Azhar Razak, Aanya Wipulasena, Indunil Usgoda Arachchi, Rajitha Jagoda Arachchi
There was an air of anticipation in Colombo on the morning of September 5. The day had finally dawned of the ‘Janabalaya’ rally organised by the Joint Opposition led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which was slated to be the largest protest of its kind in the country’s political history according to its organisers. The SLPP Youth wing led by Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa claimed widely on social media that 500,000 supporters would descend on the country’s financial capital to hold the city hostage till the following day. Several days prior, the SLPP/JO had warned the public to remain home. Fearing chaos, parents kept children away from school, employees who could afford to take leave called in sick. Roads leading to Colombo were clear of traffic as buses carrying JO supporters along with trucks of cops and Special Task Force (STF) personnel were seen entering the city.
As the time drew nearer to the rally, employers were forced to give their employees the day off and many hurried to catch a bus or train to get home leading to a significant drop of productivity on the day. Shops usually open 24 hours a day hurriedly closed down. Train commuters were seen hanging precariously from the windows of overcrowded trains trying to make it home before the rally while others stood in winding queues in a bid to secure a train ticket.
Many commuters were also left stranded at the Colombo Fort Bus stand. According to one conductor of a Pettah – Moratuwa bus which was running the last run for the day, buses along the route were already much less with many being given by their owners to transport protestors to Colombo on the day. The situation even led to a tussle on the overhead bridge near the Fort Railway station between some commuters and JO supporters when one stranded commuter was heard complaining of the inconvenience to the public as a result of the rally which irked the ‘Pohottuwa’ supporters gathered there.
With organisers of the protest keeping the place of the rally a closely guarded secret till the very last minute around 2.30 pm the apparent main organiser of the Janabalaya Rally, MP Namal Rajapaksa visited the Bo tree junction in Pettah which appeared to be one of the focal points on the day to inspect the preparations.
While the organisers had intended to keep the Government and Police guessing as to where the supposedly massive rally will be held it appeared the supporters were also left in the dark with one man walking up to Namal asking “Sir, where will the rally be held today?” to which he replied that they would commence the walk from the Bo tree junction to the Lake House roundabout and the exact place will be notified soon.
As people began to converge around Pettah, it was finally announced that Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Former Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa would join the protestors at the Bo tree junction after which they would march towards the Lake House Roundabout. In anticipation of their arrival, yet another organiser of the rally JO parliamentarian Prasanna Ranatunga attempted to organise the crowds already gathered in an orderly fashion. “Hold hands and form a line” he could be heard instructing a group of men only to find that perhaps inebriated and confused they had held hands and formed a circle around him. “No, no, not around me, I meant across the road” he shouted clearly frustrated. Crowd management seemed impossible and highly disorganised with many attendees failing or refusing to take instructions.
However, at first glance massive crowds appeared to be flowing in to Colombo. The whole protest took on a big match atmosphere as papare bands and dancing protestors were a common sight. Noticeably lacking were demands and coherent slogans. Some were merely heard shouting “Polonnaruwa Wattakka Apata Epa!” (We do not want Pumpkins from Polonnaruwa).
But some such as U. A. Chandra, a mother of four from Homagama (50) had come with a purpose. “We came today, despite all hardships, to call for an immediate election. We need Mahinda Rajapaksa as our leader again,” she said. She said she felt the Government had done nothing for the war heroes of the country and being a mother of an injured ex-Army personnel motivated her to join the protest.
Claiming she was a former United National Party (UNP) supporter Asha Rezala from Galle joining the protest said it was the skyrocketing cost of living that concerned her most as a housewife. “This was not the case during the reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He looked after common people like us and made roads and highways. This government is not doing any of that. We are actually very disheartened,” she said.
Also joining the group were professionals such as lawyers aligned to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and despite claims of being apolitical members of the Government Medical Officers Associations (GMOA) who as of recent has being spewing similar rhetoric as the JO could also be seen joining in.
