Crisis, resistance, and the lure of liberal nation-building

GotaGoGama and the 2022 People’s Protests in Sri Lanka

We write together as activist scholars, as people committed to thinking deeply about the process and practice of collective struggle in the pursuit of “freedom dreams” and a liberatory “otherwise”. We consider the landscape of state crisis, popular resistance, and liberal reform that took shape in Sri Lanka in 2022, and the lessons this convergence offers for us as organisers, activists and academics. It is in working to interrupt the common-sense coupling of progress with reform – everywhere we find it – that we hope to find ways to organise more strategically in response to crisis.

As we write, Palestinians are struggling against the inconceivable brutality of a colonising Israeli government with explicitly genocidal ambitions. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across so-called australia are fighting against police violence, the destruction of their homelands, and an energised white supremacist movement that is taking full advantage of what Darumbal and South Sea Islander scholar Dr Amy McQuire has termed a resoundingly racist referendum result. Climate crises are causing death and destruction globally, particularly in regions that have already borne the brunt of global imperialism and racial capitalist exploitation. In Sudan, in the Congo, in Afghanistan, in Kurdistan, in West Papua, in Hawai’i; in the border cities of central America and southern Europe; in gentrifying and over-policed neighbourhoods across the world; in detention centres, prisons, and in everyday experiences of policing and surveillance: the contradiction and violence of colonial racial capitalism is being laid bare. 

Everywhere we look, these contradictions are converging to create a horizon of permanent crisis. This convergence is not a coincidence. The present conjuncture is the product of global dynamics that have been centuries in the making: the meeting point of the forces of destruction, exploitation, and oppression that are foundational to heteropatriarchal colonial racial capitalism; and the collective, liberatory movements for freedom that are constantly challenging and undermining them.

We write this piece around the edges of mass demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine; a tiny part of the remarkably “multi-racial, multi-faith, popular movement for justice in solidarity with Palestinians” (as Aamer Rahman writes) that is stretching across the globe. All around us, people are organising, marching, chanting, posting, analysing, occupying, dismantling, boycotting, lobbying, reimagining: experimenting with political possibility. And in response, governments around the world are sharpening the tools of state repression: from racism, to propaganda, to surveillance, policing and prisons, and what abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, writing from North America, terms “organised abandonment.”

Some of these tools and technologies are explicitly repressive and violent: immigration detention regimes, borders, police, prisons, and surveillance technologies. Some are more subtly reformist: managing the threat of resistance through piecemeal concessions that sustain the structure while tweaking its appearance. Dylan Rodriguez describes this latter set of strategies in terms of “counter-insurgency.” He explains:

What I’m calling the contemporary liberal/progressive counterinsurgency is a loosely coordinated bloc that consists of large philanthropic foundations, liberal think tanks, academics, elected officials, media pundits, nonprofit organizations, celebrity activists, and social media influencers, among others. (…) united in the fact that they will not tolerate—much less endorse or materially support—revolutionary, Black liberationist, abolitionist, and anti-colonial mobilizations and movements that will destroy or fundamentally change the infrastructures of power and radically alter the distribution of life-sustaining resources in the United States, Canada, Brazil, the Philippines, or anywhere else.

Open ground opposite the Galle Face Green adjoining the Presidential secretariat in Colombo, occupied by protestors who set up tents. April 2022

In this short essay, we suggest that the mutually sustaining relationship between technologies of repression and promises of reform is essential to understanding the present conjuncture. We write together in the hope of working out some of the persistent tensions that we come up against as activist scholars; as people committed to thinking deeply about the process and practice of collective struggle in the pursuit of “freedom dreams” and a liberatory “otherwise.” To do this, we consider the landscape of state crisis, popular resistance, and liberal reform that took shape in Sri Lanka in 2022, and the lessons this convergence offers for us as organisers, activists and academics globally.

Interpreting the Crisis

This analysis emerged organically, from our long-standing friendship, and a broad desire to try and make sense of the political conditions of our lives. For Rajni: as a Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan now based (by necessity) in Singapore but with deep roots and commitments in Colombo. For Anna: as a white settler living on unceded Yuggera & Turrbal country in Migunchin/Meanjin (so-called brisbane). For both of us, as people embroiled in the dynamics we’re trying to understand and challenge.

