Sri Lanka, credit line, protest
Rapid inflation led to widespread protests by Sri Lankan, which eventually resulted in a change of government; the neighbourhood is wary. File photo

Sri Lanka in uncharted territory; on the brink of anarchy

The country is in the midst of its worst ever economic crisis, and continued political instability will only prolong and further worsen the situation

Throughout much of this year, Sri Lankans have been used to staying in queues, be it for food, gas or fuel. A new queue has been added to this since Saturday (July 9) — the queue to see the President’s House, the official residence of Sri Lanka’s President. The compound was breached and occupied by thousands of protesters amid unprecedented scenes.

They walk around the building, taking selfies and group photographs and generally voicing their disgust at the luxury the rulers seemed to have enjoyed while they had been struggling to find essentials and make ends meet for months.

For visitors, the ability to enter the compound is something that was unthinkable until the fateful events of July 9. They now have unrestricted access to a building that was a veritable fortress. It is within this compound that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been holed up since protesters tried to storm the private residence in a Colombo suburb in March.

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After protestors set up camp outside his office at the Presidential Secretariat in early April, Gotabaya had been more or less a prisoner inside the tightly guarded President’s House, with multiple security barricades along all entry points restricting access to the building.

Security force overwhelmed

But those barricades were brought down on July 9 by tens of thousands of protestors who overwhelmed a heavy security presence by sheer weight of numbers. Police and armed forces personnel fired multiple rounds of tear gas and deployed several water cannon trucks in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the crowds from marching up to the gates of the compound.

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Footage that emerged on social media on Sunday (July 10) showed some protestors who had scaled the gates of the President’s House being beaten by security forces personnel and soldiers appearing to fire towards protestors as they attempted to climb over a section of a wall that had been brought down.

The army denied firing at protestors, saying in a subsequent statement that

soldiers had only fired “a few rounds to the air and the sidewalls of the main gate entrance to the President’s House compound as a deterrent.” At least one person, however, remains in critical condition at the Colombo National Hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. Nearly 100 people, including protestors, security personnel and journalists, were injured in the day’s unrest.

Gotabaya was not at the compound when it was breached. He had been moved to an undisclosed location earlier. His whereabouts remained a mystery as of Monday (July 11) night. Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena had earlier told the BBC that the President was out of the country but would return on Wednesday (July 13). He later backtracked, saying he had made a “mistake.”

President Rajapaksa had informed Speaker Abeywardena on Saturday night that he would resign on July 13. The time period from July 9 till July 13 is being taken due to the need to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, he had conveyed. 

Start turnaround for Gotabaya

It was a stark turnaround from the President, who, less than 24 hours before, had sent out a defiant statement in the lead-up to the protests, saying that solutions had been found for the prevailing shortages of essentials such as medicines, cooking gas and fuel. The statement, issued by his media unit, said the President “requested the people to properly understand the current situation and act peacefully and intelligently without getting caught up in wrong ideologies.” 

The government had also tried to put multiple obstacles to prevent people from gathering in Colombo on July 9 in what activists and opposition parties billed as a decisive and final push to force Gotabaya from power. Police Chief CD Wickramaratne announced an indefinite curfew for Colombo and several outlying areas. Train and bus services to Colombo were suspended. The government even instructed the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) to suspend fuel distribution on Friday and Saturday.  

Given that the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has no fuel to distribute, the instructions to LIOC were seen as an attempt to prevent people from going to protest. Thousands of police and security forces personnel were also deployed around Colombo and suburbs.

All roads lead to Colombo

Yet none of these worked. Amid howls of protests from many quarters and statements by lawyers that the curfew was illegal, the government lifted it at 8.00 am on Saturday. Many who had anyway decided to ignore it were already on the streets.

People used whatever means of transport they could find. They packed into lorries, travelled in containers, hitchhiked and cycled. Others simply walked, determined to make their way to Colombo on foot. Those from locations outside Colombo crowded at train stations. At the hill capital of Kandy, 150 km from Colombo, crowds forced the station master to schedule a special train to take protestors to Colombo. 