But many others, majority which appeared to be heavily intoxicated men had clearly joined in without a clear idea as to what they had come to achieve. Some were seen already passed out on roads and parks due to intoxication while others could be seen roaming the streets in packs causing further chaos. Supporters seemed irked at motorists trying to pass by going on to hurl abuse and obscenities at them. Media personnel and the Police were also at the receiving end of similar treatment.
“They have been shouting obscenities at us the whole day” one Policeman on duty at the Lake House Roundabout said. However the Police appeared to show great integrity and patience on the day remaining calm to avoid any possible clashes. According to Deputy Minister of Law and Order, Nalin Bandara 5000 Police personnel were deployed on the day with clear instructions to not engage with the protestors. “They wanted to create chaos so we gave clear instructions to the Police to avoid such a scene” he said.
Media personnel were also harassed. Reporters had been challenged and almost assaulted by JO supporters on several occasions. “Let’s see how you manage to topple the Government without the support from the media” one harassed journalist had been brave enough to retort. Women reporters of the Sunday Observer were cat called and obstructed from reporting the protest while also being scolded in obscene language by groups of men after being accused of being stooges for the United National Party (UNP).
With Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother finally arriving around 3.30 pm the march finally commenced towards the Lake House Roundabout to join crowds who had arrived there earlier. Rajapaksa led the protest waving at his supporters while standing inside a jeep followed by a motorcade.
Once reaching the Lake House roundabout, after greeting those gathered there he was swept away in the vehicle leaving the crowds baffled. Former Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa could be seen being led away in the opposite direction. Confusion reigned as organisers still failed to give clear instructions and information to the supporters. With no focal point in the protest with politicians and crowds scattered in pocket groups wandering around aimlessly it was mere moments before everything descended into chaos. While several MP’s such as Wimal Weerawansa arriving in a cab attempted to give short speeches they could not be heard over the crowds. An atmosphere of a carnivale ensued.
As protestors danced to papare beats and street food vendors selling ice cream and prawn vadais began roaming among the crowds, cashing in on the extra business. Attendees were also seen climbing lamp posts at the junction and hanging from them. A small truck with a loudspeaker also wandered around informing JO supporters to not drink anything provided by a stranger as the government maybe trying to poison them.
But even as Mahinda Rajapaksa once again returned to join his followers, the tired crowd had thinned by then. People were seen returning to their busses from around 7.30 pm. Left famished since the beginning of the protest yet another truck arrived around 8.30 pm with bread for the remaining protestors.
Entertainment was also provided by way of Angampora displays and devil-dancers to entice the remaining protestors to stay till the rally was officially called off.
Right in front of the ‘Angampora’ display standing on a truck were few members of the second rung of the Joint Opposition. “I came here to demand a healthy democracy,” former Deputy Finance Minister Bandula Gunawardena said. According to him a country was typically made of two parties- a government and a strong opposition- but Sri Lanka lacked both.
“The JO has to play the part of the opposition but it is not given the power to perform so in this government. So, we came to the streets to show our strength,” he said adding that day’s rally was only a pilot one and there was more to come.
However, the crowd continued to disperse. Some huddled around conga players and sang songs, while certain individuals danced on their own- clearly intoxicated. Another group played with a football as others watched. However, not all were in high spirits as people were seen sleeping on cardboards stretched out on the road at Lake House Roundabout, a very rare sight at an otherwise extremely busy junction. Some sat on the islands in the middle of the road clearly exhausted.
With people leaving in droves hard core supporters of the Rajapaksa’s could be seen trying to influence people to remain. The JO had earlier promised they would continue a sit in till the following morning. “Stay if you love Mahinda Rajapaksa” some could be heard saying, pleading with those trying to leave. But the JO was finally forced to announce the end of the protest at midnight. “It was the longest protest ever held in Sri Lanka” JO MP Dullas Alahapperuma claimed.
Commenting on the rally Deputy Minister of Power and Energy Ajith P. Perera, said that Janabalaya Kolombata showed the immature political behaviour of the SLPP. “People who are ready to do anything for a rice packet, a liquor bottle and money were brought to Colombo and they were left alone without a purpose” he said adding that the leaders of the JO were also at cross purposes. “One talked about toppling the Government, another wanted to reduce the price of bread but some had no purpose at all” he further added.
