replacement of the current administration, as the protestors are demanding.
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A Sri Lankan family takes a break from protesting to have an afternoon snack under the wary gaze of soldiers guarding the Presidential Secretariat at Galle Face, in Colombo. April 2022. Sporadic demonstrations that began in March, demanding President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government resign, have solidified into a large rally in downtown Colombo that is now in its eighteenth consecutive day. Blamed for creating Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in modern history, the president, and his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, have refused to step down in the face of widespread accusations of corruption, ineptitude, and nepotism, choosing to wait out the protestors, while the country teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.
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…But right or wrong, my country.* Ethnic minorities have been visibly present in the widespread protests calling for Sri Lankan President Gotab haya Rajapakse and his government to resign; none more so than the country’s Muslim community, typically distinguished by their conspicuous garb. Long an undeserved target of the chauvinistic politics that has plagued the country since independence in 1948, the Muslims have been especially marked for persecution in the decade following the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009. Announcing his run for the presidency days after the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019, Gotabhaya Rajapakse blamed the Muslims for the act of terrorism, accusing them of killing hundreds, and vowing to stamp out Islamic extremism and restore national security. Borne aloft on a wave of fear and nationalism, he won a landslide victory seven months later, but today stands charged with having engineered the bombings himself as a ploy to gain power. The country’s majority Sinhalese Buddhists, similarly making up the bulk of the protestors accusing the government of corruption and ineptitude, have welcomed minority participation; presenting, for now at least, a united voice for change. Colombo, April 2022.
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*An oft-used misquote of American Commodore Stephen Decatur’s “after victory over the Barbary pirates in 1816. “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”