By Shaheen Vishak
Sri Lanka’s ears are still ringing. The sounds of chanting crowds could be heard all over the nation, as the curfew imposed at 6 p.m. last Saturday (2) came to an end at 6 a.m. yesterday (4), and people swarmed the streets islandwide to resume their large-scale protests against the Government.
From peaceful demonstrations held at public landmarks, to angry mobs storming police barricades placed outside politicians’ residences, Sri Lankans witnessed – through their own eyes or on social media – new life being breathed into the hackneyed phrase “united we stand”.
Professionals among protestors
With the barricades to Colombo’s Independence Square – erected on Sunday (3) to prevent people from defying curfew to stage a massive protest that had been scheduled previously – having been taken down, protestors began converging at the location starting from the early hours of the day.
While one might have assumed that curfew being lifted on Monday would see people returning to work instead of taking to the streets, this was not the case – among the protestors were disgruntled white-collar executives in formal attire, with their bosses alongside them. We spoke to Anuruddha Aluwihare, as he led a small cohort of his colleagues towards Independence Square, who said: “Most of our colleagues joined this peaceful protest against the Rajapaksa family, who have basically ruined our country and economy – and this is not just what we are saying; even most of the politicians on television today have been saying this.
“Even yesterday we came out to protest, despite the curfew. The corporate sector has never been a burden on the Government; all we are asking is to be allowed to peacefully do our jobs. We contribute hugely to the economy, but they are not letting us continue in peace. We need to put these leaders in prison and take back the money they have robbed over the years.”
Similarly Dulan Kuruppu, who stated he was a former executive at the now-defunct Mihin Lanka, stated: “We cannot allow the Rajapaksas and their families, nor any of the 225 elected to Parliament, to retain power. What we need is a people-centric policy manifesto that covers all aspects. We have had enough of these rogues. We have no respect for them, and no respect for the Opposition. We want a new breed of youngsters – of professionals – to come into power, no matter what caste, creed, or religion.”
All in it together
As the people began to gather, and the chants from the square grew louder, passers-by began showing their support in various ways. We spotted Gamage, a three-wheeler driver, who kept inviting those striding in the hot sun on the road leading to Independence Square into his tuk for a quick lift. “We all have to go; we have to be there. They won’t stop us unless they kill us. We have to help each other until we achieve what we are demanding,” said Gamage, who gave us a lift to the Square before quickly turning around to ferry more people towards the protest.
On the steps to the Independence Square, with no care for the overbearing heat, was a crowd of people, with some of them illustrating and distributing placards, while others chanted slogans in unison like “Go Gota, go!” and “We want justice!” Among them were a number of youth, obviously fresh out of school, and yet visibly passionate about their cause. They were also seen distributing food and water bottles to exhausted protestors, while many were also livestreaming the scene on social media to encourage more people to join.
No age barrier to activism
With the crowd’s non-stop chants ringing loudly in the background, we spoke to Seveeka Siriwardena, a 19-year-old who had put together a small movement of people dubbed the “Yellow Shirt Brigade”.
She told us: “Our slogan is essentially yellow for hope, unity, and democracy. Because all these slogans, calling for this one to go home, or blaming that one for a problem, don’t highlight how the crux of the issue lies not with an individual or a party, but in systemic failings. So we as the youth need to step up and hold people accountable, without having the same set of people coming back in to implement the same policies. We need to give this country educated leaders with strong morals,” she said.
When asked whether she would take this movement forward by forming a youth party and seeking political solutions, she replied: “My aim in creating this was not for political gain or parties; there’s no alignment. We just need to stop pointing fingers and understand that the entire system is broken. Things like the PTA and the Executive Presidency are symptoms of these systemic failings. We are here to highlight the need for effective change.”
She also told us that while they had initially gathered as a small group outside the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, they had merged with another group protesting in the same area to converge at Independence Square.
A growing family
In this manner, several smaller groups of protestors that gathered near the same location had snowballed into a larger force. And as the hours went by, more and more protestors kept adding to the total, as it was at several other locations.
Similarly, the small groups gathering at the Nelum Pokuna roundabout kept growing into a large force, with protestors lining the streets, standing on the roundabout, and even driving their vehicles around in circles to keep rousing the crowd, tooting their horns, waving flags and banners, and cheering on the protestors, who seemed undaunted by the dust and heat.
At one point, more and more families could be seen coming to join the protests with their children. Jeewantha, who was present with his wife and one child, told us: “I have two sons. The boy with us here is seven, and his older brother is 13. We came here to join this protest until we pick him up from school, after which we’ll be heading towards another protest close to our area. I took them out to protest yesterday as well, despite the curfew, because I want them to be a part of this movement and learn a lesson in the power of the people and unity.”
Similarly, Shehan, another protestor, showed us that he had not only brought his two sons along, but also some of his employees, to support the protests. “Things have been getting out of hand here, and we all have to pitch in if we are going to bring about real change,” he said.
Lawyers, journalists, activists, and artists
While the peoples’ protests kept combining into a massive force, certain professional groups had also scheduled their own protests. Within shouting distance of the crowd at the Nelum Pokuna roundabout were the Young Journalists’ Association of Sri Lanka (YJASL) and the Young Lawyers’ Association (YLA), similarly protesting the Government and its unfair use of the law to curb dissent.
Most notably, they decried the violence that journalists had faced at the hands of the Police only a few days ago, at the people’s protests that took place close to the President’s residence in Mirihana last Thursday (31 March). It had been after this incident, where several people had been taken into custody by the Mirihana Police, that lawyers swarmed the station to provide their services, pro bono, to those being detained.
A warning to government MPs
While many of the protests remained peaceful, throngs of people reportedly protested outside the houses of several government MPs, including Gamini Lokuge, Janaka Tennekoon, Kanchana Wijesekara, Nimal Lanza, Ramesh Pathirana, and Shasheendra Rajapaksa.
Most notably, in the afternoon, around 2,000 people marched on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s residence in Tangalle, known as Carlton House, where they broke through Police barricades while demanding his resignation, before Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. By evening, protesters had also surrounded his house on Wijerama Mawatha in Colombo, where Police worked to control the situation from getting out of hand.
Similarly, prominent artists staged a protest near Galle Face Green, outside Shangri La Hotel – at which former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was believed to be present. They were joined by citizens, who seemed eager to ensure that he would not be allowed to leave the country.
One protestor, who did not wish to be named, stated: “We suffer without electricity and food while they stay in five-star hotels, but we will remind them that they cannot hide. No matter how long we have to wait here, we will not allow them to escape from the punishment they deserve for cheating the People