As Rajni sweltered through the summer of power outages and experimented with political possibilities on the ground at Galle Face Green, we were catching up through WhatsApp messages and emails and radio broadcasts to try and think through this moment. 

What political possibilities emerged from the crisis conditions of 2022 and the activist occupation of Galle Face Green? How were those possibilities foreclosed or limited? What lessons are there for those of us engaged in activist work elsewhere? And what does this moment tell us about the work that is required to hold onto and sustain the radical political possibilities that emerge during periods of crisis; the work required to resist and challenge both repressive state violence and the compelling, coercive lure of liberal reform?

Protesters at the semi-permanent protest site at Galle Face, Colombo, April 2022, holding placards with the words “Sir Pass! People Failed”, referring to how President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (popularly nicknamed as ‘Sir’) had gained from his presidency while the people had lost. Another placard reads “For the paid mercenaries of the government, where lies your conscience?”, referring to the protestors questioning the police and armed force violence against protestors. These slogans demonstrate the anger of the protestors against the ruling government, political system, and prevailing political system.

For many people in Sri Lanka, the 2022 “crisis” went much deeper than gas shortages or a foreign debt crisis. For Sri Lanka’s Indigenous people, who continue to be dispossessed, racially profiled, and ridiculed; for Eelam Tamils still fighting for self-determination and justice for the war crimes committed during the 26-year civil war; for up-country Tamils fighting for living wages on tea plantations; for Muslim Sri Lankans, struggling against new waves of Islamaphobia; for trans and queer Sri Lankans facing daily harassment and oppression; for women struggling against sexual violence and labour exploitation; for impoverished, homeless, over-policed people fighting for rights to housing and security: Sri Lanka has arguably been in a permanent state of crisis. As Robin DG Kelley summarises, colonial racial capitalism “produces something akin to a permanent state of crisis […] It is built on fictions that must be constantly shored up, not for its victims but for those who stand to benefit.”

These deeper crises are important to understanding what happens in moments of political upheaval: in how the “problems” of a particular time and place are interpreted, for whose benefit, and to what ends. The failure of the Sri Lankan state in 2022 – its “organised abandonment” of ordinary citizens in the service of managing a debt crisis incurred by the country’s elite – reflected a much longer tradition of abandoning, vilifying, excluding, oppressing, policing, incarcerating, dispossessing, or disappearing particular people in order to resolve crises of state legitimacy. 

And yet in 2022, it was the political and business elite – a disproportionately Sinhalese middle class – who influenced the discourse around the crisis in order to make it seem like a new and unprecedented problem of state corruption and mismanagement. 

We start then, from the idea that there is something to be gained from paying attention to what happened during this crisis; and most especially, to the ways that some of the more radical experiments with political possibility were repressed: not only through state violence, but also through the lure of liberal reform and “progress.”

Whose Crisis?

Like many former colonies, the spatial configuration of Sri Lanka is deeply racialised. While there were neighbourhood protests across the country, the main protest site in which the people’s protests gathered was in Galle Face Green, a narrow strip of land next to the ocean and in front of the Presidential Secretariat, in the country’s commercial capital of Colombo. 

The urban orientation of the protests is significant for several reasons. Colombo is a product of a particular colonial capitalist formation; designed to concentrate surplus capital obtained through extraction and exploitation. Throughout Sri Lanka’s colonial history, the city was conceptualised primarily as a port for the British empire: a colonial metropolis purpose-built for administration and tax collection, rather than for a society where equality and equity for all were prioritised. 

Small vegetable farming plots set up by protestors at the protest site, June 2022. Food security and strengthening local economies and food systems to be more self-sustaining were ideas heard at the protest site. Food security was severely threatened during the crisis, due to lack of foreign exchange to import essentials, rapid inflation, and the impact of a hastily-implemented organic fertiliser policy by the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa government.  

