Out on an Island A letter from Colombo

by S. Prasad

The shadow of chaos never existed, it will never exist, anywhere.

Sri Lanka is a country of twenty two million people, a population roughly the same size as the New York City metropolitan area. Of this, five million live in and around Colombo, the island nation’s capital. Colombo is a sprawling port city, teeming with crows, that stretches out along a beach. It is a city of juxtapositions, which are most noticeable in its architecture. Old British and Dutch colonial buildings sit awkwardly alongside towers of glass and steel, many of which are unfinished, dating back to a recent construction boom, its own kind of colonialism, the orgy of construction following the orgy of violence that marked the end of the country’s nearly three decade long civil war.

Today, Colombo is a city in waiting. It is a city of people sleeping in cars to save money on the fuel they would otherwise use to drive home after work. It is a city of people waiting in tuk tuks, buses, automobiles, and motorcycles in queues for fuel that go on for blocks and often for days. It is a city waiting in lines at grocery stores that spill out the door and down the street; waiting on corners for buses or tuk tuks that may never come; waiting in overcrowded train stations to hang out of the doorways of overcrowded trains; waiting for news about the cargo ships carrying containers of fuel that should arrive “any day now.” People wait seemingly everywhere except in traffic. With the fuel shortage taking most vehicles off of the road, Colombo may have the least congested streets of any capital city in Asia.

Revolutionaries and activists alike wait in jails or hiding out in safe houses. The occupiers at Galle Face Greene, the sprawling protest encampment along the beach in the heart of Colombo, wait for the police to evict them or for the reemergence of a mass movement, whichever will come first.1 The middle classes wait for passports and opportunities to leave the country. The whole country waits for news about negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India, China, anyone that might be able to offer some measure of economic relief. More than anything, Colombo waits with bated breath to see if the new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, will be able to turn the situation around and find some way out of the present crisis before he too is swept away by a wave of protests in the same manner as his predecessor.

Earlier this summer, the mood could not have been more different. Just weeks ago, Colombo was a city overcome with revolutionary élan. Hundreds of thousands of people, two million by some estimates, from all over the country had flooded the capital. This was the climax of a months-long uprising, commonly referred to by the Sinhalese word for struggle, Aragalaya, triggered by the worst economic crisis the country has seen since its independence in 1948.2

On the morning of July 9, thousands stormed and occupied the President’s House (or palace); the Presidential Secretariat, his office; and Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence. The president escaped out of the backdoor of his residence and onto a boat just as crowds began to arrive at his gate. Lunch in the palace had already been served. It was a buffet. The prime minister’s private home was set on fire later that evening.

For nearly a week, Sri Lanka seemed to be on the tipping point. The president fled the country, first to the Maldives, then Singapore, then Thailand. (Eventually he would email a letter of resignation.) Most important government buildings were occupied by the Aragalaya. Thousands from all over the country were still in the streets. Unions were threatening a general strike.

When, on July 13, Ranil Wickremesinghe, then prime minister, declared himself the acting president in Gotabaya’s absence, protesters stormed and occupied his office and attempted to storm parliament. Construction equipment was used in an effort to batter down barricades. Some soldiers were injured and their weapons captured by the crowd in the chaos. Protesters entered a state-run television station, briefly interrupting its broadcast. When Ranil declared a state of emergency and ordered the armed forces to restore order, military leadership appeared to declare themselves neutral. All of the initiative was in the hands of the Aragalaya.

At the center of this fervent activity was GotaGoGama, the occupation of the aforementioned Galle Face Greene that emerged in early April. Although Occupy Wall Street in 2011 was a common reference point, the occupation more closely resembled that of Standing Rock in 2016, due to its sheer size and the magnitude of its infrastructure, as well as its duration. This infrastructure grew to include a library, a college, a cinema, an industrial kitchen, a medical clinic, a legal aid clinic, a radio station, a vegetable garden, an art gallery, and a watch tower. Hundreds, at times thousands, of people—both protesters and the city’s urban poor—were fed there each day.

