It takes a protest village: “Gota Go Gama” brings together various Sri Lankans

As the island nation of Sri Lanka reels in its worst economic crisis in recent history, hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds have hunkered down since April in sustained protest against a makeshift ‘Gota Go Gama’ village (GGG ) in front of the president’s office in the capital. Colombo city.

In a country that has long struggled with ethnic and religious strife, GGG is not only a center of protest, but also a rare glimpse of what a unified Sri Lanka could look like. In the sprawling Tented City, generations of mistrust between groups such as Sinhalese Buddhists, Hindu Tamils ​​and Muslims seem to be giving way to brotherhood, tolerance and learning. Here, Sri Lankans come together with one goal: to send their elected president home.

Shamara Wettimuny, a history scholar at Oxford University, notes that it takes courage for minority groups to engage in the ongoing protest, given years of persecution by the state and the Buddhist community majority. She says: “[Gota Go Gama] received support from all over the island, in a creative and unique way. The effect of such experiences may not translate into solidarity overnight, but I am optimistic that in the long run we will be in a better place than we are now.

Why we wrote this

In a nation torn by ethno-religious differences, a makeshift protest village is a platform for sustained protest against political mismanagement, generating a sense of unity among diverse Sri Lankans.

Colombia, Sri Lanka

For two months, Mohammed Shermila camped outside the president’s office in the capital Colombo, withstanding the scorching sun and occasional torrential downpours to demand the resignation of powerful Sri Lankan leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“We won’t go until he leaves,” she said from her blue tent filled with Sri Lankan flags. A Muslim street vendor here, Ms Shermila is among hundreds of Sri Lankans who have taken refuge in the makeshift ‘Gota Go Gama’ (GGG) village since April, as the island nation reels in the worst economic crisis in recent history . Years of mismanagement have led to severe shortages of essentials like fuel and cooking gas, as well as daily power cuts and soaring prices.

In a country that has long struggled with ethnic and religious strife, GGG is not just a center of protest, but a rare glimpse of what a unified Sri Lanka could look like. In the sprawling Tented City, generations of mistrust between groups such as Sinhalese Buddhists, Hindu Tamils ​​and Muslims seem to be giving way to brotherhood, tolerance and learning. Here, Sri Lankans come together with one goal: to send their elected president home.

Why we wrote this

In a nation torn by ethno-religious differences, a makeshift protest village is a platform for sustained protest against political mismanagement, generating a sense of unity among diverse Sri Lankans.

Shamara Wettimuny, a history scholar at Oxford University, says it takes courage for minority groups to engage in protest, given years of persecution by the state and the majority Buddhist community. Nonetheless, she describes GGG as “the most united protest we have seen in recent times” and says that while this does not guarantee lasting peace, this period of cooperation could pave the way for stronger democracy after the crisis.

“[Gota Go Gama] received support from all over the island, in a creative and unique way,” she says. “The effect of such experiences may not translate into solidarity overnight, but I am optimistic that in the long run we will be in a better place than we are now.”

Although the protests were peaceful and government officials did not halt activities at GGG, a group believed to be government loyalists attacked protesters on May 9 and burned down some tents. After the attack, then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother, resigned and new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called for an investigation while giving his support to the protesters.

Mohammed Shermila, a Muslim street vendor, has been camping since April 2022 in the protest tent city “Gota Go Gama” in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She has witnessed attacks on Muslims since 2013, when extremist Buddhist groups launched an anti-halal campaign, but she sees a change with the current protest: “The Rajapaksas [ruling family] came to power using racism, but today we all came together to remove them. ”

Overcoming a history of division

President Rajapaksa said last week that despite continued protests he had no intention of stepping down.

The controversial leader is part of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political family, and several relatives alongside his brother have resigned from their posts since April. Before being elected president in 2019, Mr Rajapaksa was known for his instrumental role in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group that sought to end the persecution of Tamils ​​by creating an independent state in northeastern Sri Lanka. But ethno-religious tensions did not end with the civil war in 2009. Critics say the president and his political allies used incidents like the 2014 and 2018 anti-Muslim riots and the bombings of Easter 2019 to stir up old fears and stir their base.

Back in Gota Go Gama, between anti-Rajapaksa songs and demonstrations, demonstrators from all walks of life find a community. During Ramadan, people of various faiths served Muslims snacks and water to break their daily fast, and Catholic priests and Buddhist monks joined in the Eid al-Fitr festivities. When Sri Lanka celebrated its national New Year in April, Sinhalese and Tamil protesters took part in traditional activities together.

Raghu Balachandran, a Tamil from the eastern city of Trincomalee, is delighted that GGG has become a symbol of unity. “For many decades, Sinhalese rulers have used racism … to separate the Sinhalese community from Tamils ​​and Muslims,” ​​he says. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his party came to power using the same strategy.”

He believes that the economic crisis has given Sinhalese in the south of the country a better understanding of the “decades of suffering” endured by the Tamil people and other minorities.

Ms Shermila has witnessed attacks on her Muslim community since 2013, when extremist Buddhist groups launched an anti-halal campaign. The change she sees at GGG is overwhelming, she says: “The Rajapaksas came to power using racism, but today we have all united to remove them. No one is identified here by religion or race, because everyone is human, and humanity is our race.

Strength in Unity

Many, including Pavithra Chinthaka, cannot stay at the GGG all day due to work and family commitments. He joins the protests every night after work. “I come here every day with my national flag to support young people who are protesting,” said Mr. Chinthaka, who is a Buddhist. “They are our future and we must support them.”

A banner reading ‘Let’s oust them and create a government that respects the people’ outside the Gota Go Gama protest camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The camp has grown since it began in April with calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.

Like Ms. Shermila, he says he feels a change is happening in Gota Go Gama, where people no longer feel they have to identify themselves based on their religion.

The crucial difference between the GGG protest and hundreds of others on various scales over the past century, Ms. Wettimuny says, is that the GGG’s reach accommodates a myriad of grievances.

“On the one hand, GGG’s main objective is to send President Rajapaksa ‘home’,” she wrote via email. “On the other hand, the spirit of GGG has welcomed and supported a series of historic and recent manifestations.” These include calls for accountability for the anti-Muslim riots and Easter bombings, as well as decent wages and housing for plantation workers and the repeal of the country’s controversial anti-terrorism law.

The diversity of causes seems to strengthen rather than weaken GGG, says Ms. Wettimuny, because “those minority grievances receive more attention and support from the ‘majority’”. She adds that GGG is “a learning site.”

Moses Akash de Silva has been protesting against GGG almost daily since the first tent was pitched on Galle Face Green on April 9. Unlike other political party-backed protests, he says, GGG was started by the people. “It’s open to everyone, and it’s become a common space for anyone who wants to speak out against the government and the system,” he says.

Mr de Silva says he, a Christian, was in tears when he saw Muslims breaking their fast every day at the protest site during Ramadan: “It was a very beautiful moment for me, to see this unity which the Rajapaksas once broke”.

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