In the present, layers of spatial inequality persist, mirroring the colonial logics of the past. The sprawling city is serviced and sustained through an exploited, racialised underclass, who either commute to the city daily or reside among the growing urban poor. Colombo is shaped by hierarchies of race, caste, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. But these hierarchies are often masked by the dominant logics of development, modernisation, and urbanisation that have characterised Colombo in the aftermath of the 26-year civil war. For example, the urban poor in Colombo are often housed in cramped, overcrowded living quarters that are often occupied in shifts. About fifty percent of Colombo’s population live in low income settlements which are locally known as “under serviced settlements”.

In the post-war ‘urban beautification drive’, as Amarasuriya and Spencer describe it, informal settlements were transformed into high-density, high-rise housing apartments. Like many places shaped by regimes of racial violence and colonisation, this project of reorganisation, beautification, and development served as part of the broader project of normalising and laundering the persistent inequalities of the state and masking the atrocities of the civil war under a veneer of modernisation and progress. 

During the 2022 economic crisis, the shortages in cooking gas affected families living in the “beautified” high-rise, high-density apartments more than their class counterparts in villages or more rural areas. In Colombo, poor residents could not switch to firewood-based cooking alternatives as a substitute for gas during shortages of gas and when prices became too high, as many did, because the cramped conditions in the high-rise housing apartments could not accommodate such alternative cooking methods. What was evident in this process was how established lines of disposability and abandonment – configured by class, caste, race, gender, migration – were baked into the common sense response to the 2022 crisis.

A tent was set up in the protest site by the queer community. June 2022. 2022 was the first year a gay pride march was held in the country. 

States are constantly confronted by crises: pandemics, natural disasters, food insecurity, wars, widespread impoverishment, popular resistance. And the crisis-management systems they develop remain shaped by what Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms “organised abandonment”: a process by which the needs and interests of those deemed “surplus” to the state can be sacrificed in order to weather the crisis. These regimes of organised abandonment rely on pre-existing hierarchies of value: race, class, caste, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, geography. Some of us are sacrificed for others to be protected.

This account of organised abandonment as a response to state crisis also helps to contextualise the 2022 gas shortages and power cuts in relation to much longer-standing sites of neglect, oppression, and abandonment outside the capital.

The GDP growth of Colombo during the civil war and the disproportionate contribution of Colombo to the national GDP are all indicative of the extractive and consumption-driven model that the city is founded on. The Colombo Metropolitan Area has a GDP (PPP) of US$122 billion which accounts for around 40% of the national GDP, despite the Western province (in which Colombo is located) occupying only 5.7% of the country’s geographic area and 25% of the national population. The majority-Tamil speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces remain disproportionately underserved by the promised economic development of successive governments, even as they remain subjected to policing, surveillance, and military occupation.

The 2022 economic crisis – and the subsequent repressive policing of protests about that crisis – was not the first time that the Sri Lankan state had responded to a crisis through either repressive state violence or organised abandonment. But it did reflect a new iteration of this familiar crisis response; one which saw previously insulated parts of the population experiencing the brutality of state abandonment and repression, and struggling to make sense of it on their own. 

In understanding both the crisis conditions in 2022 and the Aragalaya, it is essential to pay attention to the specificity of Colombo as the site of the protest – both the where of the city, and, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, the how

Janatha Aragalaya: The People’s Protests

The 2022 People’s Protests took place against the backdrop of a democratic deficit and structural weaknesses of the governing regime. But the “democratic failures” that protesters were mobilising around were not the structural nature of racism against Tamils and Muslims; or the exploitation of (mainly) Tamil workers in the tea plantations; or the continued military occupation or over-policing of the Northern province. Initially, protesters were not even primarily concerned with police powers, militarisation of society, or the open secret of state surveillance, torture and enforced disappearance as legacies of the civil war. 

Rather, the protests were – at least initially – a response to the failure of the government to continue to provide the selective benefits that they had long promised (and occasionally delivered) to the majority (Sinhala Buddhist) economic middle class in exchange for their support for authoritarian populist politics. As a result, the 2022 protests were a cross-class mobilisation of people who predominantly came from Colombo and the ‘southern’ areas. Its impact and platform was largely due to the participation of the significant Sinhala Buddhist middle classes, who do not usually take part in the more regular trade union and student union protests.

