Protests in Sri Lanka: A Historical Perspective

10 Apr, 2022

This is the transcript of my talk at the Teach-Out organised by Sachini Perera, with Hyshyama Hamin at Independence Square on 8 April 2022.

Today we are witnessing mass protests across the island, in a way we haven’t seen before. Some of you here tonight may be participating in your first series of protests, and that’s exciting and important. Others here are seasoned activists who’ve taken to protest by getting on the street, and organising grassroots level resistance to various issues, or by advocating for change — whether in courtrooms, classrooms or on social media. Generations before us have taken to the streets, and spoken truth to power, often in the face of police brutality, including assault, intimidation and torture. Protest in Sri Lanka, then, is nothing new. Yet something in the air feels different this time. And before we can unpack what that change might be, it is worth looking back at some of the different protests that have taken place in Sri Lanka. What or who were the underlying drivers of those protests? What modes or forms did those protests take? And how did the state respond to such dissent? I cannot and won’t attempt to give you a comprehensive history of protest in Sri Lanka — it’s simply not possible to do in 15 minutes and for those protests I leave out, I ask your forgiveness. Instead, I’m going to try and paint a general impression of some of the different types of protests we have seen in the colonial, post-Independence and post-War periods, and reflect on what may be different in this present moment.

People’s Protests, Galle Face, Sri Lanka, 9 April 2022 (author’s photograph)

To begin with, let’s talk about drivers or factors underlying protests. When we each think about why we might be out on the streets, we will have our own personal reasons. Different issues move us to take action, while we remain indifferent to those that may not concern us. There are several reasons that people protest, but I am going to focus on three recurrent drivers of protest: identity, ideology, and interest-groups.

By identity I mean for example ethnic or religious identities, as well as gender identities. Think of the many Tamil protests to end militarisation and land grabs in the North and East, protests by Christian churches for justice following the Easter Sunday attacks, protests to reverse the ban on burials during COVID-19 that really harmed the Muslim community, and the untiring protests by Tamil mothers of the disappeared in the North. Today marks the 1,875th day of this protest in the North.

By ideology, I’m thinking of Marxism, socialism, nationalism or pacifism. Often, in a place like Sri Lanka, class-based or nationality-based ideologies often overlap with ethnic identities. The JVP in the 70s and 80s for instance were a Marxist, anti-elite, youth-based Sinhalese group. You can see the presence of more than one underlying driver in a protest.

And by interest-group, I’m referring mostly to unions — whether the GMOA, for medical officers, Inter-University Students Federation, plantation workers’ unions, railway unions, and so on. It’s worth noting that some of these interest groups or unions are often associated with political parties albeit to varying degrees. Once again, we see overlap between the drivers of protest in Sri Lanka.

So then we have identity, ideology, and interest groups that are three significant drivers of protest. Let’s talk about the forms these protests have taken, across the last century.

During the British colonial period, in 1905, the Supreme Court banned Muslims from wearing the fez cap in court, an item of religious attire that was considered part of the Muslims national identity. In response, the community organised a mass protest in the grounds of the Maradana mosque and an economic hartal in Pettah, where they closed down all their shops. The protest meeting at the mosque was attended by 30,000 people, which at the time constituted more than 10% of the entire Muslim population in Sri Lanka. They organised speeches and interventions from Sri Lankan and Indian Muslim communities leaders, and wrote a memorial of appeal to the King to reverse this policy. They eventually succeeded in their peaceful protest, and were within a year allowed to wear their fez cap in the courts. Now, some historians have criticised this form of protest as it remained limited to this particular Muslim issue — it never transformed into a national, anti-colonial campaign. It was the largest mass meeting up until that point but it was certainly not the last.

