Photo courtesy of Anoma Pieris

Today, Colombo’s tent city GotaGoGama is a hive of activity but sustaining this energy will undoubtedly strain resources as participation waxes and wanes. I am reminded of another such space which celebrated its 50th anniversary in April 2022, The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, a persistent claim of unceded sovereignty that interrupts the symbolic power axis between Australia’s old and new parliaments and the war memorial. Time spent at the embassy is a period of investiture for many First Nations activists which, given Canberra’s frosty winters, is challenging. Over the years this occupation has filled both the lawns fronting the old and new parliaments during the 2007 National Apology and dwindled to a handful of tents when Parliament is no longer in session or there are no major events or anniversaries. There was a time after its creation in 1972 when the police evicted the embassy’s occupants, but the protest was sustained by supporters, and moved out and moved back in.

The tent embassy’s mode of material and physical protest has been replicated at other sites where First Nations’ rights have been challenged. Similarly, Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha of 1917, the peaceful protest defending indigo farmers, which bridged the gap between moderates and radicals, produced a replicable strategy and a willingness to organise it that got rid of an empire. Spreading the word and winning islandwide support will be key to sustaining the demands for accountability underlying this current mode of protest.

Whereas Canberra’s encampment is characteristically suburban, due to the low rise and manicured surrounds, Colombo’s village is more reminiscent of the complexities of an urban settlement sandwiched between the Presidential Secretariat (Power) and the Shangri La hotel (Money). These juxtapositions remind me of a time, only a few decades ago, when most neighbourhoods in Colombo included pockets of wattes or informal settlements from which they drew service staff. Formal and informal urbanism developed in tandem because property was still perceived according to its use rather than exchange value. This was before homes in Colombo were measured by their dollar rental income, multinational hotels displaced cultural venues, and ordinary people were alienated in and moved on from their own public sphere.

This lack and loss is articulated by the growing number of public functions and services GotaGoGama provides. A legal aid office, red cross tent, a library, a college, a cinema, a gallery and art studio; kitchen, showers, toilets; various distribution points for food and water; and more recently efforts by environmentalists to vegetate the area by planting trees have diversified its stakes. These are the services uprooted by the steel and glass high rise buildings that have turned our city centre into a stage set for conspicuous consumption and drugged our citizens with expectations of affluence. When compared to the provisional city it emulates, GotaGoGama’s marquees are its public buildings and the one man tents are its domestic spaces, some of which are beginning to sport numbers and addresses, while both the floating and resident population are its citizenry.

Keeping the settlement provisioned, defending it against violence and procuring legal aid to those unlawfully arrested are all part of its civic brief. The performative dimension of the space has attracted political activists, youthful protestors, renowned artists and performers, clergy of various denominations and all manner of supporters, including hearing impaired groups whose heated but silent discussions are to be wondered at. Watching the village residents cutting the sod and inserting young saplings in the spaces between the tents one cannot help projecting to some future era when an urban wilderness, as a natural outgrowth of the organicism of the protest site, envelopes semi-permanent encampments, countering the sterility of the synthetic city and mounting a lasting critique of neoliberalism’s colonisation of the urban public sphere.

Straying momentarily from a kleptocratic administration’s fiscal incompetence, consider the real politik of urban protest. Recall if you will “The Right to the City”, David Harvey’s 2008 critique of neoliberalism in the New Left Review; a presentiment of the global financial crisis. Consider the Occupy Wall Street movement’s agitation against the unfettered greed of global financiers. Harvey reminded us that Henri Lefebvre wrote The Urban Revolution, the seminal work that articulated the right to the city at a time when campaigns against urban renewal contributed to the dynamics of the ’68 uprising. “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources [declared Harvey]; it is a right to change ourselves by changing our city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.” Urban theorists have been exploring the heated dialectic between the urban commons and urban gentrification for over a decade since.

Harvey warned that neoliberalism’s defence of property values have become of paramount political interest and is indelibly etched in the fabric of our cities in privatised and surveilled public spaces and in publics pacified by ever more sophisticated modes of consumption that simulate choice. These new symbols of prosperity and individuation are made possible by ruthless urban evictions, but they also displace the progressive forms of socialisation that undergird collective citizenship and belonging. Evidence of these insidious processes form the backdrop to GotaGoGama; high rise towers under construction, the tower cranes of the port city on the horizon, heightened police presence, barricades in the main street and the sense that, except for the open green, the city is being crafted for affluent consumers and foreign tourists.

The ordinary people (voters) queuing for food and fuel, and the farmers whose livelihoods have been crushed by foolhardy politicians have been omitted from the vision of the middle income nation touted since the war’s end. The Sri Lankan public’s political awakening after enervating decades-long civil conflict and their outright rejection of state repression have occurred too late to avoid financial reckoning. Nevertheless, Sri Lankans want leaders that are not pathologically flawed and who will not continue to use debt diplomacy as a homeopathic remedy for masking the twin ills of conspicuous corruption and the pandemic.