Sri Lanka: When the peasants rebelled

The human pyramid. Riding the waves of revolution, protesters climb scaffolding at Galle Face, Colombo. Photograph by Senani Dehigolla

With the French farmer’s protest in the background, the lundi matin collective has drawn out comparisons with the Sri Lankan, largely peasant uprising – “The Country to Colombo!” -, known as Aragalaya, “the struggle”, of 2022 against the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In this effort, they recently video recorded an interview (in English) with a Sri Lankan activist involved in the uprising. The interview, simultaneously eloquent and penetrating, is a brilliant and moving testimonial of rebellion. If it is clichéd to say that there is much to learn from her words, then let the cliché stand.

Some would conclude, in hindsight, that the Sri Lankan movement was a failure. Yes, it was able to force the resignation of a spectacularly corrupt prime minister and president, but the institutions of power persist – now with different faces -, the security forces remain loyal to the established order and the economy had been placed on an IMF intravenous unit, with all of the sadly predictable consequence that comes from such subservient dependence.

However, and as we have said so often, judgements of success or failure with regards to rebellions and uprisings are notoriously difficult, for they depend on criteria of evaluation that are invariably political. And contrary to those too quick to judge based on who controls the formal institutions of power, we would contend that the months long occupation of the Galle Face Green in Colombo, and similar occupations of public spaces throughout Sri Lanka, the organisation of these occupied spaces along lines of decentralised and non-hierarchical authority, with self-managing structures, the non-sectarian nature of the confluence of people, the defense of these spaces against state violence, and the subsequent taking over of the principle government buildings in the capital, with the political resignations, is an experience, a lesson (all such terms are in the end insufficient to capture what is lived in such moments), that can never be simply set aside, abandoned or forgotten. That its memory will be fought over is of course inescapable, but that too is a recognition of how difficult it is to blot out such moments: those extraordinary moments when possibilities or futures of different ways of life together dawn, ways of life which had never been imagined before.

From lundimatin #413, 30/01/2024.

For summary accounts, testimonials and histories of the 2022 events in Sri Lanka, the following is a modest selection of suggested readings:

“‘This is a huge moment’: Sri Lankans vow to continue protests until demands are met”, The Guardian, 13/07/2022

“Sri Lankan government accused of draconian treatment of protesters”, The Guardian, 05/08/2022

“Artists at the Front Lines of Sri Lanka’s “People’s Struggle””, The Asia Foundation, 31/08/2022

“Sri Lanka: It Takes a Whole Village!”, CrimethInc., 06/09/2022

“Sri Lanka’s Crisis Is Far from Over”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 09/12/2022

“Sri Lanka Has a Proud Tradition of Revolt Against Leaders Who Trample on Its People”, Jacobin, 29/08/2023

Anatomy of a Crackdown: The repression of Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya Protest Movement, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), 31/01/2023. For the full FIDH report, click here.

For parallels with and lessons from the Indian farmer’s protest of 2020-2021 and its possible resonances with the French farmer’s protest, see: “Les Paysans Indiens en Mission”, lundimatin #414, 05/02/2024.

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