Article by Nilesh Christopher: “On the evening of May 3, the atmosphere at Galle Face Green, an esplanade along the coastline of Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo, was carnivalesque. Parents strolled on sidewalks with toddlers hoisted on their shoulders. Teenagers wearing bandanas played the flute and blew plastic horns. People climbed atop makeshift podiums to address the crowds, greeted by scattered applause.
The crowd of a few hundred was part of a series of protests that had been underway since mid-March, demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For months, the country has been trapped in a brutal economic crisis: Sri Lanka is currently unable to pay for imports of essentials, such as food, medicines, and fuel. Populist tax cuts, an abrupt ban on fertilizer imports, decimated crop yields, and the collapse of tourism during the pandemic all helped to push the country into the worst economic crisis it has faced since gaining independence in 1948.
The island nation owes nearly $7 billion this year and has next to no foreign reserves left. “We don’t have any gas. We don’t have fuel and some food items. We lose power for three to four hours daily now,” Nalin Chamara, 42, a hotelier protesting with his family and children, told Rest of World. Meanwhile, the presidential family at one point controlled around 70% of the nation’s budget and ran it as a family business, spending billions of dollars of borrowed money on vanity projects, such as an extravagant airport and cricket stadium that now sit almost entirely unused.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne walked among the Galle Face Green crowds, surveying the scene. He pointed out where demonstrators had jury-rigged their own electricity supply by welding solar panels atop an open truck and connecting them to a battery. The power generated was being used to charge over two dozen smartphones inside a big blue tent, which also contained a library housing 15,000 books. “This is what Sri Lankans will do if you let them build stuff. Fucking build infrastructure from scratch,” Wijeratne said. The protest featured a giant middle finger monument made of plastic bottles, directed at the Rajapaksas. “Our real educational export should be B.Sc. in protest,” Wijeratne said.
Wijeratne, 29 years old, is best known as the author of Numbercaste, a science fiction novel about a near-future world where people’s importance in society is decided based on the all-powerful Number, a credit score determined by their social circle and social network data. But he is also the chief executive of Watchdog, a research collective based in Colombo that uses fact-checking and open source intelligence (OSINT) methods to investigate Sri Lanka’s ongoing crisis. As part of its work, he and his 12-member team of coders, journalists, economists, and students track, time stamp, geolocate, and document videos of protests shared online.
Watchdog’s protest tracker has emerged as the most comprehensive online archive of the historic events unfolding in Sri Lanka. Its data set, which comprises 597 different protests and 49 conflicts, has been used by global news organizations to demonstrate the extent of public pushback.
“[Our] core mission is simple,” Wijeratne told Rest of World. “We want to help people understand the infrastructure they use. The concrete, the laws, the policies, and the social contracts that they live under. We want to help people understand the causality of how they came to be and how they operate.”…(More)”.