Gota Go Gama London: solidarity with Sri Lankan protests

In London, a massive protest movement has taken off in solidarity with the Sri Lankan protests against the presidency. Nirmala Rajasingam explains how we got here

May 27, 2022 · 7 min read
A banner from the Gota Go Gama London protests in Parliament Square. Photo provided by the author

Ms V. has lived and worked in the UK for forty-five years. She had never been to a protest before. She steered clear of anything political, even when the country she left behind had seen many political upheavals and a 26-year civil war. On 30 April 2022, walking by Parliament Square, she stumbled upon a crowd of protestors shouting ‘Gota go home’ in the languages of her country – Sinhala, Tamil and English. She joined them and soon became immersed in a two-week long protest calling for the resignation of the Sri Lankan president, Gotabhaya Rajapakse. An ethnically polarised community now stood together in this historic display of solidarity with Sri Lankans back home.

In early April, in the commercial capital of Colombo and on the scenic Galle Face Green, in front of the old parliament, protestors pitched their tents and established their protest site as a ‘village’ named ‘Gota Go Gama’ (Gama = village). Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, London protestors set up a protest site in Parliament Square, which they held from 30 April to 14 May.  

The month-long protests in Sri Lanka have already resulted in the resignation of Mahinda Rajapakse – the leader of the dynasty and prime minister. His brother, the president, remains in power and has appointed a politically discredited Ranil Wickremasinghe as the new prime minister. There is nationwide opposition to this move and to the ‘new’ interim government that is being cobbled together from the same pool of people in power. 

Economic meltdown

The protests were caused by Sri Lanka’s biggest economic crisis since independence.  Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves are fully depleted and  the country has now defaulted on several of its debts. Protestors blame the government for mismanagement and excessive corruption which expedited the path to bankruptcy. The current economic debacle has a long back story, beginning when Sri Lanka liberalised its economy in 1977. ‘Development’ was spearheaded with heavy borrowing from foreign financiers. As the country repeatedly relied on institutions such as the IMF, their conditionalities increased privatisation and the destruction of the welfare safety net and domestic production.   

The civil war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – who were demanding a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the country – ended in 2009. Following the war, the Rajapakses went on a bigger borrowing spree from western financial markets and from countries like India and China to fund infrastructure vanity projects that have not generated any income for the country. Precious real estate is being leased out or sold off to a variety of multinational actors, dispossessing the people of their land and resources. 

More recently the regime mismanaged the economy by cutting taxes and banning chemical fertilisers, destroying the agricultural sector overnight. Increasingly imports far exceeded exports and even food imports were bought with foreign debt! Today, over 40 per cent of Sri Lanka’s debts are to ruthless companies like Blackrock and similar financial outfits, which hold our sovereign debt; the rest of the debts include 10 per cent each to Japan and China.

The country is now bankrupt. Widespread food, fuel and medicine shortages have begun to cause starvation and death amongst the population. People face power cuts up to 13 hours, and wait in miles-long queues for hours, where some have collapsed and died in the crippling heat. Inflation is now at 33 per cent and could rise to 40 per cent. People cannot afford to go to work or to school. The functioning of civil structures have been seriously curtailed. The economic crisis is intensifying; the country has recently extended a credit line with India by $200 million

Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown has been crafted upon a long standing political malaise of ethno-nationalist division. The civil war ended with the defeat of the LTTE and the killing of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the last few months of the war. The Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist nationalist majoritarian state has consistently divided its communities in order to push through economic reforms that enrich a select few at the expense of the Sri Lankan people, a ploy the Rajapakses exploited to the full.   

The protests

Protestors in both Sri Lanka and London are now keen to expose the link between Rajapakse’s neoliberal economic policies and an ongoing Sinhala Buddhist movement that targets Sri Lankan minorities. The people are demanding a ‘system change.’  Demands are focused on the removal of Gotabhaya Rajapakse and the abolition of the office of the executive presidency altogether. This position has insurmountable powers that help to sustain the Rajapakse dynasty. The Rajapakses, whose claim to fame is that they ended the civil war, are emblematic of a parasitic political class that has plundered the country’s wealth.

On May Day, in London, there were over 1,500 protestors at Parliament Square. Perhaps the most notable feature of the London movement is the diversity of the protestors, both ethnically and politically, who are in dialogue and are committed to justice and democracy. 

An uphill battle

Soon after his resignation Mahinda Rajapakse gathered an army of his henchmen and unleashed a vicious attack on the non-violent protestors camped at the Gota Go Gama site, injuring many. This caused the people to erupt against politicians’ sumptuous homes in several towns and villages. Under Emergency powers, the police began mass arrests. Over 1500 were arrested and around 600 are remanded. 

The interim government is floundering. There have been attempts to curtail the powers of the president by a weak opposition and the proposed 21st amendment to the constitution will not seriously damage the president’s immense powers.  It appears the Rajapakses are still very much in control. The ‘interim government’ has no plan except to wait for the IMF to announce its decision on a bail-out, which is several months away.

The London campaign has organised yet another protest at Parliament Square for Saturday 28 May at 3pm, against the deteriorating political and economic situation back home. As the political crisis rumbles on, organisers stress, so too will the resistance.

Nirmala Rajasingam is an activist with GotaGoGama London/People’s Struggle Movement and with South Asia Solidarity Group 

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