Sri Lanka’s ‘picturesque’ protests

Publish: 5:16 PM, June 26, 2022 | Update: 5:16:PM, June 26, 2022

Every time there is a crisis in the Global South, Western news organisations parachute their correspondents and photographers in to document the developments. What they report back, however, often ends up being something much different from what locals experience on the ground.
What creates this discrepancy? In most cases, these foreign correspondents and photographers arrive on location with little to no in-depth knowledge of the crisis, culture and locality they have been tasked with covering. Unable to offer a comprehensive report on the issue, they merely focus on capturing the most spectacular images and delivering the hottest takes to make the most of their few seconds on air, or few column inches on the front page.
In March, as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis unfolded, desperate people started gathering in front of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s respective official residences to protest endemic corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in the country. They set up an encampment on the iconic Galle Face Beach in front of the Parliament, which came to be called GotaGoGama (the village demanding that “Gota” – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – resign from office). The Inter University Students’ Federation joined the protests in massive, well-organised rallies. Hundreds of trade unions called a general island-wide strike in support.
As I monitored international media’s coverage of these protests, I quickly recognised some familiar discrepancies often seen in the coverage of such events in the Global South.
Most news sources, for example, initially referred to the people at the GotaGoGama encampment as “protesters”. But as the police and military moved in, deploying tear gas and water cannons, and at times, live bullets against these very same people, rather than describing the events as they are – attacks on protesters by security forces – news reports started referring to what was unfolding as “clashes”.
When members of the Rajapaksa family and their political cronies reportedly bussed in their supporters – themselves destitute people paid a few thousand rupees and bottles of arrack – to attack the protest site and destroy the “village”, reports containing references to “mobs”, “rioters” and “clashes” further proliferated.
As Dilini Algama, a PhD student of English Linguistics at Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen in Germany, noted in a conversation on Twitter, it was always clear who was armed, and who instigated the violence. Yet German news outlets referred to chaos and “unruhen,” which, explained Algama, can also mean “riots”. There was “little to no clarification about the violence of pro-government and pro-Rajapaksa groups, or that tear-gas and water cannon toting military provoked and assaulted protestors”. Moreover, “phrasing the violence as a ‘clash between two groups’ delegitimises the protests and equates people practicing their democratic right to protests with the violence of groups dispatched by the state to intimidate and stop them”, she added. This is nothing unique to Sri Lanka – we often see similar narratives of “clashes” and “riots” in the international coverage of protests and police actions against them across the Global South, most infamously evident in Palestine.
In Sri Lanka’s case, however, the reality of the protests was not only misrepresented through narratives about “clashes”. Due to the island’s colonial past, and the fact that many Europeans – Scandinavians, Germans, Russians and Britons – regularly holiday there, other problematic attitudes that reduce the protests into one-dimensional Orientalist fantasies have also crept into the coverage.
Sri Lanka’s protest movement is idealistic and focused on collective care. Organisers at GotaGoGama, for example, set up a free food station that provides meals for protesters and the destitute, a medical aid tent, and a library, where anyone can come and read books or organise a “People’s University” session hosting discussions on social and political issues. The protesters at the village have been consciously and strategically educating each other, through “teach-outs”, about the conditions that created this economic crisis, and the way successive leaders have used ethno-nationalism to obtain votes and power. They have been working to bring together people who have purposefully, and for political ends, been divided across ethnic, religious, and class divides since Sri Lanka’s independence. The protesters have also put on educational shadow-puppet shows, sung raucous island baila (catchy tunes, often accompanied by cheeky lyrics commenting on social conditions), chanted inventive slogans, and made some of the most hilarious protest posters I’ve ever seen.
In some international news reports, however, these strategic and undeniably effective efforts to bring about change and bring a nation together have been portrayed as youthful naïveté, infantalising the movement and making it look somewhat less serious and impactful than its Western counterparts.
Throughout these protests, people from different religious and ethnic groups, who have been trained to be deeply suspicious of each other, broke fast together during the month of Ramadan, celebrated Easter, and had fun on the Buddhist holiday Vesak.

M Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD), University of Johannesburg (South Africa).