Colombo, Sri Lanka – Angry over a worsening economic crisis, residents of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, have transformed the streets in front of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office into a protest camp.
Hundreds have stayed put there since Saturday despite bouts of heavy rain, saying they will not leave until the president and his powerful brothers resign.
The waterfront area, known as the Galle Face Green, is home to some of Colombo’s most expensive hotels, including the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury. Now, dozens of colourful tents, many filled with donations to sustain protesters, occupy its lawns and streets.
There are tents for food and water, and others for medicine. Portable toilets have also been brought in.
On Thursday, a carnival atmosphere prevailed as a truck carrying huge loudspeakers parked in front of the presidential secretariat blared protest slogans and music, including the now-famous chant: “Go home, Gota.”
A group of women handed out steaming cups of kottamalli – a herbal brew – from a large pot on a fire on one corner, as vendors selling ice cream and paan, a mix of betel leaves and areca nut, worked their way through the crowds.
Men, women and children – from Sri Lanka’s various ethnic and religious groups – milled about, waving the country’s golden lion flag, chanting slogans and holding up placards with hand-written messages. Two young men carried boards that said: “This will end when we see all of you in jail” and “We are not here to have fun. We are here to take our country back.”
Another woman’s placard said: “This is the beginning of a new civilisation. Proud to be Sri Lankan.”
“The energy here, I’ve never felt anything like it,” said protester Andy Schubert, as he looked on at the crowds shouting anti-government slogans. “It’s so inspiring.”
For many people on Galle Face Green, these were their first-ever protests.
After months of enduring power cuts and queues for fuel and cooking gas, the protesters said their patience had been pushed to the limits by the Rajapaksa government’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of their economic pain as well as its inability to chart a path forward.
No Sri Lankan, rich or poor, has been spared its effects.
Colombo’s residents first began protesting in early March with small gatherings in their various neighbourhoods. One such rally outside the president’s house on March 31 devolved into violence, prompting Rajapaksa to declare a state of emergency and a curfew. But that only led to more protests in the capital and in other cities.
In a bid to placate the anger, Rajapaksa rescinded the emergency measures and sacked his brother as finance minister. He also appointed a well-respected economist as the governor of the Central Bank ahead of bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Galle Face protesters, however, say they have had enough.
Most of the protesters are from Colombo’s upper and middle classes – students, teachers, lawyers, architects and software engineers – who say they want nothing less than “total system change”.
They say they want qualified new leaders who will cater to the needs of all Sri Lankans, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority as well as the ethnic Tamil and Muslim minorities.
“In the past, we were divided according to ethnic and religious lines, and politicians have played on those divisions to obtain and maintain power,” said protester Shyamali Vidanapathirana, a 30-year-old civil servant, referring to splits that had resulted in a bloody 26-year-civil war between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated government.
Rajapaksa, as the then-defence secretary, oversaw the end of that conflict in 2009. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now the prime minister, was the president at the time.
Many hoped the end of that war – during which an estimated 100,000 people died – would bring calm to Sri Lanka. But it was soon followed by communal tensions between the Sinhala Buddhist and Muslim communities that periodically resulted in rioting and violence. Many accuse Rajapaksa of capitalising on those tensions – especially in the wake of several ISIL-inspired bombings in 2019 – to win the presidential elections that year.
Vidhanapathiarana said this kind of majoritarian politics has only resulted in the election of politicians who went on to only act in their self-interest.
“Getting rid of Gota is just one objective,” she said, standing under an umbrella in the rain. “The entire system has to change.”
Indeed, the Galle Face protests have seen “unprecedented” cross-community solidarity, with Buddhist monks and Christian nuns joining in. Dozens of Muslim protesters have also gathered there to break their Ramadan fasts in the evenings.
One fasting Muslim woman carried a placard addressing the president, saying “You divided us to come to power. Now we are uniting to send you home.”
Analysts said the spontaneous and leaderless protests at the Galle Face Green mark the emergence of a political movement that is not based along religious and ethnic lines – a first in modern Sri Lankan history.
“Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, and the anger it has generated, have given rise to a protest movement that is so large, so sustained and so widespread that it can be called a non-violent people’s uprising,” said Alan Keenan, senior consultant at the Washington, DC-based International Crisis Group.
“Divided for decades along ethnic and religious and class lines, the country has never seen such a nationwide movement involving all communities.”
Many have found the unity inspiring, he said, explaining “the continuing enthusiasm with which Sri Lankans are protesting despite their everyday hardships”.
Despite the apparent unity, it is early days yet for the movement, and it is not clear if the Colombo protesters can demonstrate the perseverance and resilience needed to force Rakapaksa to accede to their demands.
Especially if the government cracks down.
For now, the police have kept a watchful distance, deploying only a few officers to the scene to direct traffic through the area.
Appeal for patience
Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, founder of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, said the president – who faces war crimes allegations for the military’s brutal tactics at the close of the civil war – would not step down easily.
“Perhaps, the reason for that is that he’s fighting for his political life, quite literally and metaphorically. Because if he goes, then he loses any kind of protection that he could get from being a head of state. So, he loses immunity,” Saravanamuttu said.
“I would expect that the president is going to hold on and begin an interim government, and hope that the agreement with the IMF will settle things down, and therefore dissipate the protests.”
The president has yet to comment on the protesters’ demands, but his allies have insisted he will not step down. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, meanwhile, has appealed for patience from the protesters.
In his first public appearance since the protests broke out, the prime minister on Tuesday reminded the public about his role in ending the war as well as the highways and ports he had built as president from 2005 to 2015.
And he said his government will fix the economic crisis as soon as possible.
“Every minute you protest on the streets, we lose an opportunity to earn dollars for the country,” he added.
At Galle Face, many booed the prime minister’s comments.
Ibnu Mashood Akmal Zafiya, who said her husband was seeking employment in the United Arab Emirates because of the financial crisis, said Sri Lankans know how to bring in money, but the government needs to resign first.
“I am three months pregnant, but my husband has to leave so we can survive,” she said. “They have ruined everything. We need to change the government, and then we can get the dollars,” she said.
Rashmika Fernando, an architect and father to three children, echoed the sentiment.
“We have the professionals, we have the resources, we have the strategy. We know how to fix this. We just need the president to resign,” he said. “No one wants to work with this government.”
Several protesters said they know it will likely be a long fight and that they are prepared to stay in the streets for as long as it takes.
“We are here for democracy,” said Rashani Perera, a 29-year-old lawyer. “As long as they are in power, we will be in the streets.”
For the movement to sustain itself, analysts said it would have to broaden its reach and begin working with unions as well as the existing opposition, including the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), led by Sajith Premadasa.
In turn, political parties must also show bold leadership, they said.
Premadasa, who lost the last presidential election to Gotabaya Rajapaksa by a big margin, has pledged to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, but it is unclear if such a motion could get the two-thirds majority needed.
Rajapaksa’s party and its allies still have significant numbers there, despite 40 legislators recently withdrawing support for the ruling coalition.
“The political struggle launched by the protest movement could be a long one, and it’s essential that its energy and the shock it has caused the Rajapaksas and its support system be channelled and exploited more boldly by opposition parties,” said Keenan of the Crisis Group.
“Should the main opposition SJB and allied parties fail to present a strong and clear alternative to Gotabaya’s leadership – by forming a new government, pressing to abolish the executive presidency and addressing the economic crisis – they risk letting a golden opportunity for democratic political transformation slip away.”