BY Buddhika Samaraweera
The much-hyped protest organised by several political parties, including the main Parliamentary Opposition – the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) – alongside civil organisations and trade unions, fizzled out to an anti-climax amidst protestors arguing with each other about the level of aggression and perseverance that should be employed, as well as the true intent of the MPs leading the protest.
Mainstream political parties and MPs including Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa were seen being criticised by the protestors, and the protest ended with the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the “aragalaya” activists, the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), and the Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) warning of another “aragalaya” soon.
The protest was organised by a number of political parties including the SJB, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the FSP, civil organisations and trade unions, including the CTU against President Wickremesinghe and the Government started yesterday evening from near the Elphinstone Theatre in Colombo 10.
It was scheduled to proceed towards the Colombo Fort Railway Station in the form of a protest march. Premadasa and SJB MPs Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Hesha Withanage and Mujibur Rahman, SLFP MP Dayasiri Jayasekara, “independent” MPs Patali Champika Ranawaka and Chandima Weerakkody, the Samagi Vanita Balawegaya National Organiser Hirunika Premachandra, Pubudu Jayagoda and Duminda Nagamuwa of the FSP, and CTU General Secretary Joseph Stalin were present when the protest march commenced.
By the time the protest march started to proceed towards the Colombo Fort Railway Station, Army, Police, Police Riot Unit, and Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel had been deployed around the area where the Railways Department Headquarters is located. More than 500 Police officers and STF officers with shields and Army soldiers with firearms were deployed around the area and three water cannon trucks were also seen parked. The Police took steps to block those who were marching towards the Colombo Fort Railway Station chanting slogans and carrying placards with various phrases, by putting up a human barrier from the area near the Railways Headquarters. By that time, a large number of Police officers had been deployed to completely block the road and the STF had been deployed behind them.
A heated situation then arose between the Police and the protestors as the Police did not allow them to move towards the Colombo Fort Railway Station. In the meantime, a group of police officers carrying batons were also seen deployed around the area. In addition, some police officers and Army personnel were seen recording what was taking place using cameras and mobile phones.
Several MPs including Premadasa stayed close to the police human barrier. Around 4.30 p.m., many protestors were seen saying that they should break the human barrier and resume the protest march towards their destination, the Colombo Fort Railway Station, but Premadasa and other MPs wanted to stop the protest at that point and told the protestors not to break the barrier, said a participant in the protest who spoke to The Morning.
After some time, when Premadasa and his security personnel were moving to the back of the protest, the protestors were seen criticising him severely. Some protestors were claiming that Premadasa had taken the people to the protest and was trying to leave the premises, thus leaving those attending the protest helpless. It was also observed that the protestors were saying that he had only come to the protest for political gain. While the protest was going on in this manner, Premadasa was seen talking to the media on the side of the road and someone threw some water at him. With that, a heated situation arose between a group of people who could be thought to be Premadasa’s supporters and another group. After some time in that situation, Premadasa was no longer seen at the site where the protest was being held.
When these events were taking place, it was also observed that Premachandra was trying to break the Police human barrier and was trying to move forward. She was also seen strongly criticising some police officers who did not allow her to do so. It was observed that she was criticising Premadasa, due to the latter’s opposition to breaking the Police human barrier.
By the time of these incidents, Field Marshal Fonseka and many SJB MPs who were attending the protest during its beginning were not seen at the site. Rahman, who had also left the front of the protest, was also seen facing criticism from the protestors. However, he said that it was difficult for him to be amidst the large crowd at the front, and that he had therefore come to the back. After some time, he too left the protest.
Jayasekara, Weerakkody, and Ranawaka were also criticised by the protestors. A person present there was observed throwing an empty water bottle at Jayasekara. At that time, some of the protestors claimed that people who have been employed by some party may have done such things with the intention of disrupting the protest and creating a conflict between the groups who participated in it.
Between 5.30 p.m. and 6 p.m., none of the participating MPs were seen at the protest site. At that time, the known figures who remained at the protest were Jayagoda, Nagamuwa, Stalin, and aragalaya activist Attorney-at-Law Nuwan Bopage. Apart from that, a group of supporters who could be thought to be FSP supporters, activists of the IUSF and the Inter-University Bhikkhu’ Federation (IUBF), and the Young Journalists Association (YJA) stayed at the site. Addressing the gathering at this time, Bopage and Nagamuwa stated that during the protest organised with the participation of many political parties, politicians, especially MPs, had left in the middle of it. However, they said that the people who were really involved in the people’s struggle were the ones who remained till its end. Bopage also commented on IUSF Convenor Wasantha Mudalige and IUBF Convenir Ven. Galwewa Siridhamma Thera, both of whom are currently detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. He emphasised that the authorities should work to release them as their detention order will expire soon.
Addressing the crowd, Stalin said that yesterday’s protest was only the first step in a larger people’s struggle. He said that all the parties were united against the President and the Government and that it has been proved that the people are not afraid of the Government’s repression. He said that in a few days, they will return to Colombo with a large group of people, adding that the security forces and the Police would not be able to stop them on that day.
After those speeches, the protestors were seen leaving the place. However, by the time the protest was over, Premachandra had taken a different route to the front of the Colombo Fort Railway Station, avoiding the Police human barriers. She reached the Railway Station with several others, and was seen sitting on the ground in front of the Railway Station and protesting against President Wickremesinghe and the Government in the videos that circulated on social media platforms.
Over 20 political parties, and more than 100 trade unions, student movements, and civil organisations, including the SJB, the SLFP, the FSP, the CTU, the IUSF, and the YJA, which signed a joint statement to defeat the “suppressive programme of the current Government led by Wickremesinghe” on 25 October, announced earlier that they would hold a massive protest in Colombo yesterday.
The attendance at yesterday’s protest was however seen to be less than the pre-“aragalaya” SJB protest at the Galle Face green