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On political repression and political hope in Sri Lanka today




Batticaloa Justice Walk in Sri Lanka, February 2024.
The Batticaloa Justice Walk will be two years old on 12 May 2024. Despite the emergency law and curfew, people march quietly in single file every morning through the town on the east coast of Sri Lanka with placards bearing their slogans, demands, wishes, and prayers. The two-kilometre walk has become a meeting point for various communities and movements. Photo: Facebook / Batticaloa Justice Walk

The past five years have been an extremely difficult time for Sri Lanka: The Easter bombings, a series of attacks on hotels and churches, the undemocratic takeover of the repressive regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019, a devastating economic crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the whole country, affecting especially its poorest and most marginalized communities. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because, the people of Sri Lanka continue to rise up in large numbers, in different groups and forms of national and local protest and activism.

Manimekalai is a historian, teacher, researcher, theatre artist, translator, activist, and expressive arts therapist who lives and works among marginalized communities in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka.

As repression increases and the large protests become more difficult to organize, people continue to find ways to resist in their communities and in their everyday lives. We spoke with Sri Lankan activist Manimekalai about that resistance, the forms it takes, and what gives people hope in the midst of crisis and repression.

Could you shed some light on the realities of ordinary people and marginalized communities in Sri Lanka?

While speaking of Sri Lanka there is often a need to speak separately of how state policies and the civil war (1983–2009) affected the north and the east of the island, the largely Sinhala speaking areas in the south and those in the plantations in the mountains in the middle of the island. Even while it is hard to generalize in these regions, it is possible to say that they have had different socio-economic and political histories for the past four decades.

The plantation area has always been and remains the poorest, with high poverty levels and the least reach of services that are usually available in Sri Lanka, such as public health and education. In the north and east, families of the disappeared have continued their struggle demanding truth and accountability for war crimes, and regularly are suppressed by the state militaries and the use of draconian “anti-terror” laws.

For example, remembrances of those who died in the war are banned. Thousands of households have persons living with war-related disabilities, have no support, and face marginalization. In the south, many men from rural poor backgrounds joined the military often to secure a government job. Thousands of young women from rural areas joined garments factories in export processing zones, which earned the foreign currency that fuelled the huge military expenditures of the state.

In the last couple of years, the state response to the 2019 Easter bombings and the COVID-19 pandemic manifested a previously latent islamophobia in the Sri Lankan state and society among both Sinhala and Tamil communities. First, many ordinary Muslims were arrested under “anti-terror” Laws and languished in jail. Then, policies of forced cremations of those who died in the pandemic further affected the Muslim community.

Have these divisions been exacerbated by the economic crisis?

When the economic crisis hit in 2021, the entire country came to a standstill. All persons except the exceptionally rich stood in long queues for bare essentials such as petrol, cooking oil, groceries, etc. — often for weeks. As the weeks passed on in 2021, much of the essentials stopped being available to buy even if one had the money. Prices went up astronomically. Thousands of people rose up in resistance.

GotaGoGama (GGG) was established, a protest village occupying the heart of the financial and business district of Colombo. This was a culmination of the country’s working poor been thrown into the same plight across regions and ethnicities over the COVID and economic crises. The Sinhala speaking majority led these protests and the existing divisions in society, socio-economic, ethnic, etc. were in the bare minimum highlighted in this protest space — some discussions on such matters ensued.

The protests of 2021 are reminiscent of earlier large protests in Sinhala areas in the 1970s as well as the ongoing people’s land struggles all over the country.

However, after the undemocratic takeover of power by the current regime, the now-president arrested thousands of protesters in a matter of a few months. This time, it was the largely Sinhala-speaking working poor that bore the brunt of the attack. This curbing of democratic dissent continues using old and new ways including violent attacks on protesters and passing of laws to justify curtailing democracy. There are regular trade union protests, which are attacked and suppressed by the state.

What remains of the protests and under which circumstances?

People’s peaceful resistance continues in small but meaningful ways in spite of and through state repression and especially the further deterioration of the overall standard of living. The economic “recovery plan” suggested by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and accepted by the Sri Lankan state shifts the burden entirely to the poor with terrible austerity measures. This includes increasing VAT to 18 percent, affecting primarily the poor, increasing tariffs, and removing subsidies on basic utilities such as electricity and water. This has forced people to leave the country as migrant workers so that they can send back foreign currency (including sending workers to war-torn Israel–Palestine). Meanwhile, budgets of public education, health, and existing social security measures are thoroughly cut back.

It is in this context that 50 percent of the island’s people have been pushed below the poverty line and more people live on one meal per day. Fifty percent of children under five are now severely malnourished and many children cannot afford books for school. Adolescent girls and women cannot afford sanitary napkins with the increased VAT and this has affected their education and livelihoods. While this plight is shared by the poor across the country, it is worse in multiple ways for those in the plantation and for those in the north and east given pre-existing marginalization. All this while the rich remain largely untaxed.

What effect do those protests have in the current context?

