Colombo, Sri Lanka – Residents in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, have turned the streets in front of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s office into a protest camp, outraged by the worsening economic crisis.
Hundreds have remained stranded despite heavy rains since Saturday, saying they would not leave until the president and his powerful brothers resigned.
The waterfront area known as Galle Face Green has some of the most expensive hotels in Colombo, including Shangri-La and Kingsbury. Now, dozens of colorful tents, filled with donations to keep opponents at bay, occupy its meadows and streets.
There are tents for food and water, others for medicine. Portable toilets are also included.
On Thursday, a festive atmosphere prevailed, including the slogan “Go home, Gotha” as a truck carrying large loudspeakers parked in front of the Presidential Secretariat raised anti-government slogans and music.
Vendors selling ice cream and a mixture of pan, betel and papaya, the group of women served evaporating cups of coriander – an herbal infusion – from a large pot over a corner fire.
Men, women and children from various ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka waved the country’s golden lion flag, chanted slogans and carried banners with handwritten messages. Two young men carried placards: “It will end when you see all of you in prison” and “We did not come to see the fun. We are here to reclaim our country.”
On another woman’s cover, “This is the beginning of a new civilization. I am proud to be a Sri Lankan. ”
“The energy here, I never felt it,” said protester Andy Schubert as he watched the crowd chant anti-government slogans. “It’s very encouraging.”
For many in the face of emptiness, this is their first resistance.
Protesters said their patience had been pushed to the limit by the Rajapakse government’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of their economic woes and their inability to pave the way after months of power cuts and queues for fuel and cooking gas.
The crisis caused by the foreign exchange crisis has led to rising inflation and shortages of diesel, petrol and medicines.
No Sri Lankan, rich or poor, can escape its effects.
Residents of Colombo first began protests in early March with small gatherings in their various neighborhoods. One such rally outside the president’s house on March 31 turned violent, prompting Rajapaksa to declare a state of emergency and a curfew. But it led to more struggles in the capital and other cities.
In an attempt to quell the anger, Rajapaksa canceled the emergency and sacked his brother as finance minister. Prior to the bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he appointed a respected economist as the governor of the central bank.
However, vacant lot protesters say they have got enough.
Most of the protesters are from Colombo’s upper and middle class – students, teachers, lawyers, architects and software engineers – who say they want nothing less than “overall system change.”
They say they want qualified new leaders to meet the needs of all Sri Lankans, the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
“In the past, we were divided along ethnic and religious lines and politicians played in those factions to gain and retain power,” said Shyamali Vidanapathirana, a 30-year-old civil servant. The bloody 26-year civil war between Tamil separatists and the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist government.
In 2009, Rajapaksa, the then defense secretary, oversaw the outcome of the conflict. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now the Prime Minister, was then the President.
Many believed that the end of the war, which killed about 100,000 people, would bring peace to Sri Lanka. But it was followed by communal clashes between the Sinhala Buddhist and Muslim communities and occasional riots and violence. Many accuse Rajapakse of using those tensions – especially in the wake of several ISIL-inspired bombings in 2019 – to win that year’s presidential election.
According to Vidanapathirana, such majority politics has resulted in the selection of politicians who act solely for their own gain.
“Eliminating Gota is only one goal,” she said, standing under an umbrella in the rain. “The whole system needs to change.”
In fact, the empty-faced struggles saw “unprecedented” social solidarity, with Buddhist monks and Christian nuns joining. Dozens of anti-Muslim protesters also gathered there in the evening to break their Ramadan fast.
A fasting Muslim woman carrying a plaque addressing the president said, “You divided us to come to power. Now we come together to send you home.
Spontaneous and leadershipless struggles in the vacant lot mark the beginning of a political movement based on religion and ethnicity – analysts say, for the first time in modern Sri Lankan history.
“The economic downturn in Sri Lanka and the anger it has created has created a large, lasting and very broad resistance movement that can be called a non-violent popular uprising,” said senior adviser Alan Keenan. International Crisis Group based in Washington, DC.
“The country, which has been divided on the basis of race, religion and class for decades, has never seen a nationwide movement that includes all communities.”
Many found it encouraging unity, explaining that “Sri Lankans continue to demonstrate enthusiastically in the midst of their daily hardships.”
Despite the apparent unity, the movement is still in its infancy, and it is unclear whether the Colombo opposition will show the diligence and reluctance needed to force Rajapaksa to comply with their demands.
Especially if the government oppresses.
For now, police have only sent a handful of officers to the scene and kept a distance to regulate traffic through the area.
Request for patience
Bakiyasothy Saravanamuthu, founder of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, said the president would not easily resign after facing war crimes charges for the military’s brutal tactics at the end of the civil war.
“Perhaps the reason is that he is fighting for his political career, which is real and metaphorical, because if he goes, he loses any kind of protection that he could get from being a head of state.
“I expect the president to launch an interim government, and I hope the deal with the IMF will fix things, and thus disperse the protests.”
The president has not yet commented on the protesters’ demands, but his allies have insisted he will not resign. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has appealed to the protesters to be patient.
In his first public appearance since the outbreak of the protests, the prime minister on Tuesday reminded the public of his role in ending the war and of the highways and ports he built as president from 2005 to 2015.
He also said his government would address the economic crisis soon.
“Every minute you fight in the streets, we miss the opportunity to earn dollars for the country,” he added.
In the face of emptiness, many were agitated by the Prime Minister’s comment.
Ibn Masood Akmal Sofia, who said her husband was looking for work in the United Arab Emirates due to the financial crisis, said he knew how to bring money to Sri Lankans, but the government should resign first.
“I’m three months pregnant, but my husband has to leave so we can survive,” she said. “They destroyed everything. We have to change the government and then we can get the dollars,” he said.
Rashmika Fernando, an architect and father of three, echoed this sentiment.
“We have the professionals, we have the resources, we have the strategy. We know how to fix this. The president should resign,” he said. “No one wants to work with this government.
Many protesters said they knew it would be a long struggle and were ready to be on the streets for as long as possible.
Rashani Perera, a 29-year-old lawyer, said: “We are here for democracy. We will be on the street as long as they are in power.
Analysts said that in order for the movement to establish itself, it must expand its reach and begin working with existing unions, including the unions and the Sajid Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).
In turn, political parties must also show courageous leadership, they said.
Premadasa, who lost by a landslide to Gotabhaya Rajapakse in the last presidential election, has vowed to launch a campaign to oust the president, but it is unclear whether such a motion could secure a two-thirds majority.
Despite 40 legislators recently withdrawing support for the ruling coalition, Rajapakse’s party and its allies are still in significant numbers.
“The political struggle launched by the opposition movement may be long overdue and it is necessary for the opposition parties to use the energy and shock of the Rajapaksas and its support organizations more courageously,” said Keenan of the Crisis Committee. .
If the main opposition SJB and coalition parties fail to present a strong and clear alternative to Gotabhaya’s leadership by forming a new government, pressing for the abolition of the executive presidency and resolving the economic crisis, there is a danger that the golden opportunity for democratic political change will be missed. In the distance. “