Photos courtesy of Sudeepa Dhananjaya
During four months in 2022, from March to July, Sri Lanka witnessed events unprecedented in its history. Driven to despair at the state of their nation, hundreds of thousands of citizens converged on Colombo to insist that their president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigns.
They streamed into Galle Face at all times of the day and night. Tents were pitched, food kitchens were set up; soon the makeshift village, named GotaGoGama (GGG) included a first aid area, a recycling centre, solar power, a makeshift library, a legal aid office, a people’s university and an art gallery. Lawyers came to give advice and academics discussed current topics with students. There were passionate speeches, songs, plays and poetry readings reflecting the deep and pent up frustrations that cut across class, ethnicity, economic status and religion. Branches of GGG sprung up in several cities around the country. Inspired by a true people’s uprising, protests spread across Australia, the US, Europe and Canada. April became May and still the tents stood, braving the scorching heat and monsoon rains.
But on May 9, government backed thugs bore down on GGG, attacking protesters and burning down tents, the art gallery and part of the library. However within hours, work began to rebuild the site. It would stand firm until early August when the gradual return to normality came with the restoration of food supplies, cooking gas and petrol and diesel, resulting in the dissipation of the protests. The new present lost no time in bringing out the armed forces to ruthlessly crush any dissent with water cannons, tear gas and arrests.
The aragalaya was largely youth led and inclusive. It drew members of the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim clergy. Celebrations included Easter, Ramadan, Vesak and Sinhala and Tamil new year with the participation of all communities, displaying a rare unity in a country divided along ethnic and religious lines. In May, the end of the war was marked on Galle Face Green, the first time the Tamil community had been recognized outside of the north and east. Tents of disabled soldiers were near those of mothers of the disappeared. The LGBTIQ community had their own parade. Plastic was recycled and efforts made to keep the site litter free.
It could be argued that the main purpose of the Aragalaya was met – the removal of inefficient and corrupt leaders who brought Sri Lanka to its knees. But the call was much greater than that. It was not just for the restoration of food supplies and basic necessities; the people wanted a completed system change where corruption was eliminated, where the rule of law applied equally the everyone and where there was transparency and accountability. They wanted reconciliation and an end to deep ethnic and religious divisions.
But this did not happen. The same inept and corrupt faces continue to be in parliament and are appointed as cabinet ministers. Corruption is continuing unabated. While the rich carry on with their way of life uninterrupted by economic hardship, there are constant tales of woe from parents unable to send their children to school for want to funds for books, shoes and clothes; families surviving on two meals a day; mothers unable to buy milk for their children and a devastating health crisis that has resulted in a shortage of life saving medicine; and the importation of substandard medicine that is risking lives of patients.
Although the people’s uprising achieved its stated goals of driving the president and other corrupt leaders from power its other objective – systemic change – has gone unfulfilled. Scholars and analysts as well as those who joined the struggle have given various reasons as to why this happened. These include the easing of economic pressure on the urban middle class, lack of leadership in the struggle, the violent crackdown on protesters, the reluctance of the political elite to take on radical system change, the hijacking of the struggle by radical students and left wing parties, the resorting to some violence and the diverse nature and conflicting interests of the participants.
The aragalaya drew media personnel from around the world. Once again, Sri Lanka was in the headlines of newspapers and the main story on TV channels. Local media also documented the events, interviewing activists and covering the attacks. But as usual, other news overtook the events in Sri Lanka and soon it was back to business as usual. Because it was necessary to document and analyse what took place and preserve the historical significance of the aragalaya, documentary maker, researcher and writer, Sulochana Peiris, decided to make her documentary titled #GoHomeGota.
Sulochana interviewed activists and academics from diverse ethnic, linguistic and professional backgrounds who played integral roles in the protest movement including Professor Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, who contextualises the movement within the broader history of post-independence political and protest movements; Ambika Satkunanathan, who offers a critical assessment of the aragalaya, highlighting its shortcomings in fostering inclusivity and its failure to address unresolved issues from the country’s civil war; and Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa who examines the pivotal role that social media played in mobilising and organising the masses.
The documentary has been shown in the Netherlands, Britain, Ireland and Austria.
Sulochana, who began her career as a journalist at the Sunday Leader, went on to work in television journalism and branched out on her own to become a freelance documentary film maker. She spoke to Groundviews about her motivation for making the documentary, what she hopes it will achieve and the successes of the aragalaya.
Why did you decide to make this documentary?
I did my master’s thesis on Egypt’s uprising so I noticed the similarities. Sri Lanka is in a post war situation facing many Transitional Justice issues. I was always promoting peace even when country was on a war footing. I am used to making documentaries so I can visualise and write a script. It took me by surprise when people went out on streets in such large numbers. I filmed events as they were going on. Other people also filmed for me so I was able to document events. I also sourced material from others. I wanted to get the story on how they organised the protest, how they communicated and mobilised so many people online and offline and how they faced the challenges of getting together people from different backgrounds and classes. I did this by interviewing scholars and activists to analyse the reasons. For example, only a few people from the North took part, some having made a deliberate decision to stay away because they felt that they had been struggling with these issues for decades without any support from the South. There were many diverse groups facing similar economic issues but there were also the larger issues of Transitional Justice and repercussions from the war. I wanted to locate the aragalaya in political trajectory of the country. Social media played a prominent role, which I wanted to examine.
Was the aragalaya failure because it was not sustained and we still have the same system?
I don’t think it was a failure. It has created a greater political awareness at the grass roots levels that we didn’t have before. Before the aragalaya, politicians couldn’t do any wrong in eyes of Sinhala people even if they were corrupt. There is a greater awareness of corruption and why we need to work to system change. The Southern community and the young people are willing to talk about injustices done to the minorities by taking up these issues at discussions and forums. They realise that it is important to carefully choose who gets into parliament. Unfortunately, the system change people called for was not defined; there were different groups of people with different ideologies. Some wanted a political solution or their party to come to power while others wanted a complete overhaul of economic system by getting rid of corruption and poverty. It only went on for three months and if the aragalaya had not been suppressed, there would have an opportunity for real change. Right now, through People’s Councils, consultations are going on at the grassroots to determine people’s aspirations for Sri Lanka while preparing for elections. There is a consultation with the people, unlike in the government where bills such as the Online Safety Bill are passed without any consultations. People will continue to struggle; I pin my hopes on the young people who are putting their lives on the line to achieve their goals and live their dreams.
What do you think your documentary can achieve?
The documentary has been shown in several countries in Europe. Documenting the aragalaya was critical because it is an important part of the history of the country. Material can be lost; for example, a lot of art work was destroyed when GGG was attacked. The film shows how a protest movement can be organised. The academics learn the theory and now people can see how it is put into practice. It serves as an educational tool for the younger generation and a source of learning material for future generations to see the political evolution of the country and how we got rid of an invincible president. There is an analytical part as well that attempts to understand the events. The good reviews the documentary has received have encouraged me to think of doing a follow up.