- By Anparsan Ithrajan
- BBC News
Udine Kaluthantri, a 54-year-old docker, became an overnight sensation last year for reasons unrelated to his job.
Days after protesters stormed the presidential palace in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, a video emerged of Mr Kaluthantri lying on a bed draped in the presidential flag.
Images of young men jumping into the pool inside the palace and jumping onto the presidential four-poster bed have already spread around the world. Mr. Kaluthantri’s video joined all the others as a poetic testament to how millions of Sri Lankans were tired of what they saw as incompetent and corrupt governance under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Soon after, Mr Rajapaksa fled the country, resigning days later. It was hailed as a monumental victory for an unprecedented grassroots movement, but one year later, Sri Lanka looks very different.
In early 2022, inflation in Sri Lanka skyrocketed as foreign reserves emptied and fuel, food, and medicine became scarce in the country. Residents suffered power outages of up to 13 hours in the worst economic crisis the country has faced since independence.
Many blamed the then President Mr. Rajapaksa and his family. While his disastrous economic policies led to a shortage of foreign currency, the Rajapaksa family was also accused of corruption and theft of public funds. But the Rajapakas deny any wrongdoing and blame elsewhere for the crisis: the sharp drop in tourism revenues due to the pandemic and the soaring cost of fuel after Russia invaded Ukraine.
I was in Colombo last year as crowds gathered at Galle Face Green, a popular beach front public space in Colombo. The demonstrations continued day and night, and the crowds swelled in the evening with families, students, priests, nuns, clergy, and monks. The protests have swept the country, spurred by the rallying cry of “Gotta go home”, uniting Sri Lanka’s three main communities – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – for the first time.
Weeks later, it culminated in extraordinary scenes as protesters stormed the presidential palace, aiming to remove Rajapaksa from power. Mr. Kaluthantri was among them. Mr Rajapaksa wasn’t in the palace when the protesters stormed in – so they made themselves at home, taking all sorts of ‘souvenirs’, from bed sheets to books.
“I took down the presidential flags because I thought that Mr. Rajapaksa would not be able to serve as President without those official symbols,” said Kaluthantri. The presidential flags of Sri Lanka are unique to each president, and the design changes every time a new leader takes office.
Five days later, Mr. Rajapaksa fled the country and sent his resignation letter from Singapore. This was seen as a victory for the ‘Aragalaya’ or ‘People’s Struggle’ as the movement was called.
The Rajapaksa family’s decline was unimaginable just a few months ago. The politically powerful dynasty is best known for crushing the separatists of the Tigers of Tamil Tigers in May 2009 and ending the country’s 25-year civil war.
But now, a year later, the protesters are in a bind, while the Rajapakas and many other politicians singled out by public outrage are back in the country — and in positions of power.
After Rajapaksa fled the country, veteran opposition politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected as the new president in a parliamentary vote. He was supported by the Rajapaksa Party, which had an overwhelming majority.
Hours after Mr Wickremesinghe was elected, the army was deployed to clear the crowds at Galle Face. Dozens of soldiers stormed the site, dismantling tents and other demonstrators’ belongings.
Kaluthantri himself surrendered to the police and spent 21 days in custody for allegedly violating the presidential flag. The case against him is ongoing. “I have no regrets. I did this for the country and the people,” says Mr. Kaluthanthri, who has been suspended from his job for two months.
His only regret: “We managed to force Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, [but] We could not introduce a new political culture.
With Rajapaksa gone and the new government taking steps to alleviate severe shortages of fuel and other necessities, many protesters have resumed their normal lives. The authorities then used force – using all legal and punitive powers at their disposal – to clear the protest sites of the last and most committed protesters.
Weeks later, Mr. Rajapaksa and his brother Basil, who also fled the country, return.
The former president now lives in an upscale government bungalow, while many members of his cabinet have been reinstated.
The silenced voices
Among those who faced the state’s full wrath was Wasantha Mudalji, a left-wing activist and organizer of the University Students’ Union. He was at the forefront of the protest movement.
Mr Mudalige was arrested under the strict Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and spent more than five months in jail.
“I could have spent more time in prison if it weren’t for the courts. The government cannot suppress protests without solving people’s cases.” Mr Mudalige says.
A Colombo court dismissed the terrorism charges against Mr. Mudaleg in February and ordered his release. The judge said the authorities had abused the act.
Several other protesters have also been charged under various laws, and some have been sentenced to prison terms. However, many protest leaders view the movement with pride.
Swasthika Arulingam, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, says it was a historically unorganized movement that attracted people from all walks of life.
“But we haven’t achieved Aragalaya’s long-term goals — like… no change in the political system, no accountability for corruption, and those responsible for stealing people’s money are still in power,” she says.
Although the protests have remained muted for the time being, some protesters such as Samadhi Brahmananayake argue that the agitation showed what people could do.
“The protest has given us hope and confidence. We have realized what we can achieve collectively. Many young people now want to become politicians. We have to work for political change,” says Ms. Brahmanayake.
With tourism and remittances from Sri Lankan workers abroad picking up again, the country is making its way again but still has a mountain to climb.
Sri Lanka’s debts, both domestic and foreign, total about $80 billion, and repaying the loans will be a challenge. Colombo is negotiating with creditors to agree a debt restructuring program by September.
The government is calling for a write-down of 30% of the capital of investors in dollar-denominated bonds. But opposition leaders say this could have an impact on pension funds for Sri Lankan workers.
The proposals have alarmed many Sri Lankans, with some warning against taking the current calm for granted.
“The country is still in a state of economic crisis,” says Urlingam. “In addition to the rising cost of living, there are now concerns about retirement savings. If people’s living conditions do not improve, they may take to the streets again.”
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