Ahead of Presidential Election, Sri Lankan Protestors Cautious About Declaring Win
Colombo: As Colombo’s protestors crossed 100 days of a sustained campaign against the country’s leaders, there were muted celebrations and a guarded sense of achievement. Cakes were cut and the Aragalaya movement, which has been behind the protests, launched their new YouTube channel.
At Colombo’s sea-facing Galle Face Green, protests have been continuously raging since April 9, triggered by the country’s economic crisis and the political mismanagement wrought by the powerful Rajapaksa family. Fuel queues and food shortages have become routine in this 22-million-strong island nation.
Last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and later resigned, as anger against him and his regime exploded in the capital. Against all odds, Sri Lankans achieved a massive victory. Now the question is, what comes next?
“We have protested in the streets for 101 days, our immediate goals have been achieved, we are happy about that,” said Samith Bodhipaksa, 33, a journalist and general secretary with the All Party Strugglers, a political outfit. “My personal opinion is that this chapter of the protest is over.” He said their group will move out from the protest site after the election on July 20, and focus on other long-term strategies to deal with upcoming challenges. Parliament will meet on Wednesday to decide on a new president.
On Monday, the 101st day of the protests, the street wore a quieter look. Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe had called for an emergency. It was a working day, and perhaps some protest fatigue had set in. One activist admitted as much, saying it was often too “frustrating”. But by evening, activity had picked up again at the protest site, as anti-Rajapaksa songs and slogans broke out on one of the makeshift stages. Beside them, the Aragalaya TV’s production team had set up shop, having gone live 24 hours previously, and now working to broadcast updates from the struggle.
Although their immediate demands have been met – the president resigned last week, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May – not all the protestors are in a hurry to call it a victory just yet. Some fear that Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister and acting president since Gotabaya fled, may be elected to lead the country. He is seen as being too close to the much-reviled Rajapaksa family.
“We will have to wait and see. I don’t think we will be happy after the July 20 election,” said Mohamed Akram, 46, a travel agent who has been volunteering at the protest site. “My body might be tired, but my heart is not tired, I can keep on protesting.”
Akram was sitting inside a large tent marked “Gotagogama College”, a name derived from the slogan that animated the movement. Surrounding him on all sides were other tents – including a large community library, a legal unit, first aid clinic and an LGBT shelter. “The first phase was successful, now we are hoping that Ranil Wickremesinghe will go,” said Uditha Liyange, 30, an environmental activist who has been here for more than 80 days. “This is not the end.” He said they would await the outcome of Wednesday’s vote.
There are also broader goals the movement has been pushing for that cannot be achieved overnight, as they readily concede – such as a rejig of the constitution and an end to the executive presidency. “We want systemic change,” said Sujith Rathnayake, 50, a painter who has set up a studio and gallery in the protest area. “We want a parliamentary system. It will be a long struggle.”
And many struggles are intertwined, as this extraordinary series of protests has shown. At a tent marked “LGBT shelter”, the traditional rainbow of the pride flag is marked with a black band to acknowledge the economic crisis. Under the broader banner of this movement, LGBT protestors say they found a kind of allyship they had not seen before. Homosexuality is still criminalised in Sri Lanka, making the people’s struggle an all-encompassing fight. “Our demands are decriminalise homosexuality and treat us as normal human beings. Don’t question our validity,” said Vasi Samudra Devi, 27, a painter and transwoman activist at the site. “I want to represent myself and fight for our freedoms too.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.