Sri Lanka: Repression and arrests, but struggle continues

August 8, 2022
Sri Lanka protest August 2022
Protests continue against state repression, emergency laws and the kidnapping of activists. Photo: Youthforchenge/Facebook

The Sri Lankan government has escalated the repression of the popular movement that removed former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office. The heavy-handed state repression began on July 22, less than 24 hours after the new President, Ranil Wickramasinghe, was sworn in.

So far, activists arrested include student leader Lahiru Weerasekera and teachers’ union leader Joseph Stalin. (Stalin and Weerasekera spoke to Green Left in June.)

A number of protesters who occupied the Presidential office and residence were also arrested under dubious charges of damage to public property. Meanwhile, unidentified paramilitary groups in civilian clothes, moving about in unmarked white vans, abducted and interrogated other protesters. This “white van” phenomenon emerged almost a decade ago under the ousted president, who was the head of Defence at the time.

‘Special operation’

The July 21‒22 attack by the military and police on the popular protest zone at Galle Face, known as Gota Go Gama (GGG), was an act of state terrorism. This repression with excessive force was not only illegal, but cowardly, because the protesters had informed the police and the Special Task Force that they were in the process of evacuating the site.

The protesters were scaling down the struggle zone and among those who evacuated first were the lawyers, the People’s Art Studio and the Red Cross. This began in the afternoon and there was a lot of debate and discussion among the protesters about it.

Later that night and into the next morning, troops moved in, barricading all access roads to the GGG. Around 2000 heavily-armed troops, their faces covered, were mobilised. Some used thick sticks and cables — which are illegal weapons — against the protesters.

Only about 50 people were at the struggle zones overnight on July 21‒22. Most were sleeping.

The troops assaulted everyone, including a group of people with hearing and visual impairments, Buddhist monks, disabled soldiers, women and children. They also attacked local and international journalists, among them a BBC reporter. Many were injured and several arrested. They also demolished most of the make-shift structures built by protesters, and destroyed personal belongings and computer equipment.

Some troops wearing Air Force uniforms, and seemingly intoxicated, brutally attacked and humiliated a group of young lawyers, a Christian activist priest and others with them.

According to the official police statement, this was a “special operation to take [back] control of the presidential secretariat”.

The protesters suspect that a private mercenary or security group was outsourced to undertake the repression on behalf of the state. The military has been nurturing private security businesses over the past decade. They are mostly run by former military personnel, using ex-combatants.

Neoliberal authoritarianism

While the new president is directly responsible for this gross violation of human rights, behind him is the Rajapaksa regime. Most of the Rajapaska clan are still on the island and there are layers of cronies, including police, military, legal, bureaucratic and media actors — along with Buddhist priests — who are complicit in this state repression. They are trying to re-legitimise the regime through coercion rather than consent.

These anti-democratic authoritarian practices are not new to Wickramasinghe, who was a key actor in the launch of the country’s export-oriented market economy in 1977, along with the introduction of the anti-democratic, draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1978.

Wickramasinghe was complicit in the repression of the 1988‒90 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front, JVP) insurrection — described as the beeshanya (terror) period of torture chambers and death squads. He was also directly implicated in the operation of a Batalanda (torture chamber) in his electorate. The Batalanda Commission was set up to investigate alleged abuses at the site. It presented its report to then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1998, which recommended removing Wickramasinghe’s civic rights, which would — if implemented — have made him ineligible to run for election. This was just prior to the 1999 presidential elections and some actors within the incumbent government were also complicit in the tortures and assassinations.

Wickramasinghe is committed to deregulated markets and privatisation driven by an authoritarian state legitimised through ethno-nationalism. This is an enduring trend of neoliberal fascism. He used the term “fascism” more than twice in televised statements to describe the non-violent, popular protests. “We can't allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy,” he said. If anything, Wickramasinghe is the ultimate threat to democracy.

The protests for democracy at Galle Face enjoyed popular support because of the degeneration of representative politics sustained by the dominant political parties. Protesters were openly committed to non-violence and celebrated their diversity. Faced with the violent eviction by the military and police, they didn’t retaliate — not even with one stone or a water bottle. They had already been assaulted by ruling-party thugs in early May. This peoples’ movement, in theory and practice, is anti-fascist.

The protesters have renamed the new president “Ranil Rajapaksa”, since he has no popular mandate and was installed by the disgraced former president before he fled the country.

While the parliament was in the process of confirming Wickramasinghe as president, behind the scenes, Rajapaksa’s brother, Basil, a powerful former finance minister, manoeuvred votes away from Dulles Alahapperuma (his own party member), in favour of Wickramasinghe for the Presidency.

In the end, Wickramasinghe received 134 votes, Alahapperuma won 82, and Anura (JVP) won 3 votes.

Struggle continues

Demonstrators as well as a range of civil society figures are continuing to protest the gross violation of human rights and dignity by the Sri Lankan state on July 21‒22. It highlights the state terrorism that Tamil and Muslim communities in the north and east still endure.

For “Ranil Rajapaksa’s” regime, there are more profits to be made while trying to hide their tracks. The Pandora Papers have already revealed some of their hidden assets, mostly concentrated in Dubai.

The local mainstream media is also downplaying the incident and enabling disinformation by the police and the regime’s talking heads. The bloated military budgets and the propping up of private security firms are rendered invisible in favour of the neoliberal discourse of restructuring the public sector and demanding austerity measures “targeting” social spending.

Meanwhile, the people are still suffering. The long queues remain for fuel and cooking gas. Schools finally opened after months, but without proper coordination from the state, particularly in terms of transport. Nearly 6.3 million Sri Lankans — or 3 in 10 households — are suffering food insecurity, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program. More than half of Sri Lankan families are eating less, eating less nutritious food and even skipping meals altogether.

This attack highlights the brutality of the ruling regime and how non-violent popular struggles endure multiple forms of state violence. This assertion of militarised authoritarian state repression is also revealing the role played by private security firms. These private firms are mobilised to undermine the compromises the military and the police made with the popular movement.

Nevertheless, the struggle continues, developing new strategies and tactics with the aim of substantive democratic changes to the system.

Video: Forum: People's uprising in Sri Lanka. Green Left.

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