A Turbulent Week in Sri Lanka – what has changed?

May 16, 2022 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

In a turbulent week in Sri Lanka, peaceful protests were attacked, the Prime Minister resigned, the military were deployed to the streets of Colombo, and a new (but old) Prime Minister was appointed.

How did we get here?

For over a month, thousands of Sri Lankans have joined overwhelmingly peaceful protests in Colombo and further afield demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family. Their demands have been ignored.

Everything changed last week. On Monday 9 May, government supporters attacked the main protest site at Galle Face in Colombo, where the ‘GotaGoGama’ protest village had sprung up over the last few weeks. The site included medical facilities, an art gallery and a public library all run by volunteers. Mobs of government supporters, who appear to have been bussed into central Colombo, attacked the site, pulled down and set fire to tents and temporary structures, and even destroyed a memorial to victims of the 2019 Easter bombings. Videos circulated online showed protestors being brutally beaten by the mobs, often in front of police officers who appeared to do nothing to stop the violence. Team Watchdog have produced a timeline of the events leading up to the attack and the attack itself.

In the midst of the violence, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his resignation. However, this did not appease the protestors. Retaliation against government supporters began to break out and violence spread throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Angry protestors targeted property associated with the government, including vehicles of government politicians, buses transporting pro-government rioters, and even politicians’ houses.

Read more about the violence on Al Jazeera and on Team Watchdog.

Crackdown and shades of military rule

On Friday 6 May, three days prior to the outbreak of widespread violence and without apparent cause, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had declared a state of emergency in the country, which later fuelled theories that Monday’s attack had been planned in advance.  Following the violence, draconian emergency regulations were issued which handed yet more power to the already over-mighty presidency at a time when Sri Lankans have been demanding his resignation. These regulations give excessive powers to police and security forces and violate Sri Lanka’s international obligations under international treaties.

Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Kamal Gunaratne – who claims he had been reappointed by the President after the cabinet was dissolved – announced that the security forces had been ordered to ‘shoot on sight’  anyone who was causing harm to others or engaged in looting public property. Meanwhile, armoured military vehicles were deployed on the streets of Colombo.

With no prime minister or cabinet in place, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed even more power than before – the opposite of the central demand of the protests. Many feared that Sri Lanka might slip further into military rule.

Photo credit: Veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) has begun his 6th stint as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, SLC

A familiar face for PM

On Thursday, veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime MinisterThe leader of the main opposition party, Sajith Premadasa, had refused to accept the position until Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped down, or at least until there was a clear timetable for the President’s departure. Several other politicians were reportedly offered the position and put forward similar conditions. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has now been Prime Minister six times, is not known to have set any conditions.

The appointment of a Prime Minister without any timetable for the resignation of the President is unlikely to satisfy the protestors, who have long demanded that the entire Rajapaksa family – especially President Gotabaya – resign from office.

GotaGoGama goes on

Throughout the week, protesters continued to rebuild GotaGoGama, despite threats from the police that the protest site would be cleared. It appears that the immediate threat to the protest site from the authorities has ceased, following an announcement by Army Commander Shavendra Silva that the protest would be allowed to continue as long as they remained peaceful. The resilience and determination of the protestors is astounding. However, some fear that Wickremasinghe’s appointment as Prime Minister has dampened the spirit of the protest and widened divisions among protestors as they debate whether to give him an opportunity to try and ease the economic crisis. Wickremasinghe has been accused of protecting the Rajapaksas during the 2015-19 government; despite many stints in power and many promises, he has never delivered justice for Sri Lanka’s many victims of state crimes.

Where to next?

Since the new Prime Minister was sworn in, many of Sri Lanka’s political parties have announced their support for the new government to address the economic crisis. The island remains in serious economic crisis, with spiralling food and fuel costs making it hard even for middle class workers to buy basics. However. emergency regulations remain in place and the military is still deployed in Colombo – one of the first priorities for the new government must be to remove them and allow peaceful protest to continue.

This week sees another big test for the protest. May 18th marks 13 years since the end of the war, and memorials will be held across the North for the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians who were killed in the final stages of the war in 2009. Will protestors at GotaGoGama hold a memorial in solidarity with Tamil victims of state violence?