GotagoGama community library, June 2022. 

The 2022 protests in Sri Lanka received a lot of mainstream and social media coverage at the local level but also in international media channels, where they were widely described as the “biggest” or “most significant or sustained” anti-government protests in decades. But the Janatha Aragalaya was not the first anti-regime protests; not even the first in recent years. The Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) protests in the Northeast, the longest standing protests by the mothers, sisters & family members of (predominantly) Tamil people forcibly disappeared by the state; the farmers protests from the south in response to the government’s ill-implemented organic fertiliser policy; and widespread teachers’ protests had all been staged against the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa administration just before the Janatha Aragalaya. 

The erasure of these earlier sites of struggle had material implications for the way that the 2022 “crisis” was understood by the popular movement emerging at Galle Face Green. Here, we argue that the Janatha Aragalaya offers a cautionary tale for all of us engaged in justice movements that aim towards collective liberation, redistribution, and abolition. If we continue to treat crises as exceptional – as glitches that can be fixed by some tinkering and tweaking of the liberal democratic order – then the political movements that we build in response to these crises run the risk of sustaining entrenched sites of violence and oppression even as we seek to address their most recent iterations. 

GotaGoGama: Experimenting with political possibility

The Janatha Aragalaya – or Peoples’ Struggle – broke out largely in response to a narrow understanding of the economic crisis, including fuel and power supply shortages, driven by the country’s debt crisis and severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves. The protests had supporters from many parts of the country, due to the widespread impact of the economic crisis, but they were at their strongest in Colombo. The demands of the protests were multifaceted, calling for an overhaul of the system on a range of governance-related issues, including the need for more direct forms of democracy. The tactics used by protesters were inarguably radical: occupying a park in the centre of Colombo, storming the President’s house, burning down the houses of members of parliament, setting fire to buses being used to transport supporters of the incumbent Rajapaksa government from other cities to quash protest activity in Colombo.

Over the months of the physical occupation at Galle Face Green, there were some really radical experiments taking shape. The demands of the protests were multifaceted, calling for an overhaul of the system on a range of governance-related issues. A popular demand for ‘system change’ was driven by what the protestors deemed as a need to rewrite the social contract. The lack of a clear consensus on what this system change would look like, and how it would be achieved, are indicative of how protest sites – especially permanent occupations – serve as political experiments: not predetermined, but prefigurative. 

The democratic manifestation and political experimentation that took place during the People’s Protests reflects a long tradition of protest sites as testing grounds for radical possibility. Through various documents, such as a set of demands articulated by a segment of GGG activists, and initiatives such as People’s Parliament which came up with a People’s Manifesto for Sri Lanka, the mass protest movement worked to identify some key demands. These included demands for a pluralist and equal society; dismantling state-sanctioned racism; an economy of and for the people, where public finance is handled in a more transparent, participatory, accountable, efficient, and equitable manner; governance-related reforms such as abolishing executive presidency and imposing more checks and balances on non-democratic actions by political representatives; as well as the need for more direct forms of participatory democracy.

From peoples’ assemblies, to queer justice spaces, organic farms, and mutual aid projects: the protest site was itself an experiment in expanding the conditions of political possibility. It was shaped in part by earlier hegemonic spatial ideals – namely, the village – but participants were also reimagining and challenging those ideals. 

GotaGoGama poetry corner, April 2022.

The protest site was called GotaGoGama (GGG), which is a mix of English and Sinhala, and stands for Gota (short for Gotabhaya) Go (to go) Gama (village). The protest site or village was named such, and indeed had the main organising elements of a village. The popular idea of returning to the village alludes to an alternative space of home and belonging, of community and sharing and nostalgia, that the more individualist colonial capitalist values and culture in the city could not cultivate. The protest village located in the capital city provided a space borne out of a similar impulse of community and sharing. It is no coincidence that in this time of fuel shortages and power outages, organisers wanted to return to the comfort of a “village”: to cook and eat and rest and organise together, in the heart of the city.