Although some slept in ordinary camping tents, much of the real estate of the occupation was taken up by semi-permanent wooden structures and large military-style canvas tents. The “village” was composed of a number of different self-organized camps, often a cluster of tents, or one large tent, with a shared common area. There was a tent for deaf protests and another for wounded war veterans. There was a Buddhist temple; an LGBTQ tent; and a 420 tent, demanding the legalization of weed. There was also, similar to Standing Rock, an array of warrior camps, with names like Vietnam (“because they’re really about the struggle”) and Colombia (“because we’re a bunch of thugs.”) During the 2019 Sudanese revolution, “Colombia” was also the name given to the most rowdy proletarian segment of the occupation in Khartoum.

The Aragalaya had no formal structure or leadership. Nor was there a daily “general assembly” in the manner of the 2011 movement of squares.3 Leadership was situational. Decision-making took place on any number of different levels, depending on the circumstances. Through this process, something like consensus would emerge. Some protesters began to play the role of movement spokespersons, often due to being seen as having broad moral credibility or because they represented some aspect of the movement’s composition.

To Blanqui, the insurrections of 19th century Paris were doomed from the start because of certain habits on the part of the city’s insurgent workers. After the uprisings’ initial victories, the insurrectionary proletariat would hang around at the barricades or occupations, smoke their pipes, drink wine, and wait for the enemy to take the initiative. Marx, Blanqui’s eternal interlocutor, drew similar conclusions from his reflections on the failed revolutions of 1848.

For Marx, insurrection is an art. Like any art, it follows certain rules of proceedings: An uprising has to act with the greatest determination, always on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every uprising. New successes need to be prepared daily in order to keep the moral ascendy and rally the vacillating elements which will always follow the strongest impulse. The watchword of any uprising is: audacity, audacity, audacity.

Often, uprisings are not defeated by the state but rather by the shock of their own victory. Looking down from the dizzying heights it had climbed, the Aragalaya became paralyzed. Things had happened so fast. The fall of the Rajapaksa regime was such a lofty goal that nobody had seriously considered what would happen next.

Many thought that by occupying these government institutions, the Aragalaya had, in a sense, taken power; that it could at least dictate the terms of the transition. But the state simply continued to function behind their backs. It is unclear what taking power, or deposing power for that matter, might have actually looked like in this situation.

This hesitation was enough for the counterrevolution to regain the momentum. According to the Sri Lankan constitution, if a president resigns, the prime minister is to step in as acting president. Parliament then has thirty days to elect a new president. Elections were hastily organized for July 20. The country held its breath and waited.

Meanwhile, the fuel and food shortage facing the country continued to get worse. The economic situation was becoming desperate. Footage exaggerating the chaos within the occupied state buildings was replayed on television every night. In the popular imagination, this functioned as a stand-in for the looming anarchy the country was facing. Some in the Aragalaya became anxious about being blamed for throwing the country into chaos. Most of the occupied government buildings were handed back over to the state as an act of good faith.

Confusion reigned. The parties in parliament were accused of being part of the old regime, the “Rajapaksa cartel.” But parliament was left to decide the fate of the revolution. The Aragalaya wanted “system change,” but did not want to go beyond, or against, the country’s constitution.

A certain common sense prevailed. If an opposition candidate was elected by parliament, he would be given a grace period to see if he could make some progress in solving the country’s problems. The Aragalaya had initially called for all 225 members of parliament to resign – indeed this was the basis of one of the popular slogans– but understood that the popular mood wasn’t ready for such a leap. But if Ranil, a close ally of the Rajapaksas, won the election, “chaos would spread throughout the country,” in the words of one occupier at Galle Face.

There were some protests in the build up to the election, but they were small, performative, leftist. It was widely expected that mass protests would return once the election is over.

When Ranil was elected by a large majority of members of parliament in the end, nothing happened. It felt similar to the day of the Brianna Taylor verdict in Louisville, Kentucky.4 Everyone expected there to be a riot but nobody actually intended to riot.

The Aragalaya, it seems, had underestimated the extent to which much of Sri Lanka was willing to give nearly anyone a chance who might be able to steer the country out of this situation, even a politician as deeply unpopular and mistrusted as Ranil. After months of struggle, alongside the day to day reality of the economic crisis, the country was exhausted. Even at Galle Face, the mood was less outraged than resigned and anxious. Ranil is notorious for his role in repressing the communist insurgency in the late 1980s, which involved overseeing detention camps where prisoners were tortured. To activists, his election signaled that another wave of repression was coming.5

A friend once remarked that after Gotabaya’s election in 2019, the air in the country felt harder to breathe. This situation felt similar. Popularly known as the Sly Fox, it was widely understood that Ranil was simply too cunning, tenacious, and determined to be defeated in the same manner as the Rajapaksas. Occupations, blockades, riots, storming buildings, and mass protests would be insufficient. A new strategy and new tactics would be necessary.

