It is their fourth consecutive day at Galle Face, a stretch of Colombo’s breezy sea front, as they agitate incessantly, asking Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.
Scores of young men and women are now staying put day and night, right next to the Presidential Secretariat, in what looks like a tent city of resistance. Protesters who are part of the ‘Occupy Galle Face’ movement have one simple message to the country’s most powerful man – “we will not go home unless you do.”
Amid Sri Lanka’s worsening economic crisis, manifesting in a severe shortage of essentials, skyrocketing prices and long power cuts, citizens began protesting in pockets over a month ago, across different parts of the country. Gaining momentum over the last few weeks, the protests culminated in a massive show of public dissent at Galle Face last weekend.
Some of the protesters are resolutely staying back at the venue since, sleeping in temporary tents and under trees, braving heavy thunderstorms, such as the one Colombo experienced on Tuesday night.
“We didn’t sleep much, really,” says Mary Suwen, smiling calmly. She is clearing out the slush inside her tent at the site, now called ‘Gotagogama’, or ‘Gota go village’, as a trilingual board declares in Sinhala, Tamil and English. “The country is facing a crisis like never before and our leaders and government don’t realise what people are going through. We want them all to go,” says the 26-year-old civil engineer.
In early 2020, the President allocated an empty plot adjacent to his office as a “dedicated demonstration site’, showing the world that he was a leader tolerant to dissent. Little would he have imagined that it would, in two years, become a site of stiff resistance to him and his family.
There are about 25 tents at the location now, where dozens were spotted on Wednesday early morning. There are 30 more tents on “standby”, according to demonstrators. Citizens sympathetic to the protests have been regularly donating food, water, and medicines, at stalls put up nearby. Mobile toilets have been set up and an ambulance is parked right in front.
Some of the youth at the venue on Wednesday morning were clearing garbage, patiently segregating the waste at source, while others were airing their tents.
A few gathered around the entrance of the Presidential Secretariat, sat on tall barricades right in front, and chanted slogans using a megaphone. “Your children are in America, our children are on the streets”, they chanted together in Sinhala, every now and then, repeating their core demand — “Go home Gota”, a persistent call that the President is unwilling to heed.
Mr. Gotabaya last spoke to citizens on March 16. He told them in a televised address that he was “determined to make tough decisions to find solutions to the inconveniences that the people are experiencing.” But angry citizens say their suffering has only increased in the last few weeks. At least seven people have died while waiting in long queues for petrol. Doctors are desperately seeking urgent medical supplies and lifesaving drugs for newborns and other patients. Poor families are surviving on just one meal.
In his first address yet after the crisis intensified, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday asked protesting youth to be patient, while recalling his years in political activism and his government’s military defeat of the LTTE.
“Complete absurdity,” is how Udil Pathirana, a university student, describes Mr. Mahinda’s speech. “He’s talking about the LTTE, and [JVP] insurrections. Our protest right now is not about our history, it is about our future, and they don’t get that,” he says, suggesting that even the most seasoned politician in the ruling camp may be a little out of touch with the popular public sentiment. Another protester dismissed the Prime Minister’s televised speech as “utter nonsense”.
Meanwhile, small pro-government protests have emerged in different parts, with supporters chanting “We want Gota”. On the other hand, those challenging the government continue to mount pressure, with some of them even deciding to spend Sinhala and Tamil New Year holidays this week, protesting.
Over the last few days, the demonstrations and rallies have expanded their demands, going beyond the government’s failure to address the current crisis. Posters calling for the repeal of Sri Lanka’s terrorism law, the abolition of Executive Presidency, justice for Tamils affected by the civil war, and asking the government to apologise for denying Muslims the right to burial during the pandemic can also be spotted amidst the crowd.
At the tall, iron fence around the Presidential Secretariat hangs a huge poster in black with images and names of prominent journalists in Sri Lanka, who are either missing, in exile, or were killed. The word ‘justice’ is printed in bold, with a huge question mark below.
The protesters are determined to carry on with their campaign. “I have been here in ‘Gotagogama’ for four nights. We are repeating the slogan ‘GotaGoHome’. As we returned to our tent , we spotted this board saying ‘Gotagogama’ here, someone has put it up. That is how organic this is, everyone is using their skill to make a point,” says Gagana Atapattu, a content creator.