As the final protestor left, the street of Colombo were left in disarray. The streets were left littered with placards and mounds of garbage. Liquor as well as plastic bottles were also seen strewn about. While some protestors and JO leaders were seen picking up trash, much of it was left to the Colombo Municipal Council for clean up.
Municipal Commissioner V.K.A. Anura said that workers generally used over three days had to be deployed to clean up the streets after the protest.
“The streets were littered and we had to deploy additional staff and vehicles in order to clean up the mess that was created. This process required additional expenditure. Even with the additional manpower and vehicles it took us until around 12.00 pm on Thursday to complete the cleaning process.” he said.
In addition, the Municipal Commissioner noted that the protestors had damaged the taps and doors of public toilets at the Viharamahadevi Park during the protest. However, he said that an estimate of the damage caused had not been done yet.
But despite the apparent fiasco JO leaders called the protest a resounding success. Speaking to the Sunday Observer the day after MP Namal Rajapaksa said more than 200,000 People joined the protest and all 69 MPs attached to the UPFA participated in the rally to force the Government to call for General Elections. “It turned out just as we planned” he said adding it was a great triumph that the Government could not guess where they would converge.
But of course as always the numbers claimed by the JO were disputed. Police sources said they estimated the crowd at the demonstration had been about 45,000 while state intelligence services put the number at between 50-60,000.
In an analysis using a crowd density platform, Founding Editor of Groundviews Sanjana Hattotuwa said the numbers at Janabalaya were far less than 200,000 attendees claimed by SLPP. Using crowd density calculating website Mapchecking, Hattotuwa showed in an article written for Groundviews that if crowd density was 3.5 per square foot at the Lake House Roundabout the gathered crowd would be closer to an estimated 50,000.
JO’s own Vasudeva Nanayakkara was also later quoted in media as saying only around 2500 people remained at the protest by midnight.
Riding to the rally:A Sunday Observer reporter rides to Fort in a bus full of Janabalaya protestors
This Wednesday (05) was like any other day in Colombo, the sun shone mercilessly. People went on with their everyday work. Nothing seemed unusual or amiss but for a group of people, six to be exact, a couple wearing maroon head bands depicting the words ‘Api Maharagama’ (We are Maharagama) next to an illustration of a flower bud,who stood at the top of a small by lane opposite Udahamulla Bus Depot at Old Kesbewa Road, Nugegoda.A dry breeze welled up and engulfed the crowed as if on cue, and when another couple of people joined them,laughing and talking very loudly they made their way down the lane. And I followed.
It was around 12.17pm when we arrived at Western Provincial Councillor Upali Kodikara’s home. About 400 people were already gathered in the front porch of the house. Some standing idle and others devouring a hearty meal. The group I followed were welcomed to the feast offered in a buffet but they kindly declined.
I received a different kind of welcome. ‘Menna paththaren’ (here’s from the paper) shouted one man before striding into the house. Note book in hand and a camera hanging from my shoulder my identity was revealed.
That is when Kodikara came extending his hand, with a big and delightful smile plastered on his face. He could be the only person who was that excited to see me in all my life. Saying that it was a big day he then went to serve those who stood in a line by the buffet.
Twenty minutes later everyone prepared to hit the road but just before that former Mayor of Maharagama and current organiser for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna for Maharagama, Kanthi Kodikara, also wearing the maroon headband and a sash stating ‘Api Maharagama’ came to address the crowd. The get-up made her look like a pageant queen who just won the crown.
“Several years ago we lost the Mahinda Rajapaksa led government. That was the start of this country heading towards a disastrous era,” loud and clear she said, and her statement was met by a round of excited cheers. “This government is trying to sell the country’s properties. It is time for us to rise and chase them away.” Another round of cheers, this time louder. “We organised this rally to send the government home. We should continue this fight,” she declared.
With that the crowd left Kodikara’s home, down the small lane and boarded buses that was parked on the main road. They were going to make history. From several parts of the country, people just like the crowd who gathered in Udahamulla were making their way to Colombo to participate in the Joint Opposition’s Janabalaya Colombata (people’s power to Colombo) rally.