The protests of 2021 are reminiscent of earlier large protests in Sinhala areas in the 1970s as well as the ongoing people’s land struggles all over the country — the long-standing struggles of the mothers of the disappeared in the north and east, the more than 100-year struggle for labour rights in the plantations, and other such struggles that began before GotaGoGama and continue after.

To give you one example: The day that the large protest site of GotaGoGama was brutally attacked by the government, we in Batticaloa, a city in the east of the island, decided to begin walking in the Batticaloa Justice Walk. It was a few of us, and we thought we would walk for a week. An Emergency Law had been applied to the country and there was a curfew, thus banning any protests. So, we did what women from the families of the disappeared have been doing for decades in this very town: we marched quietly in single file with placards with our slogans, statements, demands, wishes, and prayers on it. This 12 May 2024, the Batticaloa Justice Walk will mark two years. We walk every morning from a Mary statue on the side of the road to the Gandhi statue in the middle of town — a two-kilometre distance.

The walk has become a holder for various other communities and movements. From the local women’s groups from villages nearby to the nascent queer movement in this part of the country. Women living with disabilities march with us regularly, as do our students, who are people from 16 to 25 years of age who have experienced immense disruption, loss, and trauma and are part of our consistent semi-formal pedagogic spaces. Children walk with us when they don’t have school. The walk has created art — songs, poetry, and theatre — enough to hold an entire festival!

One day, a group of 30 sex workers from six different districts in the country who were meeting in Batticaloa walked with us. They were there for a training programme on implementing a detailed questionnaire among 300 of their colleagues from different parts of the country. The information they collected became the first ever Status of Sex Workers’ Report on Sri Lanka which was released in 2022 around May Day.

This pioneering report came at a time when the workers, as one of the most marginalized and invisibilized communities in the country were forced into starvation along with their children due to the inability to engage in their profession during COVID and the economic crisis. Even as they remain in these precarious conditions and cannot even always fully identify themselves in public spaces, the report researched and released by them was an important moment in the continuing organizing among this community all over the island, including the war-torn north, to build dignity, self-respect, and collective strength to stand together and demand basic human rights. But there are other examples, as well.

Can you give us an example of ongoing work that is creative and nourishing even in these circumstances?

Our students who are from marginalized backgrounds brought to us through non-formal, consistent educational programmes coordinated by a local women’s organization and a local progressive church-based organization, give us the opportunity to evolve powerful pedagogic methods and spaces.

The effects of this are beginning to be visible for all to see as they grow and flourish. This flourishing may look like a student being able to wake up in the morning and do anything at all, given the violence and trauma they have endured, or it can be a student going to university and flourishing in that setting while she could not have imagined herself there even a few months ago.

To have lived through apocalyptic times while sustaining spaces of protests that are collectively nourishing is hope in a nutshell.

The Ezhuval (“She Will Rise”) programme run in collaboration with the Church of American Ceylon Mission has yielded four batches of students who have been through this holistic course on body, sexuality, gender, feminism, patriarchy, history, economy, society, etc. all taught through the tools of grounded research methodology and multi-disciplinary arts. Students create one research paper and one artistic piece at the end of this intensive course. This is open to all Tamil-speaking women and trans folks from across the island. The groups are of mixed contexts in terms of place and religion. They’re all from economically marginalized backgrounds. Ezhuval and the young people who go through this programme are our plan for the future!

As you can see, the street, the classroom, the stage, the image, the video, the report, the research paper, the photograph, the poem, the song, and the play are all interconnected spaces of resistance here in our little town.

Is that what gives you hope and consistency in your work?

To have lived through apocalyptic times while sustaining spaces of protests that are collectively nourishing is hope in a nutshell. That everyday some of us wake up, however few, and walk through this town holding placards about things that move us that day, from increasing taxation to the war in Palestine is hope. Although only a few of us may walk, the consistency of this non-violent protest has carved out a little space in this town where the boundaries between who is protesting and who is going about their everyday lives is blurred. The walk gives hope every day that if life is struggle and struggle is life, then there are ways to do it in ways that are nourishing and thus sustainable.

I derive hope from history. That we are not the first or the only. That we come from a long line of women, people, who have stood up in protest in all human societies across all times in history. The brutality of human history is often in parallel with inspiring instances and processes of resistance. Even in this very town, we stand upon the weary shoulders of ordinary women who have endured the hell that is war and yet consistently protested the injustice and continue to do so even today. As I always tell my students, with every history of oppression, there is always a history of resistance. We just have to look!

I derive hope from our students. That even at a very young age, they have already endured profound pain and suffering, often at the hands of those who are to make them feel safe and loved in the world, and yet they are in our classrooms trying their best to listen, learn, and reflect. That within a year or two, or sometimes even months, they are able to trust some of us again, an expectation we should not even have of these young people given the breach that so many grownups and institutions have enacted in their lives.

Yet, they begin to gradually trust us with love and conviction and work through every breath, every decision, every class, every activity to rebuild their lives although they are young and their lives should already have been built for them at that age. Their resilience and sustained effort not just to survive but also to live as we lend them a little finger to hold on to, inspires me every day. To me they are the embodiment of hope with all its pain, anguish, joy, and resilience.