Photo courtesy of Anoma Wijewardene

From a small, localised protest that began in the outskirts of Colombo, the aragalaya, or struggle, has flourished into a small village named GotaGoGama (GGG) complete with a library, first aid centre, cinema, legal aid office, university, recycling centre, community kitchen and art gallery. Vegetables and fruit trees have been planted, indicating that the villagers are there for the long haul. Small tents dot the space, with wooden pallets and thin mattresses that serve as beds. Puppies play in the sand.

It is a peaceful protest, expanding and contracting according to people’s other commitments, the weather and the novelty factor. The protesters are a mixed bunch of students, professionals, activists and committed people who brave the heat and rain to be there. The peace, however, was shattered on May 9 when GGG was attacked and demolished by government-sponsored thugs.

It is not only about asking the president to leave; GGG has brought together diverse groups of people supporting a range of causes advocated by families of the disappeared, former soldiers, environmentalists, women and artists voicing their demands.

There are many critics too with reports of drug use, sexual activity, political infiltration and violence as well as a reluctance from people from the North to be involved. Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed the aragalaya has blood on its hands, referring to the murder of former MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala as well as the counter violence and the destruction houses of ruling party politicians.

Aragalaya stalwarts vehemently deny that anyone from GGG was involved in the counter violence of May 9, saying it was carried out by outsiders bent on revenge, which is completely against the peaceful ethos of the aragalaya. They point to the fact that prominent activists and aragalaya supporters are being arrested on a daily basis for flimsy reasons.

Within the aragalaya there are various groups, some claiming to be leaders and negotiating with the government while others say they have no leaders, rejecting any idea of compromising their one main demand that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa leave office. But the president has shown no signs of departing and recently reiterated his intention of completing his five year term that ends in November 2024. He has shown no inclination to go along with the 21st Amendment reducing his powers. There is a political stalemate as the country spirals deeper into a seemingly intractable economic meltdown. The multilateral lending institutions are refusing to help without substantial macroeconomic changes.

The devastating impact was highlighted by the UN which, along with NGOs, has launched a joint Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan calling for US$47.2 million to provide lifesaving assistance to 1.7 million people worst hit by the economic crisis for the period of June to September. It is estimated that nearly 5.7 million women, children and men are in need of immediate help with food prices recording their highest increases in 18 years. The UN warned of a full blown humanitarian emergency as many people were going without adequate food and families’ access to health services, protection and children’s education was compromised. Some 56,000 were children suffering from severe acute malnutrition and were at risk of dying, it said.

Activists Anjalee Wanduragala and Melani Gunathilaka have been part of the aragalaya since its inception in the suburbs. They are at GGG every day, keeping an eye of the situation and lending a hand when it is needed. Anjalee is 22 and studying economics while Melani, 35, is a climate activist working in sustainability sector.

They spoke to Groundviews on what the aragalaya means, what it has achieved so far, where it is heading and what their families think about their activism.

President Rajapaksa has said he will finish his term, so what will you do?

We are determined to hang on until he goes. Mahinda said he won’t go but he went. The president says he can’t leave as a failed president but do generations of people have to waste their lives so an old man’s ego is satisfied? People are dying in queues and without medicine; a leader is accountable for his and the government’s actions.

What do you think the aragalaya achieved so far?

The biggest aspect is that it has brought unity in the country. Older people tell us that we have achieved what they have been fighting for all their lives. We celebrated the festivals of every religion with solidarity. People recognise that corrupt leaders have been using fear and differences to keep us separated. But we can come together beyond any differences. Lawyers are standing up to protect people’s rights. The Central Bank stopped printing money and a new governor was appointed. There are arrests because of pressure from GGG. People are realising they have the power to fight against injustice. While there may not be complete participation from the North, we have students from Jaffna university and plantation workers join us. Mullaivaikkal was commemorated in Colombo for the first time. Anyone can come here and voice their concerns. Earlier the public saw these issues from a narrow perspective but now with social media, there are many different points of view emerging. We want to understand, empathise and find answers. There is space to change opinions. Education and awareness is happening.

