Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the beleaguered president of Sri Lanka, who had insisted that he would stay on as president for his full term despite widespread protests and calls for him to quit, has finally decided to resign on July 13th.
This news came following a massive protest organized for today (Saturday) in which people were urged to come to Colombo and show their displeasure with the government. The government tried to block the protest by declaring a curfew and stopping transport to the city but that seems to have failed as crowds gathered at Galle Face Green, a beachfront esplanade in the heart of the city, right next to the office of the president and just a block away from his official residence.
The protestors stormed the president’s office, with the overwhelmed security forces looking on helplessly.
The scenes reminded me of the January 6, 2021 events in the US. This is the kind of thing that the US protestors must have hoped would happen, that massive crowds would rise up along with them. But that did not happen because the two situations are quite different. In Sri Lanka you had a massively unpopular government that had presided over the complete ruin of the country leaving almost everyone suffering from shortages of even essential items and was refusing to leave, while in the US a new president had just been elected with a large majority and the mob was trying to prevent him from taking office.
The crowds also stormed the president’s official residence, making themselves at home.
As protesters poured into the bedrooms and kitchen and rifled through the president’s possessions, many took full advantage of the president’s luxury amenities which had been denied to them in recent weeks due to rampant food and fuel shortages. Protesters were seen cooking up curries in the kitchen, lying down on beds and sofas, lifting weights and jogging in his private gym and jumping into the outdoor pool.
The president was not at home, having fled the night before under military protection. His location was unknown on Saturday amid rumours he was fleeing the country.
Rajith, 50, said he had come to take part in the protests as he had two young children and “there’s no food to eat”. He spoke of his shock at entering the president’s home and seeing that, while Sri Lankans were suffering, “they didn’t lack anything. We saw their luxury rooms, their AC, their cooking gas. They even have so many pedigree pets.”
Ruki Fernando, an activist, said he had travelled almost 100 miles from the city of Kandy to be at the Colombo protest. On the way he had seen people walking along highways, clutching on to the back of cargo trucks, crushed into lorries and on bicycles, in order to get to the protest despite the lack of transport due to the fuel crisis.
“I have never experienced such a widespread people’s uprising,” said Fernando. “There was such a sense of achievement when people entered the president’s house, and his secretariat. These are all places maintained in luxury by people’s money at a time when the government claims that there isn’t enough money to give medicine, to give food, to give fuel. It’s very politically significant they have been reclaimed by the public.”
The president also has a private residence.
Meanwhile, the private residence of the prime minster Ranil Wickremesinghe was set on fire. He too has an official residence that he uses just for official events.
On Saturday evening, the mood on Colombo’s streets turned tense as protesters breached security barriers and set alight the house of Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was appointed as a caretaker prime minister after Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother and a former president, was forced to step down in May. He had also been facing calls to resign over allegations that he was propping up the Rajapaksa regime.
The arson attack followed an hours-long standoff between protesters and police outside Wickremesigne’s house, with police firing several rounds of teargas into the crowds. Several journalists were violently beaten by police and taken to hospital, prompting a statement from Amnesty International South Asia condemning the “shocking assault”, which was “gravely concerning and blatantly violates press freedom”.
Wickremesinghe has also announced his resignation.
Sri Lanka is a country that has long been split along bitter and violent rivalries based on religion, language, ethnicity, and class. What has been extraordinary about the current protests is how all those differences seem to have dissolved and people are coming together in a show of unity to get rid of a despised government.
I would love to believe that this newfound unity will last and a genuinely inclusive government emerges that seeks to serve all people and not pit one group against another for short-term advantage, as has sadly been the case for so long. But history shows that while deep crises can serve as a unifying force, once the crisis passes, people can revert to old habits and practices.
But we can hope that this time it will be different.
Pierce R. Butler says
“Climax” implies resolution, which implies solution.
I wish I could muster enough optimism to feel that way.
The directors of the World Bank and others of their heartless ilk will have the most say.
Barbara Walter * , who has been researching civil wars and similar conflicts for a while, had an interview in the WaPo.
While she is mostly talking about Jan 6 incident, her words seem very applicable to Sri Lanka as well.
*: (not Walters, the more famous television journalist),
Venkataraman Amarnath says
Please donate to Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar and Madu Selvakumar’s food security effort, it will directly support small-scale food producers, supporting both livelihoods and food for the people.
He fled but didn’t take his pets??? The guy is a monster.
“That guy’s going to steal your cookie” doesn’t work if you don’t have a cookie.