It started with the farmers. They were the first to protest after an April 2021 decree by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Sri Lanka’s president, demanding that they switch to organic farming. The sudden change came as the country’s foreign exchange crisis began to manifest itself, and by stopping the use of chemical fertilizers, Rajapaksa was trying to reduce the import bill. Rice farmers began to express their concerns when the yala season, the first in the cultivation calendar, came upon them in May. By the time of the second season or maha in September, farmers had started going out into the hinterland, trying to make their voices heard.
Aragalaya, the Sinhalese word for “struggle”, is widely used to describe the daily gathering of people at Galle Face Green in Colombo that began with demands that Gotabaya step down as president and make way for a new dispensation, even ” a new system”. That rally marked 100 days on July 17, after forcing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign on May 9, and two months later sending his brother Gotabaya to flee.
But it had started months before in the hinterland, forcing the government to backtrack on the ban on chemical fertilizers and allow the import of ammonia-based fertilizers. In its essential sense, aragalaya also captures the struggle of every Sri Lankan to find food, fuel and medicine on a daily basis, bringing them all together in a ‘janatha aragalaya’ – the struggle of one people. It has been mostly leaderless, although some people have occasionally spoken on behalf of the group. He also used social media to relay his messages.
As the Parliament of Sri Lanka vote on Wednesday for a new president, some sections of the aragalaya – which attracted the participation of a wide range of people, from students to professionals, from unions to Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – sent the signal that they would not accept a leader who fights for the status quo. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the interim president and election favorite, is unacceptable to the aragalaya.
In the eyes of these sections, he represents the old regime. An appointed MP, without a single elected parliamentarian from his party, Wickremesinghe not only depends on the votes of Sri Lankan parliamentarians Podujana Peramuna — the Rajapaksa party — but is also seen by protesters as someone who will protect the discredited and ousted from former rulers, and could even enable Gotabaya’s return to Sri Lanka.
In May, after Gotabaya appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, the aragalaya lost some momentum. But as shortages deepened and anger spread, it took a second breath, culminating in the July 9 protests that led to Gotabaya’s resignation. At that time, Wickremesinghe was tagged as “Ranil Rajapaksa”.
The occupation of Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence, and the arson of his private residence were two signs that there would be no easy transition. The hope that people would return home after Gotabaya’s resignation did not materialize. If Wickremesinghe is elected, the aragalaya could continue, perhaps in new and different ways, and with greater involvement of the political parties that oppose him.