How can the protests be sustained in the long term?

There were massive crowds earlier but in any process there is growth and stalemate. There was a definite drop after May 9 because people became scared; until then this was a safe space. That was a traumatic event for everybody and even someone who donated even a water bottle to us felt it. Fear is their weapon. The government is putting pressure from all sides. Also people have to go to work and live their lives. They have no  money to spare and no transport. Many are in touch with us even though they cannot come here physically. People from overseas call to ask us what we need. During the curfew people sent food and water through uber and pickme. They bring love and peace to people who believe in nonviolent protest and stand their ground. You can show your dissent anywhere even by putting a black flag or holding a poster outside your home. The struggle can light up again with smaller protests to show dissent as peacefully as possible. We have a common, collective goal; it can be sustained.

Is it possible to continue without visible leaders?

There is potential to go forward without the face of a leader. There are various groups engaging with the government and putting out press releases but they are not from the aragalaya. We have our core values and a set of principles so we don’t have a leader and don’t need one. We are nonviolent with no room for negotiations with corrupt leaders. Everyone takes responsibility and ownership. Of course we have our different personal beliefs and ideological differences but there is a common goal.

Has the aragalaya been infiltrated by the JVP?

Political parties are not here but from the beginning there have been student groups who are linked to left political parties. They have ideological differences but support the common goal to fight against social injustice and corruption. It’s not possible for them to dominate the aragalaya mainly due to the ideological differences between them and the other independent, nonpartisan protesters. Citizens who reject the existing system of power politics that supports corruption should come, participate and make their voices heard because the aragalaya does not belong to any one set of people.

There are reports of drug use, sexual activity and disunity. Are they correct?

There have been several attempts to discredit and dissolve the movement through carefully executed bad press. These stories have been there since the start. Perhaps instead of demonising the aragalaya and the protesters there, people should address larger social and cultural issues present in our society.

The prime minister appointed a committee to see to the welfare of the protesters. Has this happened?

No one has helped us. It is just an attempt to show that sending the president home is not the goal and to neutralise us. These are ploys to dilute movement but we are much stronger than that. We are tired of being silenced for so long and we will keep coming out because the issues have not been solved.

If people have the basics again, will they forget about system change?

Upper middle class and city people joined the struggle because they did not have their basic needs met  but less privileged communities not been able to afford a gas cylinder for a long time. Even if a part of society gets what it wants, our movement won’t die down because we are fighting for a bigger cause. Any short term solutions are not sustainable. It starts with conversation. We all have homes and jobs where we can have conversations and influence people we come into contact with. Even people who are affluent are coming out and helping; students home from university break and expatriate Sri Lankas have joined us.

Will you become a political party?

Active citizenship can play a much bigger role than a political party. Existing parties are just switching power between themselves. The civilian population has come together time and again in times of crisis. We need the right people with skills who have proper policies. What we want is system of transparency and accountability and leaders with no criminal history who don’t get special privileges. We want change and justice through the constitution.

Activists are being arrested daily. Does this scare you?

Houses of protesters are visited and and journalists get calls summoning them to the CID. Even a nun and a priest had to hand over their passports. It is the Rajapaksa strategy to control by fear but it not going to stop us keep from speaking up in a completely peaceful way. Social media has also been a big help. We can stand up against these threats; they can be fought. Otherwise we will face oppression and fear for generations so we have no other choice but to show dissent.

Do you get assistance in the way of food and drink?

People are very giving. If we put out put one message saying we don’t have tents or meals, we get a hundred calls a day offering help. People bring in items. Many books have been donated to the library. Kids write to GGG. Don’t think support is not there; people are supporting us in various ways.

What do your families think about your participation in the aragalaya?

Our families are scared and worried but they understand why we do it and they are supportive. They understand that future generations will suffer fear and oppression if we don’t this today. We have given up jobs, businesses and hobbies for the struggle. We have to do what the older generation could not do because there won’t be another chance.