But despite the radical experiments happening on the ground, the dominant diagnosis of the 2022 crisis in Sri Lanka was driven by the experiences and demands of a largely Sinhala Buddhist movement (the majority ethnic and religious group in Sri Lanka, particularly in the south). These interpretations tended to see the events of 2022 as an economic crisis: the result of rational, liberal economic principles being subverted and corrupted by a small group of nationalist and protectionist politicians. Corruption and nepotism emerged as key organising narratives for this interpretation. These discourses serve, as Malini Ranganathan, David L. Pike and Sapana Doshi describe, as a key component in “global storytelling about how states and elites abuse entrusted power in late capitalism;” a story which conveniently distracts from entrenched regimes of injustice and inequality in favour of accounts of mismanagement and “bad apples.” 

The fact that many of the politicians responsible for the 2022 debt crisis were war criminals – directly involved in genocidal violence against Tamils as recently as 2009 – was less important to this account of the 2022 crisis than the fact that they were lining their pockets. These popular interpretations did not fully contextualise the debt crisis of 2022 against the longer context of the 26-year civil war, and decades of state-sanctioned racial violence against Tamil Sri Lankans. As a result, the democratic imaginaries conjured at Galle Face Green – radical and energising though they were for participants – still largely overlooked the insights and strategies of communities for whom the 2022 “crisis” was nothing new. 

The lure of liberal reform

In this essay, we take aim at this dominant liberal crisis narrative not only because we think it fails to adequately explain the crisis conditions of 2022, but more importantly, because we suggest that it served to undermine possibilities for solidarity and transformation in this moment. 

The liberal accounts of the crisis focussed on ideas of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement. They framed the 2022 crisis in Sri Lanka as the result of economic mismanagement and political corruption: a problem that could be solved with a swathe of neoliberal economic reforms, piecemeal anti-corruption measures, and toothless liberal reforms of the democratic process. These accounts – propagated by academics, NGOs, and activists alike – functioned to effectively delink the economic crisis from the longer history of state crises in Sri Lanka, and thus sever potential solidarities between those people experiencing state abandonment or repression in 2022, and those who have been long targeted, oppressed, and abandoned by the state. 

It is this latter function that concerns us the most. The persuasiveness of this liberal narrative served to dissolve the fragile solidarities and radical political possibilities of the Janatha Aragalaya through the coercive promise of liberal progress. It recruited organisers and activists into the state’s own practice of “organised abandonment” – sacrificing the deeper and longer struggles against structural state violence in favour of the promise of a slightly improved, reformed state apparatus. Our primary concern, then, is in the way that these promises of liberal reform serve as coercive tools of “counter-insurgency” – harnessing and co-opting the energy of the People’s Protests and redirecting it towards projects of re-legitimising and re-building the state apparatus. 

The GotaGoGama occupation was premised on a central uniting narrative that many could believe in and get behind: that of removing the President from power.  This core demand helped to bring people to the site, and sustain the movement. But at the same time, the driving purpose was so restricted that the movement was not able to evolve beyond this common goal of removing the President from power. The fragile coalitions that constituted the GotaGoGama movement unravelled following the President’s resignation. State forces cleared the protest site by force, and there was little capacity to regroup or re-organise. 

The present government, led by an unelected President (who was appointed by a parliamentary vote until the next elections), has doubled down on the narrative of liberal economic and governance reforms as the quick and easy solution to the economic crisis, and is in the process of implementing them. Alongside such liberal economic reforms (such as the Anti Corruption Bill, tax reforms, domestic debt restructuring. and labour law reforms), the brunt of which are borne by the more vulnerable groups in society, illiberal democratic reforms are also being implemented (such as the Anti-Terrorist Act and the Online Safety Bill, among others). The latter reforms are fast closing down on a democratic space of expression and dissent. The Sri Lankan state and its agents – like us – recognise the threatening political power of the People’s Protests.

Prefiguring abolitionist infrastructures 

Maybe it is because we are stuck in the logic of incremental change, and the circle of pointing out we are stuck in the logic of incremental change traps us again and again and again. The world imprisons our pangs for more, who am I to think my structure of feeling will go untouched by that? Maybe the better question in regard to rebuilding is: where, what, from what, for whom?

