The Southasia Peace Action Network, Sapan, expresses deep concern about the economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the resulting humanitarian emergency caused by prolonged shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Sapan expresses solidarity with the activists who have been working to develop a new, broad-based political culture particularly over the past year. They include women, students, lawyers, journalists, artistes and social activists across ethnic divides. They came together as concerned citizens rising above party politics. Inspired by people’s movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Indian farmers’ movement and Shaheen Bagh, they were developing an alternative vision of Sri Lanka with an emphasis on nonviolence, respect for human rights, democracy, ethnic harmony and creative expression.
This vision has guided the peaceful citizens’ protests being sustained at the Galle Face Green in Colombo since 9 April 2022, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They also demand an end to widespread corruption in government and holding to account all politicians, government officials and advisers whose acts of omission and commission have contributed to the worst economic crisis the island nation has faced since independence in 1948.
This protest inspired smaller solidarity sites in dozens of cities and towns across Sri Lanka, as well as protests by Sri Lankan diaspora members around the world. The epicentre of this protest movement was at Galle Face, which was renamed by protesters as GotaGoGama (Gota Go Home village). All their activities remain consistently peaceful despite an unprovoked attack on 9 May 2022 by several thousand ruling party members and supporters assembled at the Prime Minister’s official residence about a kilometre away.
As has been documented by independent journalists and also being established by on-going criminal investigations, this group was incited against the peaceful protesters and formed into a violent mob that then marched to GotaGoGama and launched a brutal assault on several hundred protesters.
We unreservedly condemn this attack on peaceful protesters and join national and international groups that have called for an impartial investigation on how such mob violence was allowed in the heart of Colombo when a state of emergency was in effect. We are curious and concerned why the police, who were present in large numbers and armed with riot control devices, did not prevent the mob attack.
However, the violence unleashed upon peaceful demonstrators was exploited by vested interests at the local level, leading to government supporters being beaten and humiliated, and the properties of government ministers and ruling elites burnt to the ground.
Amidst all the tension and uncertainty, it is important to note the undercurrent of hope enabled by the active engagement of individuals, organisations and civil society calling for accountability and good governance.
We also note with concern Sri Lanka’s food and nutrition insecurity. The economic crisis, which started in the government debt and foreign exchange markets, has morphed into a generalised economic depression with runaway inflation, lost jobs and livelihoods, shortages of food, fuel, cooking gas, medicines and other essentials.
Food inflation in particular has entered hyperinflationary territory, with the reading for May 2022 at 57.4 percent. People are struggling to find and afford food and cooking gas cylinders. Many families are surviving with smaller portions or fewer meals. There are fears that if the situation does not improve, starvation deaths could occur. This would not just be a humanitarian tragedy, but could lead to further civil unrest. Sapan hopes that the international community steps in urgently to help Sri Lanka.
Members of the Sapan coalition around the region and diaspora stand in solidarity with friends, colleagues and ordinary citizens of Sri Lanka navigating these tribulations.
Sapan also wants to draw attention to the regrettable dysfunctionality of SAARC, a platform that has the potential to apply the regional lens to address crises of the kind that Sri Lanka is experiencing and that impact livelihood needs of citizens. Let us not forget that members of SAARC at one time collectively developed a Citizens SAARC Charter.
June 3, 2022 update: Statement updated to include the urgency of the food insecurity situation.