Another protest that coalesced along religious lines was temperance. Among Buddhists and Christians in particular, temperance was a growing issue in the early 20th century. The temperance movement advocated for abstinence from alcohol — specifically arrack and toddy, which was seen as a corrupting, Western influence, that also gave the colonial government huge revenues from production licenses and taxation. Campaigns called for boycotts of toddy taverns, and punishments in the form of fines for those who broke their pledges to abstain from alcohol. Temperance societies (amadyapana samagam) sprang up across the Southern part of the island first in 1904, and later in 1912, and attracted the leadership of future national-level actors such as D.B. Jayathilaka, and W.A. De Silva. Although some Tamil Hindus such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan chaired an important temperance rally in Colombo, and Burgher educators and councillors joined temperance committees, these campaigns, remained a largely Sinhalese protest.

In the post-Independence period, following the chauvinist Sinhala-Only language policy of the SWRD Bandaranaike government in 1956, a wave of peaceful Tamil protests began in opposition. One form of protest was the satyagraha, a form of non-violent direct action, like the sort espoused by Mahatma Gandhi in India, and Martin Luther King Jr in America (albeit called sit-ins in English). A key example of such a satyagraha was the Tamil satyagraha in February 1961 that began in Jaffna before spreading throughout the Northern and Eastern Provinces, to protest Mrs. Bandaranaike’s attempts at Sinhalisation of the judiciary and administrative services in Sri Lanka.

What did Sinhalisation mean in practice? Sinhala would be the sole Official Language in all areas of administration and in the courts. Tamil speakers stood to lose access to justice, employment, and basic government services. So the protest in response in February 1961 involved volunteers sitting in front of entrances to Kachcheris or district secretariats to prevent Govt employees from working by blocking their entrance — an effective form of non-violent direct action. The police forcefully removed them, carrying them by their hands and legs and dumping them on the ground some distance away. The satyagrahis then picked themselves up, and hurried back to their places to resume their sit-in. Soon the police began dragging them away, kicking or rolling those lying flat on the ground. Eventually batons were used against the protestors. One satyagrahi, Francis Pereira — a Bharatha Tamil from Chilaw — was removed forcefully and returned to his position 15 times, despite his clothes being torn to rags, and his body bruised. These efforts and police violence only attracted more crowds, as observing bystanders quickly joined as bodies in the protests. And incredibly, the police ceased their attempts just under 2 hours after arriving.

In the satyagraha campaigns that followed, police brutality increased, and more and more Tamils joined these protests. However, such protests never managed to gain nation-wide appeal, and remained largely confined to the North and the East. The Sinhalese South, by the late 1960s and early 70s, were preoccupied with their own inequalities, and demanded land reform, and better access to education and employment. For those of you who want to know about left-wing dissent and civil society protests from the 1960s onwards, the Archive on Dissidents and Activists in Sri Lanka, 1960s to 1990s, compiled by the American Institute for Lankan Studies is a fantastic, online archive that is accessible to the public.

Let me skip ahead now to the 1980s, when we really start to see the emergence of feminist groups, or women’s groups that protested against growing state-led violence, against JVP insurrectionists or ethnic minorities, and pioneered awareness raising programmes on women’s rights. Mothers’ Fronts groups are inspiring examples of dissent that saw women in the North and South protest the arrests and disappearances of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers during the youth insurrections and the ethnic conflict. Groups that are doing such important work today, such as the Women and Media Collective, INFORM, and the Mannar Women’s Development Forum, were established in this period between the 80s and 90s. In the words of academic-activist Malathi de Alwis, who is no longer with us, these feminist groups documented human rights violations by the State and militant groups, established peace education programs in schools, and organized demonstrations, and vigils for peace. Despite threats to their safety, these women protested against both the state and militant groups, and some paid for their activism with their lives. Rajani Thiranagama, for example, an academic and activist in Jaffna was ruthlessly murdered by the LTTE in her pursuit of truth and justice.

