Students, young people play key role in ousting president

Students and young people in Sri Lanka played a key role in unseating the country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, through a peaceful struggle, with young people being described as the ‘heartbeat’ of the movement.

The president’s resignation was formally announced on Friday morning and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, sports minister Namal Rajapaksa and minister Chamal Rajapaksa, all members of the Rajapaksa Family, had to step down from their posts due to unprecedented political events over the past few months.

These included street protests and the occupation of government buildings including, most emblematically, the Presidential Palace, the Presidential Secretariat and the prime minister’s office. Global TV audiences were beamed extraordinary scenes of protesters streaming into the buildings, some taking a dip in the president’s swimming pool, and of the prime minister’s house set ablaze.

The outcome of the huge protests in recent weeks was described by many as “unimaginable” as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country on Thursday, landing first in the Maldives and then flying on to Singapore, sending a message of resignation by e-mail on the same day, although the legality and authenticity of the e-mail was still being examined on Thursday night.

The popularity of the Rajapaksa family began to decline with the intensification of the economic crisis, in particular after the Ukraine invasion in February which led to a shortage of fuel on top of other economic woes.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to resign due to mounting pressure from all sectors of society, including students and young people, after waves of protests, which first began in late March with anger against lengthy power cuts and steeply rising prices of key commodities. By June, it had turned into a mass struggle.

Sri Lanka’s Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) is being praised on social media for its contribution to the people’s struggle throughout the country. IUSF has around 70 affiliated student unions – about 95% of university student unions in the country, including those at all major universities. It is said to have played a major role in keeping the protests going.

People who once criticised the student movement and their protests now recognise that the experience and the inspiration gained from their many years of struggle were important to this people’s struggle. Even private university students who have not usually participated in protests and picketing organised by IUSF in the past have come out in support of IUSF.

Youth and students, including the IUSF, played a similar key role in 2015 to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, upending the so-called ‘unshakeable’ Rajapaksa regime during elections that year.

Growing protests

Students and young people started the protest on 9 April this year in front of the president’s office in the capital, Colombo, near the Galle Face area, and have been camped there, erecting tents, setting up a library and a medical camp.

The protest site was named the GotaGoGama Aragalaya movement after the protest slogan Gota Go Gama (Gota go home) and will mark its 100th day milestone on 17 July. Aragalaya means struggle in the Sri Lankan language Sinhala.

On 9 May the president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa had to resign from his post as prime minister after attacks and violence launched by pro-government protesters against peaceful occupation of Galle Face Green.

The numbers joining protests only grew after that. On 9 June Basil Rajapaksa also resigned as an MP.

On 9 July, tens of thousands of protesters stormed the president’s official residence as well as his office in Colombo, demanding that he step down.

“It was amazing to see such a huge crowd on July 9th. I never expected to see that much of a crowd in my life, and everything that happened felt so unreal and overwhelming as well to see how luxuriously the president has been living his life while the people have been suffering,” a clearly emotional GotaGoGama Aragalaya activist, Nuzly Hameem, a civil engineer who helped set up the movement, told University World News. He was among thousands who entered the president’s house.

“I told one of my fellow activists to hold me up for a moment as I felt [I was] falling down from being overwhelmed. It was a ‘finally we achieved it’ kind of feeling,” said Nuzly, “We did believe we would win but we always had our up-and-down moments, but we never gave up.”

While protesters were entering the president’s house, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had fled to a naval craft, according to media reports.

“We would have forced him to resign and handed him over to the [police] forces,” said Nuzly when asked what the protesters would have done if the president had been in the palace at that time.

Later, protesters stormed and occupied the prime minister’s official residence.

As the number of protesters was so large, police and security forces were unable to control them with tear gas and water cannons. During the protests, one protester died and more than 80, including several security force members, were injured and hospitalised.

Hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets of Colombo, with many occupying key government buildings and official residences, forcing the president and prime minister to promise to step down. On 14 July, protesters handed over all occupied buildings to the officials.

The ‘heartbeat’ of the struggle

Students and young people were key to keeping protesters coming throughout the 100 days of struggle and linking up with the wider movement, holding meetings with political parties, labour groups and student unions through IUSF.

Sri Lankan university student unions and youth “are the heartbeat of this struggle. Some might call this a Youth Revolution,” said Nuzly, while acknowledging the participation of others of all ages and walks of life.

“IUSF support was immense, their movement has always won their battles in their history. Now this is one which history will always remember.”

Constant discussions with the people, ensuring mutual understanding among all groups, accepting diversity and regular meetings, were key tactics used by protesters to keep people in the struggle throughout the 100 days.

“We kept people engaged throughout social media and we did many events regularly, starting from Iftar [the evening meal that breaks the Muslim fast] to the Pride Parade, which kept people coming in,” he said.

Some tens of thousands of people had come to Colombo for the protests, travelling on trains and buses, in the past week.

The high degree of social media usage among students and young people was one of the major reasons for attracting more crowds to the people’s struggle.

“Most university students are very active on social media, and they know how powerful it is. So we used it and organised people around the country,” a female activist who wished to remain anonymous told University World News.

There were no big plans, she added. “Most of what we do is to educate people. We showed people the truth. Why should we struggle? How should we correct the mistakes?”

“We thought we could win because, we, the younger generation, had new ideas. And we had one or two victories in the beginning.”

“Proper organisation and young people’s commitment can be considered the most crucial aspects of this victory,” she added, noting that some were so committed, they “struggled without even eating properly for 100 days”.

From the beginning, organisers communicated to the public not to unleash violence. “We always told people not to throw even a single stone,” she said, adding that the main purpose of the struggle is not to harm a person, but to demand that the president step down.

Education sector affected

Due to political and economic chaos, all economic sectors have been affected, including education. Sri Lankan education officials closed all schools until 15 July and temporarily shut down at least four state universities. Officials closed the University of Peradeniya – Sri Lanka’s largest state-run university – the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka and the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo. Uwa Wellassa University in Badulla was shut from 29 June until further notice.

The prevailing fuel crisis affecting transport and all other sectors led to the interruption of academic activities at most universities as lecturers and students are unable to attend classes.

Political analysts predict that the ongoing political crisis will last for months as the public may seek quick results from any new government.