Sri Lanka’s ‘picturesque’ protests

There is something wrong with the international coverage of Sri Lanka’s ongoing protests demanding that the ruling Rajapaksa family leave office.

Sri Lanka protests
Buddhist monks take part in a protest against Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, outside the Presidential Secretariat, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 21, 2022 [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

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.

This has largely been the case with the international coverage of Sri Lanka’s ongoing protests demanding that the ruling Rajapaksa family leave office.

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. On a few occasions, a කට්ටඩියා (kattadiya, or an exorcist) came to do an exorcism ceremony to cast out evil demons from the island. They’ve educated each other about the state’s violence against their communities – especially violence targeting the country’s Muslim and Tamil people; Ambika Satkunanathan and others repeatedly noted why Tamil people, especially those in the North and the East could not, without inviting further state surveillance and bodily harm, protest as freely as did the Sinhala in Colombo. They honoured the Tamil victims of the civil war together, and invited the surviving families of those forcibly “disappeared” in the North and the South to speak.

Representatives of various religious organisations also attended the protests to bear witness to the events, and try to offer some protection to protesters from the violence of police, Sri Lankan Armed Forces and extrajudicial groups looking to harm them.

Images of Catholic nuns forming human chains to protect protestors were undeniably potent. So were those showing Catholic and Anglican priests, Muslim imams and maulanas, Hindu priests, and Buddhist monks, all in their religious robes sitting together at Galle Face Beach, chatting and sharing views. Together, they have held vigil, overnight, at the main protest encampment, to stave off stealth attacks.

But these powerful, meaningful images have been used by some news organisations to build reductive, Orientalist narratives about what is going on in Sri Lanka – narratives that focus on Orientalist fantasies about the island rather than the reality on the ground.

Edward Said was the first to show us the two sides of the Orientalist image bank: on the one side, there is the savage other, needing to be violently “settled”; on the other, the picturesque (and often hyper-sexualised) other, devoid of agency and intellect, to be instrumentalised by empire.

The international coverage of Sri Lanka’s protests has been shaped by this two-sided model. This is how protesters demanding change and being attacked by state forces became “mobs”, and the violence wielded by the police, armed forces and the black-clad, masked assassins on motorcycles that the Rajapaksas unleashed became “clashes”. This is also how the images of religious leaders, pretty ceremonies, and even the idealism of a powerful movement – one which has now sustained itself for over a month – become part of an Oriental picturesque.

A case in point: a couple of weeks ago, a representative from BBC Radio 4 Sunday, “a religious and ethical news programme”, contacted me on Twitter, asking for sources. She said she was looking to speak to some of “the religious protestors” and asked whether I could suggest any students who might be able to help.

To begin with, a quick Google search of my name would have shown I don’t teach at a university in Sri Lanka. My research is not focused on religion. I’m far from the best person to ask. I wondered if I should even engage.

When I spoke to Amalini De Sayrah and Marlon Ariyasinghe, who have been on the ground since the early days of the protests, they were ambivalent. But mindful of strategising, writer Vajra Chandrasekera cautiously advised me to “go for it”. Because, he said, “…we could probably use BBC coverage. Even if it’s light, feel-good stuff, that’s better than ‘riots by unruly mobs’ narrative.” He added: “Ordinarily I’d say the opposite but times are rough.”

In my introductory statements to the representative from the BBC Radio 4 programme, I stressed that there were no “religious protesters” as such; rather, representatives of several faiths are attending protests as impartial witnesses, and as sources of protection. I also noted that their presence was not indicative of a simple “kumbaya” situation where everyone is peaceful and getting along, and should not be misrepresented as such. Buddhist monks who are trying to dissuade people from protesting against the Rajapaksas, for example, have also been a feature at sites of protests.

Indeed, recently a few monks set up a small camp by the statue of DS Senanayake in front of the Parliament building, promoting the same ethno-nationalist brand of Theravada Buddhism that successive Sinhala politicians have leaned on in order to portray Tamil, Muslim and Christian people as threats to Buddhism. Vesak celebrations too – as many complained – eventually became less a show of unity, and more of an ostentatious display of Buddhist hegemony that all at the protest had to endure.

Western media outlets should be mindful of their coverage of the Sri Lankan protests being shaped by their preconceptions and expectations about the country. It is time they look beyond the Orientalist picturesque – and baseless demonisation – and focus their attention on the grim reality on the ground in Sri Lanka.

Thousands may die because they lack medicines. A million are already malnourished and near destitution. There’s nothing picturesque about the situation.

Sri Lankans are on Twitter, collectively reporting, organising, challenging each other, and denouncing disinformation, and this is a powerful form of correction. Seeing protesters who withstood monsoon rains, water cannons, tear gas, and government-sponsored thugs continue to speak their truth and repeat their demands for change is a powerful antidote to hopelessness.

But still, the reporters and photographers from the geopolitical West still have the loudest bullhorn. What they report is what the world believes. Sri Lankans today need the global community’s support in their struggle for a better future. It is therefore crucial for the Western media to acknowledge its misrepresentations, and start covering the reality on the ground, rather than pushing old Orientalist narratives.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.