Lola Olufemi, Experiments in Imagining Otherwise (2021, p. 14)

Our goal here is not to dismiss the movement as having ‘failed’ because it did not achieve ‘system change;’ nor to romanticise struggle or crisis. Rather, we are interested in the processes through which radical political possibilities are narrowed and foreclosed through the lure of reform; and the ways that we are conscripted into this process.  One of the things we found ourselves reflecting on as we worked through this paper is how the constant demand for political legibility – to articulate “progress” in the terms set by the status quo – is deeply de-radicalising. It is in working to interrupt this common-sense coupling of progress with reform – everywhere we find it – that we hope to find ways to organise more strategically in response to crisis. To actively resist co-optation; to refuse colonial-racial-heteropatriarchal complicity; to take advantage of the crises on our collective horizon. 

Collective protest art, depicting ecocide and other aspects of the protestors’ main slogans.

This work is not new. From Indigenous and anti-colonial liberation struggles; to fledgling abolitionist infrastructures; to internationalist solidarity movements; anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans justice movements; to the current Palestinian Intifada: if we look closely enough, we can see the ways that people all around the world are organising together against the destructive forces of heteropatriarchal colonial racial capitalism. This is experimental work. It comes without a road-map; an ongoing exercise in undoing regimes of oppression; choosing solidarity; widening our political horizons; dreaming freedom for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

One key outcome of the people’s protests in Sri Lanka was how communities formed in the absence of the state, rather, in the failure of the state. Contrary to official narratives on why police were essential to maintain law and order, and prevent a free fall to anarchy, the protestors came to view the police and army as part of the problem. A growing abolitionist impulse among participants saw more and more people recognising the security forces for what they were: an institution premised on racial and class violence, designed to protect the interests of the elite, in the name of “protection” and “justice.” 

Without romanticising protest sites as spaces free from oppressive behaviour or structures (they’re not!), our experience is that protest spaces organised – as Lola Olufemi puts it – around an uncompromising against – can be powerful sites for personal political transformation. On the ground at GotaGoGama, at least in Rajni’s experience, a seemingly unspoken community code maintained the protest site as an inclusive space for many, including women and queer communities. Despite the fact that the protests began around relatively narrow interpretations of the crisis, the protest occupation was a place where organisers and participants came together to try and expand these understandings, to learn and transform with one another. These opportunities were made possible by people coming together and wanting to make things better for themselves, but also for their communities. 

The People’s Protests in Sri Lanka have cracked the carefully-maintained facade of powerlessness, offering a glimpse of the possibilities that come from struggling together against diverse regimes of oppression. The political possibilities that this uprising revealed, and the embodied experience of (tentative, precarious, imperfect) solidarity, have resulted in a collective knowing: that the entrenched structures are not immutable. That we already have the tools and the power to build solidarities beyond imperial categories of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, geography. And that we must commit ourselves to building those solidarities over and again: refusing to accept liberal reform as the entire horizon of political possibility; refusing to barter the promise of progress for some of us against the continued repression, dispossession, and abandonment of others. 

We end then with the invitation to consider whether it is in protest movements themselves – in the heat of the “against” rather than the calm of the incremental ‘better” – that we can find the richest sources of uncompromising solidarity and political transformation. As Palestinian organisers and activists have reminded us over and over: until all of us are free, none of us are free. We have work to do.


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Dr Rajni Gamage is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore since July 2022. Her research focus is on elite politics and the politics of development and inequality in Sri Lanka. Previously, she worked as a researcher in Sri Lanka and in Singapore. She graduated with a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2022. She holds a MSc in International Relations from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Relations, NTU, Singapore and a B.Soc.Sc. in Political Science from the National University of Singapore.

Dr Anna Carlson is a white settler living and working on unceded Yuggera and Turrbal country. She is a community organiser, radio producer, illustrator and writer, and her recent PhD thesis examined the relationship between state surveillance and liberal reform in Queensland during periods of crisis. Anna’s broader and political and intellectual work is concerned with the entanglement of colonisation, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, and the operation of changing regimes of incarceration, enclosure, and liberal “inclusion” in enabling the persistence of colonial power relations into the present.

Feature and essay images courtesy of Rajni Gamage.