ECONOMYNEXT – It was not easy for Nuzly Hameem, a 28-year-old civil engineer, to face reality after a long spell as one of the key figures in Sri Lanka’s historic Aragalaya (Struggle) protests that ousted former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July this year.
He had to sacrifice his lucrative job for the protest that lasted five months before the protestors dispersed in August.
He has been seeking a job that suits his degree obtained at the University of the West of England.
“Well, life has been hard for a long time now, especially since I had to leave my job due to various reasons,” Hameem told EconomyNext before participating in a token protest on October 27 to warn President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.
“Five months into unemployment, I have literally spent all my savings. I have applied for more than 200 job applications, most of them aren’t in the construction field because the industry is dead due to the economic crisis.
“I got only three interview calls. They all said they cannot afford the remuneration I was seeking. What they offered is not sufficient to live in current conditions,” he said.
Hameem has witnessed the arrest of over a dozen of his colleagues who protested with him over various allegations after President Wickremesinghe took over the government. He has not been arrested yet, but has faced frequent questioning from police, he says.
The Aragalaya protestors successfully ousted four Rajapaksa brothers: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, and Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa – and their second-generation law makers – Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa and state agricultural minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa.
Many of the protest leaders who unseated the powerful Rajapaksas are suffering due to legal actions.
Some of them are undergoing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while some even attempted to commit suicide, close allies of protesters say.
“I tried to quit myself. I haven’t been myself lately, personally or professionally. It’s been very tough going with everything happening around me,” Hameem tweeted on October 13.
Many of the protesters have lost their jobs and some have said companies are not considering them suitable for jobs because of their involvement in the protest movement.
The protest leaders including those affiliated with political parties and non-political groups are now living in fear due to the arrests and alleged acts of intimidation.
Their forceful removal from the protest site near the Presidential Secretariat adjacent to the Galle Face Green was internationally criticised as a violation of the protestors’ basic rights.
Three protesters were detained under controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a law which the international community wants scrapped on the grounds that it allegedly violates the rights of detainees. One of the three detainees was released last week.
The use of the PTA has created fear among the protesters.
“Engaging in protests has limited my freedom as human, a citizen and a professional,” Melanie Gunathilaka, an environmental activist who was part of the anti-government protest, told EconomyNext.
Gunathilaka was arrested on September 24 over alleged illegal assembly but was given police bail after one day behind bars.
“While I was in custody as a suspect, I was treated like a criminal. It is not fair to punish people when they are only suspects and have not gone through the judiciary process… I don’t feel safe in my country anymore,” she said referring to the twin attacks on anti-government protesters on May 9 and July 22.
“I experienced what it feels to be scared and being insecure in my own country.”
The new government after the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is concerned about the way forward for the protesters.
In the five months from March to July, protesters started the agitation in isolation, mainly in select places in and around Colombo. But it spread throughout the country after protesters were brutally attacked by police when they tried to reach Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence on March 31.
The attack allowed the protesters to create a tipping point using Rajapaksa’s policy lapses in the economy, agriculture, and supply of essentials like fuel, cooking gas, kerosene, milk powder and medicines.
The protesters built the moment to bring mostly middle-income earners across the country to Colombo to oust Rajapaksa and they succeeded on July 09.
“The current government is worried about the apolitical protesters establishing a political party in the long run,” a politician from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) told EconomyNext.
“If the protesters continue as an apolitical force, that will be a disaster for all the main political parties in the future because nobody is ready to trust any minister or politician yet.”
Preventing a future protest will be a daunting task for any government given the worsening economic crisis amid increased taxes and stubbornly high inflation. The youthful protesters are now planning to take on the government after a lapse of three months.
“Occupancy is done but we are continuing the struggle,” Jeewantha Pieris, a pastor and protest leader who also was arrested after Wickremesinghe came into power, told reporters at last week’s protest in Colombo referring to the next phase of the campaign.
“Everyone is struggling and there is a limit to how much we can bear, which is why the people and the struggle are returning.”
The protesters have mainly demanded a change in governance, demanding a “system change” with no corruption. However, Wickremesinghe has so far failed to change any governance system significantly, analysts say.
B P Udara, a leading protester who was chanting slogans against the government during the “Occupy Galle Face” protest said the protester took a break because “everyone said to give Wickremesinghe a chance”.
“We gave him his trial period and now we are stepping up and coming out again. The cost of living is rising, there are no jobs, and we don’t feel safe in our country,” Udara said at the protest last week that was organised as a warning to the government.
“To reclaim all that and live in the country we once were, it’s time to come back onto the streets.”
Hameem also warned that bullets and guns will not scare them as they have already “managed to send Gotabaya Rajapaksa home”.
“For three months we took a nice nap, we took a good rest. But today is the day your countdown starts Ranil Wickremesinghe,” he warned.
“You either stop oppression and dissolve the Parliament or else pack your bags right away.” (Colombo/Oct31/2022)