ECONOMYNEXT – Thousands of Sri Lankans plan to march into Colombo on Saturday July 09 demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government, and despite police throwing a spanner in the works by imposing a surprise curfew Friday evening, organisers are determined to go ahead.
Protestors had planned to congregate in the heart of the capital and occupy the Colombo Fort area adjacent to the President’s House, forcing him to finally step down after nearly four months of vociferous, nationwide demands for his departure.
Sri Lanka’s youth-led anti-government protests, launched in late March, have been largely leaderless, but several organisations and groups have come to represent the movement over the past few months, though not without allegations of indirect opposition party involvement.
One of the organisers of Saturday’s planned events, Nipun Tharaka, said the curfew will not stop them.
“This is Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s handbook. We came to the streets last time. He can expect the same tomorrow. We’re not afraid of their guns, tear gas or their water canons. Hit us or kill us, we’re ready,” he said.
“We joined the protest prepared to sacrifice ourselves, and that has not changed. We are ready,” he repeated.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has come out strongly against the curfew order, noting that it is illegal and that the police have no authority to impose such a curfew.
Chaminda Dias, another protestor, said soon after the news broke about the curfew: “We will go ahead. I’m seething right now. What a spineless coward.”
The curfew, imposed in seven police divisions across Colombo, has been imposed “until further notice”, and police said anyone living within those boundaries must stay indoors. Violating the curfew, police said, will be considered disturbance of the peace.
Udara Prasad, 27, from the central district of Kandy, left his three sisters and mother for the protests, mainly to “fight for his sister’s future.”
“We are seasoned protestors now, used to tear gas and water canons. So shoot us, disperse us; we will come back stronger. Last time, it was the same story, as it will be this time. Now that we have experience on the battlefield, we are coming back stronger,” said Prasad.
If the protest proceeds as planned, both the youth participants and some opposition parties will engage in separate protests demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the rest of the government.
Sri Lanka is in the throes of the worst economic crisis in its 74-year post-Independence history, with unprecedented forex shortages leading to crippling shortages of essentials including fuel. The ongoing protests, referred to as the Aragalaya (or struggle), which began in late March culminated in an Occupy Wall Street-style permanent agitation site named GotaGoGama (Gota Go Village) right outside the presidential secretariat near Galle Face, Colombo.
The protests had remained peaceful until things took a turn when supporters of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa launched an unprovoked attack on peaceful protestors at GotaGoGama (GGG) and its sister site MynaGoGama (aimed at the then PM) on May 09, which triggered a storm of retaliatory mob violence against government ministers, MPs and their backers. One ruling party MP was killed.
The Galle Face protests subsequently reduced in intensity and crowd strength, particularly following incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickermesinghe’s replacement of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but skyrocketing commodity prices and a worsening fuel situation that’s resulted in miles-long queues for petrol have seen a quiet resurgence of public anger against the government.
Organisers expect Saturday’s protest to revitalise the Argalaya.
Sarika Siriwardhane, founder of Yellow for Democracy, said trains will be coming from Kandy with protestors, but it is unclear at present how the curfew will affect these plans.
“Some protestors started walking from Kurunegela to Colombo on Thursday. This is also seen as the End Game, having one final push to remove President Rajapaksa. The date was chosen as it marks two months since the May 09 incident,” she said, Friday morning.
Sri Lankans abroad will also be joining the protest from their cities in support of the movement, particularly in countries like Canada, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.
One protestor, who is a celebrity actor and a known affiliate of the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National Peolpe’s Power (NPP), Jagath Manuwarana, told EconomyNext on Friday that the organisers have reached outto all political parties who he said have expressed their support in urging the president to step down.
“Mutual agreements have been made with these parties. Upon sending Rajapaksa home, they can resume their own political agendas,” he said.
Government members have accused the leftist JVP and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) of being behind some of the retaliatory violence on May 09, an allegation both partie have flatly denied. Some other protestors have also complained of the Aragalaya being “hijacked” by parties with vested interests, pointing in particular to the Inter University Student Federaton (IUSF) widely seen as being affiliated with the FSP.
The IUSF organised a protest march to Colombo on the eve of the July 09 mass agitation, as a curtain raiser for Saturday’s event. The march came under heavy police teargas fire Friday afternoon as the protest intensified.
The authorities, meanwhile, continue to warn against possible outbreaks of violence on Saturday, but the organisers say they’re determined to keep the proceedings free of incident.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung asked both sides to act peacefully. Violence is not the answer, she tweeted Friday afternoon.
Violence is not an answer. If you are going to protest, please do so peacefully. And reminding military & police to grant peaceful protesters the space and security to do so. Chaos & force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now.
— Ambassador Julie Chung (@USAmbSL) July 8, 2022
Resident Coordinator for UN Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy echoed similar sentiments.
The people of #SriLanka are suffering & have a right to protest peacefully to demand a better life. Important for police & armed forces to act with utmost restraint. Protestors should also remain peaceful. https://t.co/4hN8cZfmie
— Hanaa Singer-Hamdy (@SingerHanaa) July 8, 2022
Fr Jeewantha, a Catholic priest who has become a face of the GotaGoGama agitation site, said: “People assume there will be violence because of the numbers turning out and news about the protest has circulated on social media. We have always been protesting peacefully and will continue to do so.”
Organisers expect a crowd of 60,000 protestors that will occupy Fort and sine 40,000 rolling in protestors that will come and go from the site.
Nuzly Hameem, civil activist and active protestor at GotaGoGama said: “The people are angry, overall people are angry and frustrated over the turn of events with the government.”
W P Harin, 26, said the fight isn’t over yet.
“This country is ours, ours to live in, ours to fight for. Just because some goon imposed curfew doesn’t mean the fight stops. It means the battle begins,” he said. (Colombo/Jul08/2022)