Following the end of the War, protests for accountability continue. And we can add a fourth ‘I’ to my list of underlying drivers of protest — in addition, to identity, ideology and interest groups. Let’s call them issue-based protests. Activists seek answers for disappearances, and murders, such as those of Lasantha Wickremetunga, Prageeth Eknaligoda, Wasim Thajudeen, and countless more. People demand justice for the Easter Sunday bombings, Justice for Hejaaz Hisbullah, answerability for the Bond Scam. They call for the end to cronyism, and other forms of corruption. Malaiyaha Tamil plantation workers continue to advocate for a 1000 rupee daily wage and land ownership. The LGBTIQ+ community has protested the demonization of same-sex relations by the state in general and the police in particular. Farmers protested the introduction of a poorly thought through and ultimately disastrous fertiliser ban. Lawyers and activists call for the repeal or reform of laws, ranging from the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, to the abolition of the Executive presidency. Protest is part and parcel of life for many Sri Lankans.

So, what is different today? What is it about this moment that leaves us feeling hopeful, that something may change? So far, the government has not listened to protestors’ demands. Yet here we are, in Colombo and Kandy, Batticaloa and Jaffna, Tangalle and Oluvil, Anuradhapura and Vavuniya, unrelenting, on the streets. I’m a historian and it’s not quite my business to predict the future. In fact, telling the future hasn’t worked out so well for those who claim to be in that business either. I don’t know yet where this is going but perhaps, just perhaps, for the first time in our living history, all these drivers of protests are present in the current moment: we see identity, ideology, interest groups and issues represented in the fight for change today. Men, women, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, nurses, daily wage earners, tech bros, free trade zone workers, environmentalists, privileged, deprived, able, disabled: we are all here and THAT is what is special. No one political party could have convened us, despite however much credit Johnston Fernando tries to give the JVP.

When I compare the current moment with the colonial period, which I’m most familiar with, it’s clear that those protests remained confined to those immediately affected or aggrieved by a particular issue. They had structure, leadership, and organisation. Yet those protests failed to resonate with the broader population, and remained confined to ethnic, religious, class, caste, or gender-based lines. Today we seem to have overcome those divisions and have a stab at unity. The demands GoHomeGota or GoHomeRajapaksas are about more than just resignations. We cannot romanticise this too much, but we can be hopeful. We need to remember that this may not be a fight for survival for all of us, but it is a very real fight for survival for some of us. The spiralling economic crisis is an emergency and needs to be solved now. Longer-term grievances should not be forgotten in the aftermath. There are calls for investigations into an incident involving military personnel who entered a protest area. This may be new to some of us, but it is something very familiar for those in the North and the East. These longer-term grievances cannot be forgotten.

Empathy and courage can sustain this moment, and on that note, thank you for your attention.

Original Article:

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Further Reading

Archive on Dissidents and Activists in Sri Lanka, 1960s to 1990s

Fez protest meeting — Shamara Wettimuny, ‘Imagining a National Headgear: Islamic Revival and Muslim Identity in Ceylon’

Temperance campaigns: John D. Rogers, ‘Cultural nationalism and social reform: The 1904 Temperance Movement in Sri Lanka’, i. Lanka’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 26(3) (1989), pp. 319–341.

1961 Tamil Satyagraha — D.B.S. Jeyaraj, ‘Feb 20th 1961 Launch of Tamil ‘Satyagraha’ Encounters Baptism of fire on First Day’.

JVP: Mick Moore, ‘Thoroughly Modern Revolutionaries: The JVP in Sri Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies 27/3 (1993)

Women’s protests: Malathi de Alwis, ‘The Changing Role of Women in Sri Lankan Society’, Social Research 69/3 (2002); Remembering Rajani (2009), accessible at:; Wenona Giles, ‘The Women’s Movement in Sri Lanka: An Interview with Kumari Jayawardena’, accessible at:; Kumudini Samuel, ‘Building Transversal Solidarities: Women’s Search for Peace in Sri Lanka’ in Rita Manchanda (ed.), Women and Politics of Peace: South Asia Narratives on Militarization, Power, and Justice (2017); Malathi de Alwis, ‘Motherhood as a space of protest: Women’s political participation in contemporary Sri Lanka’, Nivedini 9/1 (2001).