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Chamalie PM Gunawardane, PhD candidate
Faculty of Social Work, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. lecturer, Dept of Sociology, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Defending the rights of citizens and movements against political atrocities

It is not always armed conflicts and natural disasters that nullify the voice of the people, the rights of the people, it can also be severe political corruption that affects the voice of the people. The power of a corrupt government can affect the daily lives of millions of people in a country. The year 2022 was a remarkable year for the people of Sri Lanka. The corrupt politicians and family-led politics have shaken up the people of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans around the world who have raised the call for a change in the system that will bring a better daily life to millions of Sri Lankans. The years 2019, 2020 and 2021 were challenging for the entire globe with the Covid 19 pandemic.

Each nation took their own precautions to combat Covid while ensuring that they followed the global guidelines of WHO. The Government of Sri Lanka and its administration were heard and seen taking action to combat the spread of Covid. It was also heard that the corrupt Sri Lankan government was not accountable for the management of medicines and equipment received from various parties such as donations from various organisations.During the same period, the newly elected President of Sri Lanka, Gotabhaya Rajapakshe (2019 to 2022 July), made a sudden decision to stop the import of chemical fertilizers in agriculture and promised that Sri Lanka would move to organic agriculture. This decision came so quickly that Sri Lankan farmers were not ready to accept this change. Therefore, Sri Lankan farmers started protesting all over the country, leading to a future food crisis in the country. The same government failed to ensure a healthy and safe daily life for the people of Sri Lanka, which led to the people's movement against the government, the executive power of the president and the undemocratic parliament. The geographical place called Galle Face was the main venue where thousands and thousands of Sri Lankans of all generations gathered, while many other protests were organised to raise the voice of the people against the atrocities committed by the government.

March, April, June and July were the toughest and most intense months experienced by the citizens of Sri Lanka as the government began to suppress young people and leaders of movements against this corrupt government. It tried to suppress the voice of the people with the help of the military by abducting young activists without any legal recourse. While the global news focused on the economic and political crisis in the country, showing the long queues for petrol, food and gas and how people were fighting to remove the government, including the president, many did not notice the political atrocities against those who were vocal in their opposition to the government. The media showed how the citizens of Sri Lanka raised their voices against this political corruption in Sri Lanka and around the world, even though there were instances where many lost their right to speak, their right to protest peacefully and their right to be loud against the undemocratic administration of the country. All military forces, including the Sri Lanka Police, defied the voice of the people and the right to movement by using the power of their uniforms and the orders of their higher authorities. People died while standing in queues for days to get fuel, food and other daily necessities. Schools were closed while the entire economic system was heading towards a crisis from which the Sri Lankan public could see no way out. The Prime Minister resigned, the President resigned, giving the people of Sri Lanka an even more difficult time as the new Prime Minister and the new President were appointed against the will of the people and against the people's right to vote.

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Political repression continued, leaving the people of Sri Lanka vulnerable in many ways. Impoverishment increased and continues to trouble many people today as they have lost their daily income. Construction activity has come to a standstill, for which there are two main reasons. Either people lack the necessities, or they cannot afford the necessities because the prices of all goods in the market have increased. As social workers, we unceasingly believe in people's freedom of choice and their voice. This political atrocity abolishes these foundations of social work education and practice. It also abolished the right of citizens to assemble and raise their voices. Social justice had completely disappeared. Those who spoke out on social media were kidnapped and arrested, they could no longer ask for the support of the media or lawyers to seek support. Many parties, including academics, legal institutions and international organisations such as the Human Rights representative in Sri Lanka, called on the government to end the oppression, but the despotic government did not listen to them. At the time I am writing this article, people's right to expression and right to movement is still being suppressed in Sri Lanka. The People's Movement was a truly democratic movement in Sri Lanka's political history, in which people with different political, ideological, cultural and social beliefs and orientations came together for a common goal. It was directed against the rotten political order that had prevailed in Sri Lanka for many decades. It was a call to reclaim the promise of democratic politics and demand a new political culture where the political class is accountable to the people who elected them. Social work believes in people power and this people power has been constantly suppressed by the undemocratic government of Sri Lanka. Wiretapping of those who opposed the government and spoke out seriously against it was common during this period.

