On July 9, a combative crowd stormed the Presidential Palace, the Presidential Secretariat, and the residence of the Prime Minister, forcing Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.
In the following text, a Sri Lankan anarchist who participated in the protest movement that toppled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa reflects on Gota Go Gama (“Gota Go Home”), the occupation at the heart of the movement.
Gama is Sinhala for “village”; the Tamil equivalent is Gramam. Starting on April 9, protesters established a permanent occupation at Galle Face, the half-kilometer-long oceanside park in downtown Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
You can read interviews with participants in this movement here and a reflection on its relation to other uprisings of our time here. The author of the following text signed it “the Gadfly.” Photographs courtesy of Riyal Riffai.
It Takes a Whole Village
“It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. Gota Go Gama was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now you can go up on that steep hill in Galle Face and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”
-Gatherer S. Thompson
It was Sri Lanka’s Woodstock, Kronstadt, and Occupy Wall Street all rolled into one. For most of us, it started in April. With the near constant rain and mud caking our feet we all chanted, thousand strong, “Gota Go Home!”
We grew up hearing about the glory days of the 1953 Hartal [general strike]. That’s when Sri Lanka came to a standstill and everyone basically up and went on strike. “The people came out of their homes and cooked rice on the railway tracks,” the baby boomers used to say. “The country was a ghost town.”
Then we have the sour memories of the bloody late eighties. While America was grooving to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and watching “Say Anything,” Sri Lanka was serenaded by screams coming out of torture chambers and sight of the latest charred, broken bodies smoldering on tire pyres.
But thirty years later, something very different happened and it was a refreshing change from the political tripe we have been fed since the 1990s.
Gota [former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa] came promising the people a wonderland, but all they got was a purgatory of blackouts and inflation. The free markets couldn’t fix the mess; the man was robbing us blind and queues for essentials stretched for miles and miles. Shit really hit the fan when even the middle class (i.e., the don’t-give-a-shit class) came out to the streets to protest. Everything erupted when the protestors went to Mirihana [the suburb where Gotabaya Rajapaksa lived] to catcall the old goat in his decadent lair. The rest of the country watched, glued to their TVs; slow grins spread on their faces as they saw police barricades toppled with triumphant vigor.
That was the moment when sheep became lions. In the days that followed, the rabble marched to the patch of grass called Galle Face and swore with fists in the air that they would not move until Gota went home.
GGG was Sri Lanka’s first truly leaderless movement.
“Well, no one is in charge here, brother. In fact, it is all of us who are in charge. You, me, and that guy over there,” someone said at Galle Face.
Anarchos: Greek for “Without rulers or leaders.”
But that didn’t stop the cops from arresting people they believed to be leaders.
In a way, the Galle Face movement being leaderless offered the advantage of frustrating the authorities, who kept looking for a brooding charismatic figure somewhere in the one of the tents planning a revolution.
On the first few days of GGG, we remember undercover cops and political spies asking us who the leader was. The Government frantically searched to cut the head off the serpent.
But like Ravanan [the mythical ten-headed demon king of Lanka] the Aragalaya [Sinhala for “struggle”], too, was many-headed.
A few of us knew that a fire had been lit…
Sharing is Caring
Mutual aid defines human society. We wouldn’t have come this far if our ancestors had not banded together in tribes for survival.
But that sense of community, even in Asia (or should we say, especially in Asia), had been lost to time with every iteration of the state.
GGG re-affirmed the importance of community by building one that took care of a revolution happening in the heart of Colombo.
There was a kitchen, a hospital, a guerrilla garden, distribution points, a library, a cinema, and a school, while two trucks with solar panels served as power plants! Those who could contributed with food, clothing, tents and books. Those who couldn’t lent their hands to build and run the Gama.
The protest site was called an Adarasha Gammanaya, or “model village.”
The Sri Lankan government had tried to create such Adarasha Gammanayas before, like the Kibbutz-inspired gammudawa project [Gam Udawa, “rising villages”]. But it was our little Gama that got the world talking!
Building autonomy and self-reliance had been tried before in Sri Lanka, but that was to hold up the image of the ruling regimes; rarely were they for the benefit of the common people.
But GGG came together and functioned in a non-exploitive way. Nobody got special privileges and everybody got their fair share. “To each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities.”
Understanding We Only Have Each Other
Sri Lanka had been plagued with sectarian violence for a long time. The roots of the bigotry and racism extend back to before independence; politicians have used ethnic differences and strife to divide people efficiently. There are libraries worth of books written about Sri Lanka’s conflict-ridden history; it would take more than just a zine to cover it all.
Given the country’s many divisions, the state and its friends waited gleefully for GGG to fall apart in a week. But they were so wrong.