Ranil wasted no time. In his first act following the election, Ranil gave a speech to the armed forces, seemingly to assure their loyalty. The wave of repression was subtle at first, but it was swift.

The core of the sprawling encampment on Galle Face is sandwiched between the Presidential Secretariat and the Shangri-La, perhaps Colombo’s most expensive luxury hotel. In front of the Shangri-La is a statue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, one the Sri Lanka’s first prime ministers and a Sinhalese nationalist. Some of the protesters refer to Bandaranaike as the “founding father of racism.” Within an hour of the election, a notice was posted on the statue announcing a court order barring anyone from “loitering” within fifty meters. Police claimed to have credible information about a plot by certain protesters to desecrate or tear down the statue. Nearly one third of the occupation at Galle Face was within this fifty meter radius. The notice was addressed to an informal leader of one of the camps within the occupation. This brought to the fore rifts that had already been developing within the Aragalaya and the encampment.

Ranil announced that same evening that the occupation of government buildings was illegal and that force would be used to clear them if they were not evacuated. The next morning, July 21, warrants were issued for a number of militant student and trade union leaders. Ranil also announced that he intended to reform the constitution in line with some of the demands of the protesters.

That afternoon, the occupation outside of Temple Trees, the prime minister’s office, was disbanded. Occupiers announced that they had accomplished what they set off to do and would simply return in two weeks if they needed to.

A series of meetings took place at GotaGoGama, the main protest camp, to decide on a shared orientation around new tactics. Protesters announced their intention to leave the Presidential Secretariat, the last occupied building, the next afternoon. But they would nonetheless maintain the occupation at Galle Face.

Many saw the Aragalaya as a conduit for the mood and sensibility of the country. They argued that if most of the country wants to give the new government some breathing room, rather than immediately plunging into a struggle to bring it down, the Aragalaya has to honor that. But the situation is unstable. There will likely be a rising tide of unrest again soon.

Some wagered that the struggle would reemerge sooner rather than later. A bailout from the IMF would almost certainly entail another round of austerity measures which would likely provoke new protests. The movement would be in a stronger position if it could maintain the infrastructure to absorb this new energy. For that reason, they would maintain the occupation at Galle Face.

Ranil, it seems, is making a similar wager. While progress moved slowly in discussions with the IMF, the new government has been relentlessly focused on repressing the movement, breaking up its infrastructure, and arresting any visible leadership, clearing the way for the coming austerity. Ranil too seems to expect that IMF assistance will be followed by renewed unrest.

On July 21, Ranil was sworn into office. Late that night, around 2am, thousands of soldiers, wearing masks and armed with batons and rifles, stormed the Presidential Secretariat. Hundreds of protests gathered in a quixotic attempt to defend the occupation that they intended to surrender the next day. As they retreated, the crowds of protesters were charged by soldiers and beaten with batons. Over fifty were injured.

The main protest camp was surrounded. Media and lawyers were barred from entering. Everyone was prevented from leaving, including the injured. Close to one third of the occupation, the section known as Gate Zero, which surrounded the Presidential Secretariat, was torn down. This included the IT Center, a gift from Los Angeles; the wounded veteran’s tent; the deaf tent; a stage; the “office of the struggle;” and the tents of the various leftist parties.

Many expected this to unleash a wave of fury similar to the aftermath of the May 9 attacks on the occupation.6 But, just like after the election, nothing happened. The country held its breath and continued to wait.

The next day, crowds clashed with soldiers at the barricades. But these never reached a critical mass. Those who had come out on July 9 mostly stayed home. This was, in part, due to the worsening fuel crisis, making it difficult for many to even travel to the protests. But more so due to a cloud of resignation that had set in over the country.

On July 26, police officers arrived to enforce the court order evicting one third of the occupation at Galle Face. Several protesters were arrested. Many simply moved their tents and committed to continue staying on at the encampment. But there was a tangible sense of demoralization.