Kanthi did not join the group. “I am just after a surgery,” she told me adding that her husband will command the group. She said that protest marches just like these were important to put pressure on the government and make a historic change.
About 30 buses made their way from Udahamulla to Maharagama, before turning back again and heading to Colombo through the High Level road. I boarded a not very crowded bus number 14. Not everyone in the bus were happy to head to Maharagama.
“We have to go to Colombo not Maharagama. Maharagama knows who we are,” one man said.
The slightest external disruption agitated the crowd. An ambulance passed by and the buses had to steer off the road to make way for it. ‘Onna kadakappalkaranna yanne!’ one woman said, and the others made affirmative noises.
As we passed Maharagama, some from inside the bus screamed names and waved at people who were on the road. Excited they waved back.
“Miss, do you know why I am joining this rally,” the man seated next to me asked. His name was Samarasena Rubasinghe, a 62-year-old businessman from Mirihana. He was there to stop this government from tarnishing Buddhism and to get employment for his two children, both graduates but still unemployed. “We are suffering. We need to topple this government,” he said.
After a while, as we reached Nugegoda a woman noticed that the crowd was silent.
“What is this! Are we going to a funeral? People make some noise,” she said. A man promptly screamed ‘Kageda me balawege’ and others yelled ‘Kodikarage balawege’, and all were cheery once again. Then a group of men huddled in the middle of the bus and opened a local arrack bottle. In plastic cups all men got a drink each. Women got Fanta. I was offered Sprite, which I declined nicely. “I have a bad sore throat,” I said.
This was followed by a bag of devilled chick-peas. Everyone, men and women, ate it.
Then a young man whom they called ‘Kalu Malli’, staggeringly drunk, asked me something that I could not understand. He made it worse by trying to make me understand. Most of the participants of the rally were hoping they could topple the government that night. “We want this government to go home,” said a much excited H. B. Thilakaratne, 61, a businessman also from Mirihana. He said they needed a new ruler because this government ‘attack’ the common man with taxes and high cost of living. We had to stop briefly at Nugegoda as traffic formed. Kalu Malli, probably assuming we reached the destination got off the bus. Seconds later the bus sped up and a couple of men called the driver to stop. “Malli bassa. Malli bassa,’ they screamed. But the driver didn’t hear. Kalu Malli made half history that day, and will not have any memory of his involvement in it the next morning. During our journey towards Viharamahadevi Park a couple, a man and woman, kept waving at the passers-by. At the park they joined with other crowds from areas such as Galle and Weeraketiya, then awaited instructions as to how they could proceed from there.
About four old arrack bottles later the alcohol fueled bus number 14 headed to Lake House Roundabout from there to a government. And I went back to Lake House.
Five star comfort for Janabalaya leaders?
Janabalaya Rally of the JO on September 5 was meant to be an overnight protest. Colombo was to be under siege with the protestors expected to stage a satyagraha till early hours of the next day. That was the warning issued by the Joint Opposition. Colombo Municipal Councillor of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Milinda Rajapaksa claimed on twitter that everything had been prepared for an expected crowd of 500 000. However, no such facilities appeared to have been made as the night approached.
With the crowds being left without proper instructions and necessary facilities to spend the night many decided to head home. For the remainder who joined the Satyagraha at Lotus roundabout a small truck went around the area distributing packets of sandwiches around 8.30 pm causing a near stampede as the majority had been without food and drink since the start of the protest.
However, many protests were seen discarding half eaten bread for reasons unknown. With excess food remaining some tried to hail down vehicles in a bid to distribute the leftovers. With the food provided perhaps being inedible, many were seen spending out of their own pockets to purchase food and drink from the vendors walking among the crowds. With their stomachs half full, some settled in for the night laying out placards they carried earlier on the day in the street to get some sleep. Those awake were entertained by an Angampora troupe and Devil Dancers. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also arrived briefly on the scene and despite claims he would remain there all night he eventually left after giving a brief speech that lasted about 3 minutes.
