CIVICUS speaks about Sri Lanka’s protest movement and its repression with student activist Fathima Ashfa Razik. Fathima used to be a university student and a member of the University Students’ Federation of Sri Lanka. She has fled repression and is currently outside the country.
What triggered the mass protests that erupted in Sri Lanka in March 2022?
The protests were triggered by worsening economic conditions caused by negligence and improper management by the government and its leaders. In reaction to this, the university community acted together: students and lecturers from universities all over Sri Lanka organised to protest against the government.
All we wanted was to chase away the Rajapaksa family – then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his several family members who held ministerial positions in the government. They were engaged in looting the country and were becoming a ruling dynasty. We wanted to have them replaced with a new government that would rebuild the nation.
Our protest grabbed public attention and many people joined us in the streets while many others supported us financially. People came together across the religious and racial lines that divided them. This is what made our protest successful. It was recorded as the biggest mass protest in the history of Sri Lanka.
What did the protests accomplish?
Our protest movement started in March and we marched continuously until, one by one, officials from the Rajapaksa family started to resign from their posts. In July the president announced his resignation and absconded to the Maldives and then Singapore, fearing for his life as his personal villa had been seized by protesters in the heat of the action.
The day Gotabaya Rajapaksa left we all won as a nation. We were happy we were able to kick out the rulers that were ruining us.
After the president resigned, power fell in the hands of Ranil Wickremesinghe, which wasn’t what we expected. We wanted a new, younger government that better reflected the hopes of our generation, and instead we got an old politician who had been active in the government for several decades. Wickremesinghe had been reappointed as prime minister by President Rajapaksa in May 2022 and replaced him when he resigned in July.
How did the new government react towards the continuing protests?
At first, the Wickremesinghe government appeared to be aligned with our democratic aspirations, but it soon became clear that this was a facade. Instead of responding to the demands put forward by the protests by focusing on revitalising the economy and rebuilding our institutions, the new government soon started to repress and criminalise protesters.
Within a few weeks of the formation of the new government, President Wickremesinghe commanded the security forces to remove protesters from the area where we were protesting.
And it didn’t stop there: after we were forced back home, the situation only worsened. Many protesters were arrested under the Terrorism Prevention Act (TPA), including the head of our organisation, Wasantha Mudalige, and were subjected to brutal harassment. Many were tortured under detention, and their family members also suffered repercussions and harsh treatment.
Freedom of speech has been suppressed and the people of Sri Lanka have lost their right to live peacefully in their own country. And the underlying issues continue unabated: there has been no change and economic conditions continue to worsen by the day.
What is the current situation?
Repression has increased. Instead of doing their job properly and in accordance with the law, keeping order and protecting people, security forces have become a tool of repression at the service of corrupt politicians.
Law-abiding citizens are not protected by the law: the law is being used against us. This is clear in the way the TPA is being used against protesters and civil society activists.
The government is using this repressive law, and also acting against the law, to suppress the protest movement. Many students and other protesters have been arrested alongside Mudalige.
Due to his high public profile and the international spotlight shining on him, Mudalige is somewhat protected: it would be politically costly to kill him. But unknown protesters are at much higher risk: they can easily become prey to our power-hungry government. Several instances have been recorded recently of missing students and unidentified bodies found floating in water, some with signs of having been tortured. Many more have received death threats, and many have fled.
In the absence of international solidarity and support, there won’t be much of the protest movement left, and our democratic hopes will soon be gone.
Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.