That same day, Dinesh Ali, accused of storming a television station on July 13, was surrounded by plain clothes detectives, and pulled off of an airplane which had been headed to Dubai. He had already cleared security and customs. It was reported that passengers on the plane who attempted to intervene in the dramatic arrest will be identified and themselves arrested upon their return to Sri Lanka. Three other activists were arrested on the street that day.

The next day, July 27, Veranga Pushpika, a student activist and journalist, was arrested on a bus by plainclothes detectives after attending a protest. Police raided a church searching for Father Amila Jeewantha Peiris, a public spokesperson for the Aragalaya. He would later give an interview from hiding saying that he felt “calm and cool.” That same day, at the office of Xposure News, a digital publication that had been providing sympathetic coverage of the protests, plainclothes detectives demanded access to CCTV footage and the identity of certain people in photographers. Three Xposure journalists had been injured during the July 22 raid.7

In the days that followed, three people were arrested for trying to sell the hanger’s from the president’s window curtains. Another was arrested for being the first person to enter the President’s House when it was occupied. Another for allegedly raiding the president’s liquor cabinet, drinking a beer, and stealing a beer mug. Another for removing two official flags from the palace, using one as a bedsheet and another as a sarong.

Protesters on July 9 had discovered around 17.5 million Sri Lankan rupees in crisp banknotes in one of the palace’s rooms. Four people who appeared in a viral video counting the money, before it was handed over to the police, were later arrested. These spectacular and absurd arrests are supposed to intimidate people; they cannot arrest everyone.

Seven people have been arrested in connection with the arson of Ranil’s private residence.

On August 1, a prominent social media activist was called in for questioning and arrested. The next day, a British citizen who had been documenting the protests on social media had her passport confiscated. She would later go into hiding after being instructed to leave the country. Also on August 2, an investigation was opened into a star hotel that was allegedly providing food to protesters. On August 3, Joseph Stalin, the secretary of the Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union, was arrested in his office following a protest. Not even the dead, it seems, are safe.

Also on August 3, police read an announcement at Galle Face that the occupation would be cleared in two days. This eviction was then postponed by a court injunction. But many began leaving anyway. Nobody wanted to be the last person at the party, stuck with cleaning up the mess.

By this point, the state had retaken all of the initiative. Nearly all of the movement's public figures, and many not so public figures, were in hiding, if they had not already been arrested. New arrest warrants and travel bans were issued daily. Nearly everyone in the movement has friends who have had their houses visited by police. Some organizers have had officers visit their parents' homes and workplaces in the small provincial towns that they’re from. At the occupation at Galle Face, they’ve decided that they are safest together. Nobody staying at the occupation leaves anymore; nobody who isn't known to them is allowed there at night.

The movement is now in the familiar waning phase where it can only muster the energy to protest its own repression. The public might be broadly sympathetic, but that hasn’t brought many people out into the streets.

Most people, for now, are waiting to see what happens. The new government has managed to bring enough stability to buy some degree of social peace. Already lines are shorter at fuel queues. A QR code system has rationalized fuel distribution. Traffic is beginning to return to the streets. Power cuts have been reduced. In the hill-country city Kandy, thousands gathered to celebrate a week-long annual Buddhist festival in the middle of August, giving the appearance of some return to normalcy.

It seems unlikely that the social peace will last for long. But only time will tell. On August 18, a march of students clashed with riot police until it was forced back by water cannons. The air in Colombo is slowly beginning to fill again with the smell of tear gas.

The fires of Sri Lanka are already being picked up by the winds and carried elsewhere. Riots over the rising cost of living in Sierra Leone have resulted in the deaths of scores of protesters and nearly a dozen police officers. Uprisings have broken out in Panama, Ecuador, and Bosnia as well. The IMF worries about unrest similar to Sri Lanka spreading to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

Countries all over the world are facing similar economic crises brought on by the pandemic, inflation, and the war in Ukraine. These conditions will continue to produce unrest in the coming years. Riots will leap from country to country, spreading like wildfire. This is almost certain. Whether we will see the leap from riot to insurrection and revolution is unclear. But the experience of the Aragalaya in Sri Lanka seems to suggest so.