Why as a social worker I should defend the rights of citizens and movement against political atrocities. As an academic and a student of social work, I believe in the rights of all people. This people's movement that took place in Sri Lanka in 2022 really shows that Sri Lankans are one, without all differences - class, caste, gender, age, religion.The movement has been open to all from the beginning, regardless of race, religion or other identifications and affiliations. Anyone can join the movement, occupy protest sites and find their own way to contribute to the struggle so that they feel part of the movement. The movement does not aim to homogenise, but mobilises people's different subjectivities and ways of expressing their rejection of the regime and creating a responsible political culture.

The internal democracy of these protests shows that ordinary citizens are able to mobilise different means to challenge power more successfully than traditional political parties. Inter-ethnic unity thwarted all attempts by the government to portray and suppress the movement as being led by anti-national and extremist elements, providing a historically unprecedented opportunity for conversations about cultivating an inclusive as opposed to a racist nationalism. The movement is led by the common agenda against the common enemy and the political culture it represents. Inter-ethnic unity thwarted all government attempts to portray and suppress the movement as being led by anti-national and extremist elements, and provided a historically unprecedented opportunity for conversations about cultivating an inclusive as opposed to a racist nationalism. The movement is led by a common agenda against the common enemy and the political culture it represents.Unlike traditional political movements that mobilise people through centralised, pre-planned and tightly regulated political party activities, the civic movement is an open, spontaneously evolving and culturally decentralised space that lacks central leadership. The movement is non-hierarchical, which means that everyone can express their anger, concerns and goals through media such as music, art, cultural rites or comedy. The movement has a clear form and well-defined mechanisms to identify and address undesirable elements and influences inside and outside the protest sites. The People's Movement has developed a concrete agenda for press conferences, protest marches and awareness programmes. These well-planned and meticulously executed actions overwhelmed the state's propaganda and military machinery. It was literally a movement of 'people standing up for people'.

Mutual aid was another progressive feature of the people's movement, this time in Sri Lanka. Awe-inspiring mechanisms of mutual aid enable multi-ethnic cooperation in public places of protest suffering acute economic hardship. In his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, anarchist Petr Kropotkin (Kropotkin, 2020) described the social power of mutual aid as an important feature of the movement in Sri Lanka:

"In short, neither the cursing powers of the centralized state nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply logged in [humans] understandingand heart, because it has been nurtured by all preceding evolution. Such solidarity is not simply a means for existence, but it struggles against all conditions unfavorable to people".

He also suggests that "mutual aid breaks down the rigid and iron laws of the state and seeks instead seeks to rebuild society with an infinite number of associations which embrace all aspects of life to take possession of all that is required by humans for life". People were more connected to their own community than to the oppressive political systems What we can do as social work representatives and what we can learn from the people and how we can defend the rights of the people's voice and movement. I like to quote Vito Flaker in his article on 'Social Work: A Science of Doing' to understand what the role of a social worker is in a society where people expect change for a better everyday life, where people stand up for their political rights. Bill Jordan believes that social work is not necessary to maintain what exists. He also says that social work is not needed where routines are established, where forms have to be filled in, where procedures are set and have to be followed.

Social work is needed where change is needed, where the need is so great that people can no longer cope, where change is taking place and we need support to better manage the process, where change has taken place and we need to learn to live with it, or when there is a possibility that change will occur and we want to prepare for it or prevent it" (Flaker, 2016) Flaker goes on to say that dialogue, to quote Freire, is one of the most important tools in social work. It literally means talking (the matter) through (and thinking it through) (Flaker, 2016) This clearly shows where social workers should stand when people need change and that academics and social work practitioners recognise the right of people to raise their voices for better changes that they deserve. Sri Lankans deserve a better life and they have the right to raise their voices.I conclude my article by emphasising the importance of defending human rights against the political atrocities that disrupt their daily lives. I urge readers to stand up for people's rights and raise their voices against these kinds of corrupt politics around the world that we do not see in the mainstream media.


Flaker, V. (2006). 'Social work as a science of doing: in the praise of a minor profession' in Von der Idee zur Forschungsarbeit: Forschen in Sozialarbeit und Sozialwissenschaft, V. Flaker & T. Schmid, T. eds Böhlau Verlag , Wien.
Jayasuriya, D. (2022, August 22). Sri Lanka: people’s power unleashed. The Round Table, 111(4), 532-533. doi: doi-org.nukweb.nuk.uni-lj.si
Kropotkin, P. (2020). Mutual Aid: An Illuminated Factor Of Evolution. Illustrated by N.O. Bonzo. Oakland, CA: PM Press.