ECONOMYNEXT – Since May 9, Sri Lanka’s protest at the presidential secretariat had been gradually calming down.
The protest started to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was reduced to less than two people at the main ‘struggle area’ in front of the main entrance of the presidential secretariat.
Sometimes, the organizers had to play recordings of shouting slogans to show their presence.
However, political leaders misread the change.
They thought that protests died down after the appointment of seasoned politician Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
Middle income earners and urban dwellers were the most affected during the last two months since Wickremesinghe’s appointment.
They faced severe shortages of fuel and cooking gas, and saw food and transport prices hitting record high levels amid a sharp reduction in their real disposable income.
They had to change their transport mode, food habits, food intake, health and children’s educational expenses.
But political leaders never showed empathy about the suffering of the people in general.
President Rajapaksa, using the space he was given by Wickremesinghe’s appointment, said he did not want to resign as a “failed president” and that he will be the president until his tenure ends.
The president’s statement really angered protesters, most of whom believed Rajapaksa’s incorrect fertilizer and economic policies were the key reasons for the current food shortage and economic crisis.
Wickremesinghe’s frequent announcement of the reality – “the next two weeks will be the toughest” also added to the frustration.
And the announcement of no fuel until July 10 was the biggest shock for the people under the new Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government.
Results were evident on July 9. Tens of thousands of people, mainly middle class Sri Lankans, swarmed to the capital Colombo despite the fuel shortage, demanding the resignation of President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
Under the slogan #CountryToColombo, people from all over the island converged at the GotaGoGama (GGG) protest site which was set up three months prior on April 09.
Trains and buses were filled with people dressed mainly in black, chanting battle cries now familiar to all Sri Lankans.
Most of them chanted “Though Gota asked don’t, we came to Colombo”, referring to a sudden police curfew imposed the previous night and lifted at 0800 hours on July 9 amid pressure from the hundreds of lawyers who argued that there was nothing called “police curfew” under the law.
Some crowds came in trucks and lorries. Vehicles stopped to pick up strangers who were walking to the protest site. Not even a debilitating fuel crisis stopped the ocean of people who were all on the way to Galle Face, ready to give a final roaring push to protests that had been largely peaceful and non confrontational.
By around 10 am, there was a large crowd at the GotaGoGama site. Organized groups, families, groups of friends and individuals trickled in. The arrival of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka caused a stir among the protestors.
“Even though you wear the uniform, in your heart, stay with the people,” Fonseka, the war winning army commander, urged the security forces who were ready to struggle with protesters if they breached into the presidential palace.
His words were met with great cheer and people rushed to shake hands or take photographs.
Elsewhere, the protestors from the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) started to get tear gassed by the security forces. A voice on the speaker asked the crowds at GotaGoGama to go to their assistance, and protesters rushed to show extra support to their fellow comrades.
By 11 am, the real crowds started saturate in the main protest site.
The statue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranayke in front of the Chinese-owned Shangri-La hotel saw a tidal wave of people covering the whole of Galle Road, making their way to the protest site. For such a massive crowd, there was a strange hush in the air with everyone anticipating something historic to take place.
The security in the Presidential Secretariat was also beefed up. Armored, gas masked soldiers and the Special Task Force with riot shields formed an unbroken line in the garden as well as on the steps of the building.
GGG is tear gassed
The mood sobered up with the arrival of two water cannon trucks, but it proved a minor distraction for the crowd, as many of them were now seasoned protestors.
The first tear gas attack on GotaGoGama began at around 11.30 am. For some time, it was chaos, but rather than being cowed, protestors were enraged, and moved forward through the haze of gas to dismantle the barriers on the road that was leading to the central bank and the presidential palace.
The tear gas was ceaseless and protestors started hurling plastic bottles at the soldiers in the Secretariat.
A voice on a loudspeaker pleaded with the protestors “not to fall to their level” and eventually, the bottles stopped being thrown.
Furious chants of “Gota pissek” (Gota is a crazy man), and “Go Home” were chanted as a rallying cry.
Then, through the rain of canisters being thrown at protestors, one flew through the air and landed in the middle of the soldiers in the Secretariat. A protester had bravely lobbed the canister thrown at them like in a climax of a South Indian film.
There was a moment of shock before massive cheers erupted among the protestors.
The soldiers, fazed at first, threw the canister back again, and a strange game of “catch the canister” began.
That was the first victory of the day for the protestors.
The second was the ISUF taking over the water cannon trucks which were ready to disperse the protesters, at around 12.00 noon.
Solitary gunshots were heard shortly after, but protesters were determined and were on the point of no return in their solo mission – ousting President Rajapaksa, by hook or by crook.
There was a frenzy as protestors broke through barriers along Janadhipathi Mawatha. A protester with blood on his face after the clash with security force was rushed away in an ambulance at around 11.54 am.
