Waving small Sri Lankan flags, they persist. Day or night, with women and children, demonstrators and supporters fill the improvised protest site a fortnight ago at the gates of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential office building on the Galle Face waterfront in Colombo. Taking over the lawn and the sidewalks, the peaceful defiance was arranged in a large encampment of numbered tents, with improvised speeches, political parades, citizen initiatives and artistic expressions.
The rallying cry
Hoisted above the elegant avenue by the sea, two large banners set the tone: “Give us back our stolen money”and “Go Home Gota”, (“Go home, Gota”, for “Gotabaya”), a slogan that has become the protest rallying cry across the country. This camp has been baptized the “village of Gota-Go” (“GotaGoGama”), a name that sympathizers can get tattooed in ephemeral ink under a tent, with the feeling of writing an extraordinary moment of the history of their country.
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Originally, the spontaneous anger of the population in the face of the most serious economic crisis known to Sri Lanka since independence. Record inflation, fuel and electricity shortages, the over-indebted island of 22 million inhabitants brutally accuses disastrous government management, combined with the blow to tourism by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sri Lanka had its wings cut off in mid-flight as it dreamed of being a new Singapore, as evidenced by the luxury hotels and the construction site of a port marina which surround the “village” of the demonstrators.
The latter therefore demand the resignation of the head of the nation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former soldier elected president in 2019, and the end of the reign of the authoritarian family clan embodied by the elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, ex-president and current prime minister. In a capital where criticism of the Rajapaksa was only exercised in a low voice, the “village” has become the symbol of a new freedom of expression, led by a youth who dreams of reinventing a country ” more just “.
The hope of a “cultural revolution”
“Sri Lanka is awakeningassures, smiling, Sandunika Ratnayaka. People have reacted to the difficulties of shortages, and now it is a question of rethinking the system”. This 28-year-old woman set up a tent-library with the hope of sparking a “cultural revolution” : “The future of our country should no longer be based on families of politicians but on our aspirations. » Next door, the other tents are those of the “university”, where debates are organized, a legal advice office, or even a “forum for citizens”.
“We’re getting people’s suggestions for new laws, including mandatory transparency on politicians’ wealth and assets,” explains student Manoji Gunasekara. Further on, personalities discuss a draft amendment to the Constitution which, under popular pressure, could be voted on in Parliament in order to reduce presidential powers. Elsewhere, protest is also expressed through concerts, paintings and plays. The organization of the village is marked by creative solidarity, with donations to ensure the distribution of water and food, taking care to store waste.
“The government betrayed”
At the end of the day, when the sun is less hot, the crowd invades the place. This weekend, thousands of students responded to the call, but also farmers, entrepreneurs, tea plantation workers and trade unionists. Expressing the same anger, they hold up messages written in felt-tip pens on sheets. “This government has betrayed us”, ” Power to the people ! », “Gota, you’re going to prison”or “You stole our future”. “It’s a peaceful resistance movement, a kind of revolution, comments the young Harindrini Corea, dressed in the white sari of lawyers. People want to fight for truth, justice and transparency. »
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If the demonstrators say to themselves “united against the Rajapaksa family” and come from different backgrounds, they mainly belong to the Sinhalese majority, long pillar of the regime of the two brothers. And not everyone is ready to revisit the past. They freeze on the question of violations and war crimes committed under the Rajapaksa, in power during the bloody offensive against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas which were destroyed in 2009. “Our excellent army has never killed innocent people”, refutes Chavidu Dilka, a 23-year-old entrepreneur.
Fear that the situation will escalate
Nevertheless, the protest themes widen. Justice is demanded for the victims of the 2019 Easter attacks, but also for the journalists, politicians and opponents murdered or disappeared under the Rajapaksa regime. Some facts date back more than fifteen years and reappear in the collective memory. A tent is dedicated to “enforced disappearances”where mothers and wives of missing men stand. “The young generation that demonstrates here is sensitive to these tragedies”believes Jennifer Virasina, whose son was kidnapped by the army in 2008. She remains convinced that he is still alive, “imprisoned somewhere”.
Raising white flags stained with blood red, a procession paid tribute on Saturday to a Protestant killed a few days earlier by the police in the center of the country. Lawyers in the capital are extremely mobilized to protect the rights of demonstrators. Their representative on Sunday called the authorities and the police “to act with the utmost restraint in all circumstances”.
A country undermined by the corruption of a family
Anger in Sri Lanka is directed at the all-powerful Rajapaksa family in power as the island faces its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948.
The crisis began with the rise in fuel prices. Since the start of the year, gasoline has increased by 90% and diesel, used for public transport, by 138%.
Sri Lanka’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, was first hit by the Islamist attacks on Easter Sunday 2019, then torpedoed by the Covid-19 epidemic.
But, according to economists, bad political decisions accentuated the economic difficulties of the island.
On Monday April 18, a new government was formed, dismissing in particular two of the brothers and a nephew of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The new government retains the same Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, eldest brother of the president, considered the leader of the ruling clan.