Students throw their weight behind island-wide protests

As Sri Lanka suffers its worst ever economic crisis, waves of protests and mass uprisings involving all sectors of society, including students and teachers, have sent shock waves through the government and thrown the country into a deep political crisis.

The entire Sri Lankan cabinet resigned on Monday 4 April and on Tuesday, around 43 Sri Lankan parliamentarians left the ruling government coalition to function as independent MPs, leaving the government without a majority in parliament. Previously, in the 225-member Sri Lanka parliament, the government and coalition had a 146 majority. After the walk-out, it was left with 104 members.

Central Bank of Sri Lanka Governor Ajith Cabraal, also seen as responsible for the economic crisis, quit amid a deepening political crisis.

Academic activities have been interrupted at several universities as lecturers and students boycotted classes and joined people from political parties, civil society organisations, and other young people and their parents in island-wide protests where the chanted message was: “Go Home Gota” – a call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down and end what is regarded as the corrupt political system in the country.

The #GoHomeGota social media hashtag has been trending on most social media platforms since late March.

Universities launch protests

Students at the universities of Sri Jayewardenepura, Peradeniya, Colombo, Ruhuna, Wayamba and Sabaragamuwa, and Eastern University and South Eastern University in Oluvil town launched protests. Students from several private universities, including Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology, also joined protests.

Youth protesters have planned another round of protests in Colombo in the coming days. Thousands of students from across Sri Lanka are expected to gather in the capital on 8 and 9 April to protest the government’s failure to address a spiralling economy and introduce educational reforms promised during the election.

The country’s main university student union, Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), said it planned a protest in Colombo on 8 April under the banner: “Let’s oust the government! Let’s reverse the system!”

“People should rally, organise and fight to oust both the government and the system,” said IUSF convener Wasantha Mudalige.

“The people have to pay the price for a failed regime that has been in place for seven decades,” he said, referring to the period since independence in 1948. “People are now suffering due to power cuts, oil and gas shortages. People are rallying in search of answers to the crisis. The idea of the majority is to overthrow the government. For that we must be organised.”

According to a Central Bank report, Sri Lanka recorded negative economic growth (-3.6%) in 2020, the deepest recession since gaining independence from Britain. The Asian Development Bank’s annual flagship economic publication forecasts Sri Lanka’s economic growth will be 2.4% in 2022 and improve marginally to 2.5% in 2023.

Youth are not party affiliated

In 2015, youth, university students and lecturers played a key role behind the scenes to defeat the so-called ‘unshakable’ regime of the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of the current president. Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently prime minister of Sri Lanka.

However, unlike past protests dominated by students and young people, this time most are first-time peaceful protesters not affiliated to political parties or involved in party politics. Protests have sprung up without support or backup from political parties or groups. In the wake of demonstrations, protesters often clear up the area, in an example of their civic responsibility.

Protesters have surrounded the homes of at least 10 politicians, including the president and prime minister’s private residences.

During protests at the president’s residence on 31 March, police fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse protesters. About 20 civilians and about 20 policemen were injured amid a tense situation. Some 50 protesters were arrested but later released on bail. Several police vehicles were set alight and one water cannon truck damaged by protesters.

After the incident, the president’s media division said those involved in violence were identified as “organised extremists” who wanted to create “Arab Spring” style protests in Sri Lanka. The government later tightened security around parliamentarians’ homes as violent incidents erupted in several locations.

Government ministers claim the Marxist political party JVP is behind the protests, but the JVP has strongly rejected any connection with protesters.

“No political party is behind this. This is the people’s movement. This is something unprecedented. Sri Lanka has never before seen this much of an uprising,” MA Sumanthiran, a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, said in parliament on 6 April.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) strongly condemned the regime for not addressing the legitimate issues of the general public and “focusing only on retaining power by indiscriminately using military and police forces under the guise of emergency and curfew”, and labelling unarmed peaceful protesters as extremists.

In its statement, FUTA urged the government, including the president, to immediately bring forth appropriate short-term and long-term solutions to the crisis by taking advice from actual experts in financial and economic management, “rather than their family members and business associates”.

“FUTA is ready to provide the expertise and experience of our able members to ensure the success of any sincere initiative that would bring relief to the affected,” it said.

Economic crisis

The protests, which began in January, were initially sparked by lengthy power cuts, skyrocketing inflation, and shortages of fuel, gas and essential commodities.

The government-imposed power cuts reached a climax on 31 March with a 13-hour blackout. The worst power outages in over 25 years have seriously affected the public, including students and teachers who were unable to continue with online education. Parents and teachers said the power crisis had affected students both physically and mentally.

According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the country’s foreign reserves dropped to US$1.93 billion in March 2022. When the current government took office in November 2019, the reserves were more than triple that amount, at approximately US$7.5 billion. Lack of foreign exchange has affected imports including pharmaceutical supplies.

Water and electricity are being cut off and surgeries stopped in many hospitals due to medicine shortages. “The government has not been able to provide even the basic facilities to all citizens. People are unable to eat, drink or get any medicine from the hospitals,” Akalanka, a medical student at Peradeniya University, told University World News.

“Some surgeries are performed with a torchlight. Many patients are unable to get their daily medicines from hospitals or even private pharmacies. The time has come to topple the government,” he said.

State of emergency imposed, lifted

On 3 April, the government declared a state of emergency and curfew in order to discourage planned protests and blocked 12 social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp in order to sever communication among protesters.

However, faced with heavy criticism from the public and government politicians, the government lifted the social media ban. Later, it also withdrew both the curfew and state of emergency.

Months-long farmers’ protests due to lack of fertilizers, teachers’ strikes due to salary anomalies, gas cylinder blasts, power cuts, skyrocketing inflation, and shortages of fuel, gas and essential commodities in recent months have led to a drastic decline in the president’s popularity. During the 2019 presidential election he had been popular among Sinhalese Buddhist voters.

Even with the protests escalating, the president said he is not ready to step down but would be prepared to dissolve the cabinet and form a ‘caretaker’ government. Opposition parties say a fresh election is necessary, but with the economic crisis, that would not be viable.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa proposed abolishing the executive presidency as a solution to the present political crisis.

Political analysts predict that the ongoing political crisis will last months and the economic crisis will worsen as protesters seek to unseat the president.

“Politicians are thinking that this momentum will ease after a week as Sri Lankans forget things after seven days, but we will not let that happen,” a protester in the Panadura area close to Colombo told University World News on 5 April.

A correction was made to this article on 7 April, changing the year of independence to 1948.