Thousands participated in a rally held in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on Saturday to mark the 50th day of ongoing agitations against the government in the wake of a severe economic crisis.
Professionals, artistes, students, members of trade unions and the religious clergy marched about 3 kilometres to Colombo’s seafront where demonstrators have been protesting against the government for almost two months now.
Citizens’ protests started several months ago in different parts of the island, as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, triggered by to a balance of payments problem, intensified. Due to the dollar crunch, the government is struggling to pay for essential imports, leaving citizens amid acute shortages of food, fuel, and LPG cylinders. The protests intensified on April 9, with some demonstrators setting up a tent city adjacent to the President’s office, where they began protesting day and night. They named their agitation site ‘Gota go gama’ or Gota go village, after their chief demand that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign for his “failed” response to the crisis.
“The government thinks they can fool us by just reshuffling the pack, but the struggle will go on. We need Gotabaya to go home,” said a protester. The anti-government protests in Sri Lanka have drawn citizens from very diverse backgrounds.
A group that was part of Saturday’s rally held a big banner demanding justice for the families of forcibly disappeared persons. Another group chanted slogans including “No gas, no light, no petrol, no diesel.” Although the crowds at the protests have thinned, some demonstrators have been agitating relentlessly, even after facing violence earlier this month at the hands of Rajapaksa supporters who stormed the area and assaulted peaceful demonstrators. The May 9 incident set off a day of violent, retaliatory attacks by angry citizens targeting homes of minsters and government MPs.
‘A boost to the agitation’
Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down the same day, and the Cabinet was dissolved. Some of the demonstrators have been named as witnesses in the investigation into the attacks. They have been barred from overseas travel. Protesters described Saturday’s rally as a “boost” to continue agitating.
Despite public resistance, President Gotabaya shows no inclination to resign from office. The government has seen other key changes after citizens’ protests began spreading, including Mr. Mahinda’s resignation, the formation of a new cabinet, with the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
However, demonstrators are not convinced that Mr. Wickremesinghe’s appointment heralds political stability for the country or a swift solution that would arrest the economic downturn. Several protesters held banners that read “No deal”, a now-popular expression of resistance to the Prime Minister, whose critics accuse of him of “protecting the Rajapaksas”. A few demonstrators have set up tents outside his official residence and called the spot ‘No deal gama’, or No deal village.
Several Colombo-based foreign missions, notably the United States’, have expressed willingness to work Mr. Wickremesinghe, but not all Sri Lankans see him as a leader who can deliver solutions.
Noted actor and activist Peter D’Almeida who was at Saturday’s rally slammed the appointment, terming it “treachery”. “It is an undemocratic appointment, he has only one seat in parliament…what kind of democracy are we talking about? He has put the same people back in cabinet positions. They are the people who brought this country to ruin, and they are still in power,” he said.
Meanwhile, citizens are facing enormous hardships having to spend long hours in queues for petrol and gas, while coping with prices of essentials skyrocketing. Local media reported several instances of patients, including children, being unable to access emergency medical care due to the fuel shortage, and succumbing to their illnesses.
In his first address to the country after being appointed Premier— for the sixth time —Mr. Wickremesinghe warned citizens of the “most difficult” next few months. The government is counting on support from the International Monetary Fund, in addition to bilateral assistance from India, which has extended $3.5 billion since January, and further support from Japan and China, among others.
(Meera Sreenivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo)