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THE VERTICAL

Scenes From Gotagogama

Editor's Note:


In March 2022, I was in Colombo, hosting the Fearless Ambassadors' Residency with our team. Artists had gathered from across South Asia to paint two murals in the streets of Colombo.


When we arrived, little did we know that the country would break into one of the biggest protests that it has seen. There were big rallies of people burning party flags and shouting "Gota Go Back! ". A people divided had come together.


Years of corruption and divisive politics led the country to one of its worst socio-political and economic crises since independence, resulting in people protesting against the incumbent President and the government. The protests led purely by the people of Sri Lanka, specially the younger generation, supported by the workers' and the students unions, started off in early March 2022 and spreading islandwide.


The rage in their eyes, they walked hand in hand, ready to take down the government that had left them to face acute shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies because of its ridiculous policies followed by the pandemic leaving the country bankrupt. It is no longer only about reform or political change, but a matter of survival for the people of Sri Lanka. 


They were tired. Their life-long savings had been reduced to nothing. There was no petrol or cooking oil. There were long queues everywhere, anger and despair at every nook. They demanded justice for journalists and activists killed in the past, decried corruption and deception from the uppermost echelons of power.


The protest in front of the Presidential Secretariat soon turned into a model village called "Gotagogama" (Go Gota Village). While the protests were peaceful, police fired tear gas at the protestors and assaulted them in an attempt to stifle the protests. There were artworks lined up,medical camps, IT support stations, community libraries, all at one place, as if the people were reimagining every system that existed. 


Every morning we could see our friends and colleagues plan and participate in rallies and protests. We made posters and stood with them with affirmations "Take back our power", "We are our own leaders" being pasted across the streets. There was hopelessness, but also the will to dismantle the system.


These photographs were taken as part of the first wave of protests that broke out. Much happened after that. A few months later, in June, the people marched into the President's house and took over, watered his plants, picnic-ed in his lawns, slept in his bed, made memes as protest. The government changed, the village was taken down, more protestors and activists arrested, mysteriously disappeared. Gota Go Gama didn't exist anymore. 


When work took me to Colombo again, later that year, I saw no big protests. Shoulders carrying hopelessness, eyes filled with broken dreams, a lot of perseverance. People are struggling to get back to "normal". The new guard is no better. It has tried every tactic to crack down on anti-government movements. The real causes of the crisis are yet to be solved. Sri Lanka still awaits an IMF bailout and assurances from China and India while the struggle of people will continue.


Their struggle requires thinking about what has transpired: Harshana Rambukwella's analysis is a strong partner to the photo-essay that follows. But one thing is clear: the movement of people in Sri Lanka may have subsided, but something new to Sri Lanka began in 2022.


Sabika Abbas Naqvi, Senior Editor


 

Sri Lankan Youth in Gotagogama
From the earliest days, the youth were a significant driving factor in the protests against the Rajapakse government.

Protest sign in Sri Lanka's Gotagogama
A creative representation of the expectations of protestors using the colour red, a signifying motif of the Rajapakse regime.

A young man gives Rajapaksas the middle finger with a red ribbon tied to it.
The Rajapaksas have been known to weaponise the colour red and inculcate hate among racial groups through their choice of clothing and colours. Protestors are using this motif against them in an ironic way.

Sinhalese sign invoking class struggle in Gotagogama Sri Lanka 2022
The sign translates to: "The oppressed in the queue while the oppressor is in the mansion." With such signs, protestors pointed clearly to dwindling supplies of essential resources among ordinary citizens, while those in power remain unaffected.

A young girl waving a flag in Colombo.
Many children attended the protests, inciting larger conversations on politics and accountability within families—a first for many Sri Lankans.

Heavy rains and storms did not deter Sri Lankan protesters in the summer of 2022.
First rain at the protest site: Determined citizens continued to protest in thunderstorms and heavy rainfall.

The main point of Gotagogama, outside the Presidential Secretariat's office.
The breeding ground of Gotagogama, where the largest record of citizens gathered outside the Presidential Secretariat’s office.

A protest in Mirihana in a suburb of Colombo was one of the earliest protests sparking Gotagogama.
On March 31st 2022, a protest in Mirihana, Nugegoda (a suburb of Colombo) sparked a chain of organic and interminable protests across the country. The crowd present at this protest blocked a police bus from entering the protest site. 37 people were injured, 53 were arrested. Several journalists were brutally assaulted, with at least 6 arrested by Sri Lanka's Special Task Force.

Older protesters came out in full force in Sri Lanka in the summer of 2022.
Protestors of all ages hold up signs reflecting the magnitude of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka created by the current government.

Protests highlighted jobs, wages, resources and the daily needs of citizens across Sri Lanka.
Pleas to the government to right their wrongs, taken at the largest youth-led protest at Independence Square, Colombo.

Caricatures and cartoons of the Rajapaksas in protests in Sri Lanka
A figure of Mahinda Rajapakse, then-Prime Minister and Gotabhaya Rajapakse's brother, depicted holding a self-imposed request to be struck by lightning: a popular curse in Sinhalese folklore.

Nuns, and people of all faiths, joined Sri Lankan protests in solidarity.
A group of nuns join the protest to show their solidarity and dissent against the current government.

Muslim protesters break Ramadan fast in April 2022 in Sri Lanka.
People continued their fight well into the night, with many Muslims breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan coinciding with the beginning of summer.

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
AUTHOR
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A group of protestors wave the Sri Lankan flag on the 10th day of protests at Galle Face Green, unofficially named Gotagogama among locals.

SHARE ARTICLE:
Photo-Essay
Sri Lanka
Gotagogama
Aragalaya
Movement Organization
Capitalism
Economic Crisis
Energy Crisis
Galle Face Green
Mass Protests
Mahinda Rajapaksa
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa
Low-Income Workers
Ramadan

SAKINA ALIAKBAR is a writer, editor, filmmaker, actor, educator and an evolving music artist. She is based in Colombo.

RUVIN DE SILVA is an acclaimed actor, director, and award-winning photographer from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Photo-Essay
Sri Lanka
23 Feb 2023

SAKINA ALIAKBAR

· RUVIN DE SILVA

Early in 2022, the signs of an unprecedented and historic movement in Sri Lanka were already visible.

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