Aragalaya has become part of Sri Lanka’s political lexicon, and often figures prominently in parliamentary debates, too, as it did on Thursday (23). It came to an end on 22 July 2022, when the STF, the Army and the Air Force launched a pre-dawn joint operation to clear the Presidential Secretariat and the Galle Face Green of anti-government protesters, but it continues to be in the news with attempts being made in some quarters to revive it; the government is doing everything in its power to quell all protests lest they should snowball into another popular uprising. Prominent among those who are trying to give the kiss of life to Aragalaya is former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Those who claim to be the architects of Aragalaya are however at loggerheads.

National Freedom Front leader and former Rajapaksa loyalist, Wimal Weerawansa, MP, told the parliament on Thursday (23) that it was the UNP that had pitched the very first tent at the Aragalaya site on Galle Face Green, the implication of his claim being that Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the UNP leader, had a hand in engineering the uprising that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe had supported Aragalaya even after becoming the Prime Minister, but lost no time in crushing it following his election by the parliament as President, Weerawansa claimed.

Weerawansa has made a very serious allegation against the UNP and President Wickremesinghe although it did not receive much media attention. The gist of his claim is that there was a conspiracy, where the UNP orchestrated Aragalaya to achieve its political goal and then resorted to force to neutralize it.

What really happened?

The Galle Face protest movement, which came to be dubbed Aragalaya remains an enigma to many. It was the Sri Lanka version of Arab Spring. When it began as a leaderless gathering of a motley crowd of protesters who turned it into a carnival of sorts complete with musical shows, movies, street dramas, art and book exhibitions, etc., not many expected it to lead to the ouster of the SLPP government, much less President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former combat officer known for his ruthlessness. Speculation in the political circles was that it would fizzle out like the Occupy Wall Street protest, which lasted from Sept. 17 to Nov. 15, 2011 in New York City with hundreds, if not thousands, of angry American youth protesting and demanding a system overhaul.

What paved the way for Aragalaya was public resentment due to unbearable hardships caused mainly by the shortages of some essential commodities such as petrol, diesel, cooking gas, kerosene and milk powder besides unprecedented power cuts. Farmers’ protests against a severe shortage of fertilizer and other agrochemicals also contributed to Aragalaya. In fact, when irate farmers in faraway places threatened to march on Colombo unless the government made fertilizers available urgently, nobody took them seriously because it was thought that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not allow mass protests to be held in Colombo. The protesting farmers were perhaps inspired by their Indian counterparts’ successful protest campaign, which was in progress at the time.

The JVP was behind the farmers’ agitations, and on one occasion even former President Maithripala Sirisena, who was on good terms with the Rajapaksa family at the time, met a group of rice growers protesting in his home district, Polonnaruwa, and pledged solidarity with them much to the consternation of the SLPP government.

Hirunika sets ball rolling

Nobody dared take on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, given his military background. He was blamed for a brutal military crackdown on a protest staged by a group of villagers at Rathupaswala, in August 2013, against groundwater pollution caused by a glove factory in the area. The army beat and shot protesters, leaving three protesters dead and many others hospitalized.

Hirunika has an axe to grind with the Rajapaksa family, especially Gotabaya, who as the Defense Secretary, was accused of siding with Duminda Silva following a shootout, which killed her father Baratha Lakshman Premaratne during a local government elections campaign in 2011. She and dozens of other SJB women activists held a protest near President Rajapaksa’s private residence in Mirihana on March 05, 2022, and emboldened others to follow suit.

A group of persons who organized themselves via social media held a protest at the Mirihana junction on March 31, 2022, and later marched towards President Rajapaksa’s residence, where more people gathered in support of the protest. Towards midnight, protesters grew aggressive and clashed with the police, and it is believed that some ultra-leftist political elements led the attacks on the police and the army. About 15 protesters were arrested, and many anti-government agitations erupted across the country, some protesters converged on Galle Face Green a few days later.

Rajapaksas’ reading of Aragalaya

The Rajapaksas had a firm hold on power when Aragalaya got underway, and all state intelligence agencies, the armed forces and the police were under their command. So, they were privy to all classified information about the protest movement, especially those who were behind it. What is their reading of the phenomenal protest?

National Organizer of the SLPP and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, in an interview with Hiru TV on Feb. 06 2023, claimed that there had been a large number of groups behind Aragalaya. (The interview is available at He specifically mentioned that some religious groups had had a hand in it and they, according to him, included, born-again Christians, those who were hurt by the government’s decision to have all Covid-19 victims cremated, those who were affected by the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, farmers demanding fertilizer and members of the public protesting against economic hardships. He also said there had been some destructive forces among the protesters, advancing a Pol Potist agenda.

Basil recalled that there had been popular uprisings against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Mohamed Gaddafi in Libya, which boasted a robust social welfare scheme. He, however, ducked the questions about the failure of the defense authorities to act swiftly to prevent the SLPP supporters’ attack on the Galle Face protesters and retaliatory violence, which led to the killing of an SLPP MP and the destruction of many houses belonging to SLPP politicians. He said a high-level committee had been appointed by President Rajapaksa to probe the incidents and it had handed over its report. He said he was not aware of its findings or recommendations. He also gave an evasive answer when he was asked whether President Rajapaksa had been aware that some western powers were behind the Galle Face protest.

The committee, appointed by President Rajapaksa to probe alleged lapses on the part of the state intelligence agencies, the Police and the Armed Forces during the mass anti-government protests and violent incidents across the country on May 09 and 10, 2022, handed over its report to President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Sept. 08 2022, and a copy of it was submitted to the Court of Appeal on Feb. 24 2023. The committee has recommended that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) probe former Army Commander General taking necessary action to prevent the violence and arson attacks on the SLPP MPs’ houses.

The committee consisted of Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda (Chairman), Marshal of the Air Force Roshan Gunathilake and General R. M. Daya Ratnayake.

The report has said Gen. Silva in his capacity as the Chief of Defense Staff, failed to communicate the orders issued by the Secretary to the Defense Ministry to the relevant officials in order to quell the violence.

Aragalaya hijacked?

It is claimed in some quarters that several western powers supported the organizers of Aragalaya in various ways because the Rajapaksa administration was considered pro-Chinese. Today, thanks to the ouster of that regime, Sri Lanka is under the western influence of influence and dependent on the US-dominated IMF for economic assistance. The aforesaid claim therefore cannot be dismissed out of hand as baseless although there is no irrefutable evidence to prove its veracity.

Contrary to Weerawansa’s innuendo that the UNP had been playing a leading role in the Galle Face protest movement from the inception, the fact that Aragalaya was initially formless and leaderless and those who took part in it were opposed to all political parties was evident from their slogan that all 225 MPs had to go home together with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was why JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said in the parliament that leaderless protests were a danger to society! His party later infiltrated Aragalaya and managed to control a section of protesters.

There is reason to believe that political parties moved in later and tried to take over Aragalaya, but did not succeed fully and had to settle for pockets of support of varying sizes. All of them are now claiming credit for the ouster of President Rajapaksa but silent on the fact that Wickremesinghe became the main beneficiary of their struggle, and are therefore responsible for what they accuse the incumbent government of doing—the suppression of democracy, the postponement of local government elections for political reasons, unconscionably high taxes and tariffs, divestiture of state assets, etc.





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