But while the supporters were left on the street reports came trickling in that that SLPP leaders had booked rooms at several five star hotels in the vicinity including the Hilton Colombo, Taj Colombo and Shangri-La earning the ire of their supporters. Deputy Minister Nalin Bandara told a press briefing at the Government Information Department held later that night that a Suite of the Taj Colombo had been booked, while other sources confirmed that presidential suite had been booked for JO and SLPP MPs.
Namal Rajapaksa was also spotted at the Hilton Colombo on Tuesday (4), the night before the Janabalaya demonstration, while his brother Yoshitha Rajapaksa was spotted in the Hilton lobby on the afternoon of the Rally, enjoying a beer with businessman Nimal Perera and Gamini Abeyratne, aka, ‘Taxi Abey’ before joining the demonstration.
As demos and strikes hobble economic activity and ignites public outrage:
Economists call to quantify economic burden of productivity loss
Sri Lanka’s economists last week called on the Government to devise a mechanism to compute the economic costs of strikes and demonstrations represented in Rupees and Cents so that the heavy productivity losses the country suffers could at least send a warning to the unnecessary strikers and demonstrators. Expressing views in the aftermath of the anti-government protest organised by the Joint Opposition held in Colombo which brought economic activity in the island’s financial capital, Colombo, to almost a standstill, analysts point out that the irresponsible actions by a section of the public whilst resulting in loss of domestic productivity both in terms of labour and output, is also hampering the tourism sector and the efforts in enticing foreign direct investments.
“Given that nowadays there are sudden strikes by a number of sectors like health and transport and demonstrations are also held in unannounced locations, there is a definite need to find a long term solution. The first step could be to compute the losses and present the numbers to the public so that they would be more aware of the damage they are causing,” a top Economist told The Sunday Observer.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the Economist noted that professors attached to transportation divisions of universities could be entrusted this task of loss computation as they have a good knowledge on the cost of disruption to normal day to day activities.
On September 5, while businesses in Pettah, the busiest financial district in the island, where most of the shops, textiles, commercial buildings and many other business organisations are centered shut doors early and a majority of employees from the vibrant World Trade Centre located in Fort, the heart of the Central Business District also took a full day or half day leave at their workplaces.
“We closed our offices early anticipating the heavy inconvenience this protest could cause to the employees. We definitely lost a lot of potential income due to the loss of labour productivity,” a chief executive of a prominent organisation involved in IT and BPO services industry, whose office is located at the bustling World Trade Centre in Colombo said.
According to Central Bank statistics, in 2017, a total of 10,312 workers were involved in 32 strikes and 58,279 man days were lost due to strikes during 2017. However, these data indicate only the strikes of the private industries that are reported to the Labour Department. On the other hand, labour productivity, as measured by Gross Value Added (GVA) per hour worked, decreased marginally by 1.14 % in 2017 to Rs. 458.29 per hour in the first three quarters of 2017, from Rs. 463.56 per hour in the corresponding period of 2016, recent statistics showed.
JO protestors hoot at SLFP HQ;SLFP trade union blame organisers for chaos
Though the Joint Opposition is made up of leaders and supporters representing various parties it is undeniable that the majority of its strength is still pumped in by Rajapaksa loyalists of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which Rajapaksa continues to be a member. Therefore, to many bystanders it was a shocking state of affairs when seemingly inebriated supporters of the JO hooted while walking past the SLFP Office located on Darley Road while screaming out obscenities against the party. This was in spite of the fact that many Sri Lanka Freedom Party unions such as the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya and the Nidahas Kala Kavaya joining the protest march to voice their support to the cause.
But as the protest march descended to chaos with those attending being left to roam aimlessly at the Lake House Roundabout while others ran rampant clearly drunk beyond comprehension, perhaps disillusionment had finally set in when General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya, Leslie Devendra was quoted as saying that “This was no way to topple a government”.
Speaking to sister paper Resa, Devendra heaping heavy criticism against the organisers said if organiser’s of a protest cannot ensure that those supporting them are not inconvenienced it only shows their incapability.
With JO stalwart and brother of the former President, Basil Rajapaksa being notably absent on the day supporters have been openly critical of JO parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, who was seen as the main organiser of the Janabalaya protest calling it a major flop. Many of them opined that Basil would have organised the rally better making it a success.