What followed was unlike anything Sri Lanka had witnessed before. A crowd estimated to be over 100, 000 had arrived by afternoon, converging at the “Gota Go Gama” (Gota Go Village) established outside the President’s office at Colombo’s historic Galle Face promenade. 

After breaching the President’s House, protestors also broke through the barricades and entered the grounds of the Presidential Secretariat. Another group entered the Prime Minister’s office, known as “Temple Trees,” a short distance away. 

The protests were not confined to Colombo, however. Crowds of varying size took to the streets across the country, demanding in one voice what those in Colombo were saying – “Gota Go Home!” In Galle, thousands marched to the historic Galle Fort, where the police and the military had removed protestors last week during the first test match between Sri Lanka and Australia.

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Authorities had claimed that signs held up by the protestors on the fort’s ramparts had distracted the Australian batters, a claim which was subsequently denied by the Australian team management. No spectators had been allowed onto the ramparts on Friday, the first day of the second test. Yet, on Saturday, thousands of protestors simply swept aside the few gun toting soldiers on duty, taking back the fort.

Changed atmosphere

There was no widespread violence unlike what took place on May 9 after supporters of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked peaceful protestors outside Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat. Police and armed forces personnel either withdrew or simply stood back and watched after protestors took over the buildings.

The atmosphere changed towards evening. Some protestors had gathered outside Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence. They too were tear gassed, but the mood turned extremely ugly when a group of journalists from the private television channel Sirasa TV who were covering the protest were attacked by elite police commandos known as the Special Task Force.

The attack unfolded on live television. Seven journalists and camerapersons working for the channel were beaten and hospitalised. As news of the attack spread, many more protesters started converging on the site. The residence was subsequently stormed and set ablaze.

Wickremsinghe released an emotional video statement on the incident on Monday night (July 11). In it, he noted that he had only one house and his most precious possession — his library consisting of some 2,500 books — had been wiped out. They included books that were several hundred years old and written during periods when the country was under Portuguese and Dutch colonial rule, he said.

“There were books autographed by famous personalities like (Henry) Kissinger. I also had many artworks, some dating back more than 200 years. We weren’t going to keep them. My wife and I had decided that we would donate these books and artworks to various libraries. They are all gone now,” the PM lamented. He, however, made no mention of whether he would step down.

Saturday’s events may well profoundly change Sri Lanka’s political landscape. No sitting President has ever resigned from office. If Gotabaya resigns as promised on July 13, the country will be in uncharted territory. Party leaders who met on Monday (July 11) evening agreed to convene Parliament on Friday, July 15, where an announcement will be made that the office of the President had fallen vacant. Nominations will be called on Tuesday, July 19 with a vote to elect a new President held on Wednesday, July 20.

 Opposition parties and the activists who pushed for the President’s resignation also want the Prime Minister to step down with him, but Wickremesinghe has said he is prepared to step down only when an interim all party government is in place.

Towards an interim government

Meanwhile, parties are scrambling to quickly set up an interim government before the President resigns. Several rounds of talks between various parties represented in Parliament were held on Sunday and Monday. The main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has proposed the name of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa to be interim President, while Gotabaya’s party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), has put forward the name of former Minister Dullas Alahapperuma. Alahapperuma was one of 16 SLPP MPs who wrote to Gotabaya on Saturday, urging him to step down.

Political parties must also contend with the people’s movement that forced Gotabaya to announce his resignation. The movement, known as the “Aragalaya” (Struggle), has various factions and some have already put out an “action plan” calling for their representatives to be involved in any interim government through the establishment of a “People’s Council” that has legal standing.

The next few days and weeks will be crucial for Sri Lanka’s future. The country is in the midst of the worst economic crisis since independence and continued political instability will only prolong and further worsen the situation. The country’s Central Bank Governor warned on Monday that political instability will cause delays in talks with the International Monetary Fund aimed at securing a bailout while addressing shortages in fuel, gas and other essentials will also be difficult.

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