Instead, they saw our LGBTQ comrades serving Iftar dinners [the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan] to Muslims,
Priests, monks, nuns, and Imams forming human barriers to protect student protestors from police batons,
The Sinhalese memorializing the Tamil lives lost in the race riots of ‘83 and the last phase of the war [the Sri Lankan civil war],
A mingling of the classes,
And a gathering of all people, together for one purpose.
Those nights under stars and with the breeze of the Indian Ocean, reminded us what makes us truly human.
We held each other despite our differences:
We understood that it takes all five fingers clenched and raised to strike against the ones who oppress us.
Action Breeds Confidence…
We were the Gauls of Galle Face; a barbarian horde throwing ourselves against the Roman shields of the riot police.
Quite a lot of us got our first dose of CS gas. Spent canisters became a collector’s item. Radical students who had practically been raised on the stuff initiated newbies in the art of street fighting.
If eyes are the windows of the soul, then tear-gassed eyes are the floodgates of the dispossessed.
The pillars of solidarity and mutual aid supported the Gama’s direct action; especially the 24-hour protest chanting at “Gate Zero,” the main barricade in front of the Presidential Secretariat.
Accordingly, the walls of the Port City were summarily covered in graffiti and black banners were hung from the lamp posts. Lots of hawkers and small businesses opened up shop just for the crowds of protesters who came pouring in every day.
The support network helped GGG open branches in many parts of the island to help educate the people.
And when the state attacked the occupiers on May 9, the people didn’t just stand by; they dispatched the hooligans with haste into the algae-infested waters of Biera Lake.
In a country scarred by inter-ethnic riots and massacres, the narrative was flipped on night of May 9 when the people burned down the homes of MPs and other government politicians.
The biggest direct action ever in Sri Lanka’s history is without a doubt the storming of the Presidential Palace, the Presidential Secretariat, and the Temple Trees [the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka] on July 9. Protesters took to the swimming pools of these decadent houses and thousands flocked to Colombo to romp about in the luxuries that were well out of plebeian reach.
The movement, for a time, seem to re-attach the spine that was long removed from a long-suffering people. These were days of triumph for a people subjugated by warlords, despots, imperialists and capitalists.
Where We Went Wrong
The occupation of the three state buildings didn’t last long and the government’s lapdog media and propagandists were hard at work scaring the public with rumors about minorities secretly funding the protesters, among other things.
Parliament quickly elected Ranil Wickremesinghe to take up Gota’s vacant seat in a desperate bid to save the establishment. Ranil is the Frank Underwood [the chief antagonist in the political thriller House of Cards] of Sri Lankan politics and had been a right-hand man to the Pinochet-style party governments of the late 1980s. His notoriety grew from a rumored torture camp called Batalanda.
Ranil is best known as a cunning deal maker. Strangely, this did not strike the occupiers when they decided to hand over the buildings on July 22. GGG’s juggernaut was lulled into a complacency that all revolutions face when victories are won. We did not see the hand of the deep state at work, slowly chipping away at the ground we stood on.
It’s pretty easy for moderates and liberals in any popular movement to take the path of compromise. The pseudo-radical masks some wear slowly melt away when the powers that be toss down a few peanuts—or just the promise of peanuts. The worst offenders are the charismatic mini-politicians that invade radical spaces. They have the charm to divert any and all political discussions to their advantage. They spout the latest ideologies and blend in quite easily, yet have no clue about theory and praxis.
The political class are well aware of these types and bait them with privileges in the coming regime, grooming them to become the new statists. Such people have derailed so many of the movements that have come and gone.
What We’re Dealing with Now…
Meanwhile, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] team had come and gone, promising a bailout that will undoubtedly slam the motherload of austerity measures on the people.
Fuel queues are still a common sight. A loaf of bread rose to 350 rupees, unaffordable to most of the working poor.
With the gauntlet thrown down by the state, the forces are hounding the protesters with extreme prejudice. People are being arrested for swiping beer mugs, flags, and other mundane things from the state buildings. Hell, even the guy who hugged the pillar of the Presidential Palace was arrested!
GGG was cleared a week after a brutal crackdown on July 22. Many protestors were mercilessly beaten with iron rods and electric cables; tents and installations were torn apart. Fears grew when bodies started washing up on the beach next to the occupation site. The headlines were full of drive-by shootings, which the police called “gang violence.”
To add insult to injury, the government declared that protestors will be charged 5 million rupees (around $13,800 American dollars) for the damage allegedly done to Galle Face Green.
Gotabhaya, who was hopping around Southeast Asia trying to claim asylum in a third country, flew back to Sri Lanka on the night of September 2 and was quickly taken to the Rajapaksa family home in the South by a group of political sycophants in a jeep convoy. Rumor has it that he might try to creep in the back door of the Parliament and go for the Prime Minister’s seat.
The Aragalaya is reeling, but we won’t go quietly into the night. We’ve learned our lessons and are biding our time for the opportune moment to make history again.