The last tear gas attack was the most brutal, EconomyNext reporters witnessed, with people coughing and drooling uncontrollably as the gas hit their systems. Many ambulances were seen taking the injured for treatment as thousands of protestors made way for them.
Still the crowd pressed on, and by 12.20 the tear gas attacks subsided, and protestors had taken control of Janadhipathi Mawatha in which both the Central Bank and Presidential Palace are located.
More crowds poured in. Many of the people arriving from Lotus Road in front of the Finance Ministry had been tear gassed.
Fall of the Gates
The first gate at Janadhipathi Mawatha, near the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, was breached at 12.27 pm.
Some protestors climbed over the gates, and after shoving from either side, the first barrier to the President’s Palace was taken down.
The second gate was not breached so easily and multiple rounds of gunfire were heard at approximately 12.41 pm. The shots did not deter the protestors.
Two battalions of security forces attempted to force through the protestors, but the crowd was too large to handle. Near the second gate, protestors on top of the watchtowers and pillars were tear gassed in an attempt to get them to back down.
Some protestors climbed the iron bar fence of the central bank building, but no one was interested in storming the premises.
Nearing the President’s Palace, parts of the road were covered in water from the taps that were broken by protestors looking to wash off tear gas. People were asked to refrain from recording the event as protestors were wary of being identified and targeted.
Storming the Palace
By 1.00 pm, the crowds had entered the President’s official residence through two gates, the side and front. From the entrance hall, people climbed up the staircase and hooted in victory mood. The chandelier was not yet lit and most protestors were still getting their bearings.
“This is our money” protesters said, while some expressed anger after finding that the President had been living a luxury life while the people who elected him died in queues and starved. Protesters cautioned each other to respect the sanctity of the building.
Unanimous, continuous chanting of “Gota Pissek” (Gota is a crazy man) echoed through the walls of the building whose occupants had deserted it, and are still nowhere to be found.
The atmosphere was that of a cricket match stadium and protestors held up National Flags and hung anti-Government banners from balconies.
In the upper floors, protestors inspected every inch of the building.
Some stood on the conference table and held the National Flag.
There were people turning on the numerous air conditioners in the two-century old ancient building.
Some protesters drank king coconuts that were left by Rajapaksa in the Palace kitchen.
In the spacious sitting area, protesters perched on the sofas for a chat while some smoked on the creamy armchairs.
The protesters who were on the front lines and faced tear gas, flopped down to sleep on the presidential bed and floor.
“These bathrooms have AC,” people murmured.
There was amazement, anger, and some laughter about the extravagance with which Rajapaksa had spent his days, just a short distance away from the people who were chanting day and night to oust him for the last 92 days.
Protesters, particularly members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), ran about and urged protesters to stop littering and damaging public property.
A BASL member tried to prevent people from going upstairs, telling them to refrain from unnecessary actions.
There was minimum security in the premises, though some areas were made inaccessible by the Special Task Force.
The floor was strewn with empty biscuit wrappers and pistachio shells in the first 30 minutes after the protesters stormed in. A glass cabinet with china was smashed, but the pottery was intact.
Downstairs, protesters took a picture off of its frame. More glass littered the floor.
Many people ran about in a frenzy, asking protesters to conduct themselves decorously.
By 01.30 pm, people were walking in to observe the palace, and the earlier tension had completely eased.
Some bathed in the Presidential pool with a party around it. Many were seen taking pictures and one protester was seen bathing outside the pool with soap all over his body.
Some had their historic lunch at the Presidential Palace. Small groups dotted about the spacious grounds. The President’s sizable, wildly expensive vehicle collection was looked at with a mixture of awe and anger.
“This is what they’re doing with our money,” protesters said.
A short while after the President’s Residence was taken over, protesters entered Presidential Secretariat building where Sri Lankan presidents held cabinet meetings with ministers.
Then they headed towards Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister.
Heading back from the Presidential Palace was a task and people were simply dragged along by the tide of protesters who arrived en masse to visit the unoccupied official buildings.
There was a distinct taste of victory in the air that evening, but setting Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s private house fire tainted the protesters’ claim of non-violent agitation.
The incident took place after the privately owned Sirasa TV’s journalists were attacked by security forces near Wickremesinghe’s residence, which contained thousands of historical books and artworks.
“Even while storming the palace, we tried to preserve the place. So for the day to end with violence is saddening,” a protester said.
Later, both President through the Speaker and Prime Minister directly announced that they will resign, the key demands of the people’s struggle.
The 92-day protest saw the protesters reaching their goal in the form of promises from the leaders, at the expense of over 100 protesters who were injured that day due to clashes with security forces.
Protesters are still holding on to the President’s Palace, President’s Secretariat and Temple Trees, saying that the places will not be vacated until President Rajapaksa officially hands over his resignation.(Colombo/July 12/2022)