As crowds at the protest began to thin towards the evening, Devendra too levelled the blame on the organisers. As organisers were seen pleading with people to remain if they love former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the JO had threatned the Government with an overnight sit in, however, many walked away leaving a small crowd near the Lotus roundabout. This group too finally dispersed at around 12 midnight as well. “If people do not remain till the end of the rally that is the fault of those who organised it” Devendra said.
In the end, Namal Rajapaksa was forced to tweet out an apology in which he apologised to the supporters for any possible inconvenience they had to face as a result.
Meanwhile staunch Rajapaksa SLFP supporters too were not impressed with the antics on the day. Witnessing the aftermath of the protest and television coverage of the carnival like atmosphere, three wheel driver Sunil Priyashantha said the protest was an insult to not only former president Rajapaksa but to his loyal supporters as well.
“The scenes of drunken men and their antics was disgusting” he said adding that a protest for any cause must be conducted with dignity. He says he felt the organisers had brought shame to the former president.
“Despite being a supporter I think, sadly, it is now time for a different alternative than the main parties” he opined.
Protestor Jagath Wimalasooriya pays the ultimate price :Young family left destitute
Not surprisingly, the Joint Opposition Janabalaya protest march amidst all its chaos was not without casualty. Jagath Wimalasooriya, a 39-year-old father of three from Kudagama, Hatton had travelled to Colombo on the day to extend his support to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa made the ultimate sacrifice for his political idol going on to leave behind this world and his family unexpectedly.
A conductor of a private bus, Wimalasooriya had joined the protest along with Hatton – Dikoya Pradeshiya Sabha member Shashi Rathnayake. According to the father of Wimalasooriya (62) his son was healthy and had no known illnesses. “He left Hatton that day around 9.30am to join the JO protest” he said adding that to their shock they later heard he was admitted to hospital and declared dead.
According to Rathnayake the group upon reaching Colombo had parked the bus in Maligawatta area to commence their march towards the Lake House roundabout around 3.30pm.
During this march held on a particularly hot day, Wimalasooriya had conveyed to his friends that he was feeling unwell and therefore would return to the bus instead. Returning to the bus around 6.45 p.m. that day the group had discovered Wimalasooriya lying motionless on a seat. “We tried to revive him but were not able to despite repeated attempts” Ratnayake says adding that they took steps to admit him to hospital thereafter.
However it was to no avail with Wimalasooriya being declared dead on arrival at the Colombo National Hospital. Judicial Medical Officer of the Colombo National Hospital, W.A.C Lakmali later confirmed that he had died due to a severe attack of gastritis which had then led to a stroke.
After the incident many lambasted the rally organisers for their failure to facilitate necessary first aid services to those attending with many protestors becoming violently ill due to the excessive consumption of alcohol and food poisoning. Others were seen passed out on roads with no one attending to them.
In fact, according to the Colombo National Hospital while Wimalasooriya was declared dead on arrival, eight people were admitted due to food poisoning and yet another eight persons were admitted due to minor injuries sustained during the protest.
Releasing a statement on his Facebook account Minister Harsha De Silva also confirmed that one person was admitted to hospital through the Government 1990 Suwasariya ambulance service due to intoxication. Another attendee also met with his death when returning from the protest. The man died after he was knocked down by a vehicle in Nittambuwa while crossing the road carelessly to buy pineapple sources said. He too had died on admission to hospital.
According to Human Rights activist Attorney-at-Law S.G. Punchihewa, today, the trend is to bring people onto roads to achieve the personal agendas of politicians. “Seeing the behaviour of the people it is hard to believe they attend these in their own interest” he says adding that a prime example is providing food and liquor to those attending. Pointing out that in the past leftists parties especially never provided such incentives to make people join the protests he said that instead the people came out due to their own political convictions.
Though reasons that moved Wimalasooriya to join the protest will not be known his family has been left destitute. If those he sought to support will return the favour is hard to tell. But with his wife working as a housemaid in the Middle East, his two sons and daughter aged five have sadly now been left without their main caregiver due to his untimely death.