Students and young people in Sri Lanka played a key role in unseating the country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, through a peaceful struggle, with young people being described as the ‘heartbeat’ of the movement.
The president’s resignation was formally announced on Friday morning and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, sports minister Namal Rajapaksa and minister Chamal Rajapaksa, all members of the Rajapaksa Family, had to step down from their posts due to unprecedented political events over the past few months.
These included street protests and the occupation of government buildings including, most emblematically, the Presidential Palace, the Presidential Secretariat and the prime minister’s office. Global TV audiences were beamed extraordinary scenes of protesters streaming into the buildings, some taking a dip in the president’s swimming pool, and of the prime minister’s house set ablaze.
The outcome of the huge protests in recent weeks was described by many as “unimaginable” as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country on Thursday, landing first in the Maldives and then flying on to Singapore, sending a message of resignation by e-mail on the same day, although the legality and authenticity of the e-mail was still being examined on Thursday night.
The popularity of the Rajapaksa family began to decline with the intensification of the economic crisis, in particular after the Ukraine invasion in February which led to a shortage of fuel on top of other economic woes.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to resign due to mounting pressure from all sectors of society, including students and young people, after waves of protests, which first began in late March with anger against lengthy power cuts and steeply rising prices of key commodities. By June, it had turned into a mass struggle.
Sri Lanka’s Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) is being praised on social media for its contribution to the people’s struggle throughout the country. IUSF has around 70 affiliated student unions – about 95% of university student unions in the country, including those at all major universities. It is said to have played a major role in keeping the protests going.
People who once criticised the student movement and their protests now recognise that the experience and the inspiration gained from their many years of struggle were important to this people’s struggle. Even private university students who have not usually participated in protests and picketing organised by IUSF in the past have come out in support of IUSF.
Youth and students, including the IUSF, played a similar key role in 2015 to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, upending the so-called ‘unshakeable’ Rajapaksa regime during elections that year.