Anti-government protests: Sri Lanka’s protesters are not giving up

Status: 04/27/2022 2:46 p.m

Thousands of demonstrators have been taking to the streets of Sri Lanka for weeks to demonstrate against President Rajapaksa and the devastating economic crisis. Is there now movement in the power struggle?

By Peter Hornung, ARD Studio New Delhi, currently Colombo

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known as Gota, can’t help but hear it. For three weeks now, thousands of demonstrators have been calling for his resignation – and that of his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – on the “Galle Face” lake promenade in Colombo every evening.

It is a peaceful protest, says organizer Franco, and above all a protest by people from all social groups: “We came here knowing that we are all Sri Lankans. Not just Catholics, Buddhists or Muslims. We feel very much connected to each other. And we are focused on our common goal: get rid of the government.”

It is important that the public sees the protests – in the country, but also elsewhere in the world. That’s why they filmed everything and put it on the Internet, says bank manager Inosha: “I use Instagram. Others use Twitter and Facebook. All available social media.” According to the 48-year-old, she herself was hardly affected by the severe economic crisis. But she came to the protests out of solidarity, “because many poorer people cannot afford to travel to the capital.”

High spirits

They have set up a tent village just a few meters from the sea, they call it “Gotagogama”, which means “Gota-hi-the-village”. Dozens of the protesters camp here. In the evening, people flock there from all over Colombo, but also from other parts of Sri Lanka, to protest together.

Anti-government protests gather in Colombo, especially in the evenings.

Image: ARD New Delhi

The atmosphere is mostly exuberant and cheerful, has something of a folk festival. Soup is distributed, there are free drinks at another booth, everything was donated. The Red Cross and the Johanniter have set up medical guards, ambulances are on standby. Lawyer Danye and his colleagues also have a stand, all with accurate white shirts. “Legal Aid Office” reads a poster: “We’re volunteers here and don’t belong to any political group. We just want to support the demonstrators and educate them about their rights.”

The demonstrators in Colombo are holding out in tents – their protest is designed to last.

Image: EPA

The debts take over

In the last few months things have gone downhill rapidly in Sri Lanka. The government can no longer service the country’s debts, and the country is on the verge of national bankruptcy. A mountain of 25 billion US dollars in foreign debt has piled up. “In early 2022, Sri Lanka was due to pay its creditors $7 billion,” says renowned economist Ganeshan Wignaraja. “But that only compares to currency reserves of 1.9 billion.”

The crisis is largely self-made – due to serious mistakes by the Rajapaksa government, which banned the use of artificial fertilizers from one day to the next last year. “They were very badly advised,” says Wignaraja. As a result, there were bad harvests and huge slumps in revenue. “Today we have a debt crisis and an economic crisis. On the one hand, the economy as a whole has become unbalanced. And then there can be bad luck: Corona and the Russia-Ukraine crisis.”

In fact, tourists could not come to the country for more than two years because of the pandemic. As a result of the war in Ukraine, fuel became immensely expensive, and tea exports to Russia collapsed.

Stand in line – for everything

Now Sri Lankans have to queue for whatever they need, if they can get it at all. There are dozens of cars in front of gas stations, often waiting in vain for a tank to be filled. People are no longer coming to work because there is no gas – just like fishermen who cannot go out to sea without fuel.

Poorer families in particular can no longer afford to cook because the prices for the necessary gas bottles have more than tripled within a short period of time. And even imported medicines are becoming scarce, from paracetamol to heart and diabetes medicines. In addition, there are power outages that paralyze entire districts by the hour.

“Gota get lost” – the demand of the demonstrators in Colombo is clear,

Image: AFP

No gasoline for school buses

The Rajapaksa government is to blame for the misery. That’s how 13-year-old Leenara, who came to the protests with her father, sees it: “Because of this economic crisis, we can’t go to school because there’s no fuel for the school buses,” she says. “There is no milk powder for us either. Everything has become so expensive.”

Father Dan says he used to support the Rajapaksas. But that’s a thing of the past now: “Last time I helped with the current government’s election campaign. But now I’ve come here to be with all these people.” And against nepotism and corruption associated with the Rajapaksa family.

The Sri Lankans are no longer satisfied with the Rajapaksa brothers at the head of the country: Caricatures of the two hang in the protest camp.

Image: ARD New Delhi

A different picture outside of Colombo

Despite the protests, Colombo has recently been quiet. Outside the capital, however, a demonstration escalated last week. The security forces had used tear gas, shots were fired into the crowd, one demonstrator died and thirteen people were injured.

Since Sri Lanka’s government is currently negotiating with the International Monetary Fund to get new loans, the Rajapaksa clan will not dare to take violent action against the demonstrations in Colombo, many people hope.

In the past few days there has been movement in the conflict: the President has apparently signaled that he no longer wants to stand in the way of an interim government on principle. The opposition wants to use non-partisan experts who will govern the country for a few months.

Using jammers against live reports

However, the Rajapaksa government is still actively trying to prevent so many live reports from the site of the protests, says protester Inosha. They found out that there was a jamming transmitter at the central location of the protests, which the government apparently had installed.

“We can’t go live in certain places anymore, so we just record it and post it afterwards,” says Inosha.

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