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Sri Lankans ready to walk difficult road to save their country

by Luqmaan Rawat
Protestors standing on top of a riot van Photo Marlon Ariyasinghe

Sri Lanka – After months of peaceful protests Sri Lankans finally stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence in the capital of Sri Lanka. Protestors from all over the country gathered in Colombo demanding his resignation over mismanagement of the country’s economic crisis.

There was a call for all Sri Lankans to come to Colombo to pressurise the President and force him to resign. Protestors built a makeshift village outside the Presidential Secretariat called Gota-Go-Gama. After establishment it grew in the ninety days before protestors finally stormed the Presidential Secretariat, said Marlon Ariyasinghe, a senior assistant editor at Himal Southasian. The president’s residence was also stormed by protestors.

“Protesters were able to break in. They broke through the barriers, and they are basically just going around the premises. They have occupied the premises and they still demand for the president to resign. The protesters are saying that they will not go home until this happens.”

The outcome of the protests and storming of the offices

The storming of the Presidential Secretariat and residence led to a meeting being called by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Although the meeting was not attended by the two main oppositions, National People’s Power (NPP) and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJP), it has been reported that “all party leaders have demanded the president listen to the people’s mandate and for him to resign”, said Ariyasinghe.

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Sri Lankans coming together

There has been a strong security force in Colombo over the past months. Military and police have come out in full force. This strong showing of force was still not enough to stop protestors. There were several attacks against protestors, but this would not dissuade them, said Ariyasinghe.

“We saw lots of military buses and personnel coming into the capital. In the morning there were several attacks of tear gas and water cannons just to dissuade the protesters from breaking down the barriers. As of now what I have observed is the fact they are letting the protesters express their freedom of expression. Simply because there’s just too many people. I have never seen this many people in Colombo who have come out with a single-minded thought.”

Excessive violence used on protestors

Although the protestors got through, it was not without incident. There have been many reports that the police and military used excessive force on protestors and journalists. One person was also killed when demonstrators stormed the Presidential Secretariat, said Ariyasinghe.

“At the very beginning the police and the armed forces used excessive force against these protesters. They actually shot at protesters. There was one fatality that was reported during that day. Along with that there were many who were hospitalised, many who were assaulted.”

There also exists video footage of journalists being beaten up by police who were at the Prime Minister’s home, said Ariyasinghe.

Ariyasinghe is of the opinion that if the police handled things differently, there wouldn’t have been any fatality. The Sri Lankan police, and military forces are known to use excessive force quite frequently. The violence and tense situation arose from the excessive force used against them.

“There’s a culture of violence that is endemic to the forces. This is a problem that is inherent with the police forces and how they handle protesters in these types of volatile situations … There were situations where the protests were quite tense and volatile mostly, in my opinion, due to excessive force that was used by the police force.”

The path going forward for Sri Lanka

According to experts, Sri Lanka has reached these stages because of mismanagement of funds. They are currently facing fuel shortages, rolling black outs and high increases in food prices. Ariyasinghe said steps should be trying to gain some political stability.

“This is very much a developing situation, and we are also waiting to see how this will develop in the next few days. We are hoping for some sort of a political resolution and political stability to be established within the next week because we have pressing economic issues that need to be sorted out as well.”

Economists fear that Sri Lanka will not be able to pay back its foreign debts and have urged them to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. This could help Sri Lanka out of a tough situation but in order to get the loan there needs to be political stability in the country. The next government will have to obey the conditions as well.

“There were economic experts who were asking the government to discuss with the IMF and get a possible deal and a possible way forward … As I understand it will take some time. I think five or six months for the new deal to be properly negotiated. The IMF has been consistently saying they are willing to help and support Sri Lanka in whatever means possible but there are conditions.”

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Sri Lankans are prepared to struggle 

The new government will need to prove they can fulfil these conditions. The people of Sri Lanka know the process will be long and difficult. The people want political stability. It is why they left their homes even while transport is crippled, said Ariyasinghe.

“People are aware that the next six months is going to be difficult but in order for them to have some sort of resilience they need optimism and hope that things will change. A new political force will usher in that kind of optimism. People will feel that they have done something substantial to change the situation that they are in.”

The protest saw no infrastructure being damaged aside from a fire that occurred at the Prime Minister’s house. That is being investigated. There are also unofficial reports the President has agreed to step down on 13 July. There has been no statement from him or his office regarding that. Protestors still occupy the government buildings saying they will only leave once the President and Prime Minister resign.

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