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Monday, April 15, 2024

Sri Lanka Brief Update: Mass protests in Sri Lanka – Issues and Developments

  1. A country wide protests the unbearable living conditions had been planned for 03rd April by a social media campaign #GoHomeGota.  The campaign was gathering momentum as increasing number of political and civil actors were pledging their support.
  1. Small scale pocket protests had been ongoing for more than a month on issues like scarcity of cooking gas, liquid and powered milk, fuel etc. On the top of these issues government imposed daily a 08–13-hour power cut.
  1. Sri Lanka’s acute forex crisis has led to steep rise of prices. Sri Lankan currency LKR depreciated nearly 30% within weeks once it was unpegged. It is not only a economic crisis nut also a crisis of governance. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt is estimated 50 plus Billion US dollars.
  1. The #GoHomeGota became most popular Sri Lanka related hashtag and soon it was joined by #GoHomeRajapaksas hashtag. As Rajapaksa family was holding the posts of President, Prime Minister, Finance Minister, and many other Ministries, peoples wroth was aimed mainly against the Family.
  1. During the preceding weeks, almost all Rajapaksa family members, including PM Rajapaksa’s wife, who were going to attend public functions were hooted and turned back by angry crowds.
  1. On 31 March people living in the neighbourhood (Mirihana) of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence launched a peaceful evening protest campaign. People marched towards his residence and continue the protest. A scuffle between the police and some protesters led to violence, vehicles burned and police and military used tear gas, water cannons and live bullets against the protestors. Dozens injured; 53 persons arrested including 8-10 media personal. Special Task Force of the Police and Army assaulted people, including journalists.
  1. This protest and crackdown of Mirihana protest became a rallying point and clarion call for stronger mobilisations on the 03rd More than 300 lawyers appeared pro bono for the 53 protesters detained by the police and wait 8 hours at Mirihana police and Nugegoda Magistrate Court until the case finished at 10.45 pm.  Except 6, all others were given bail although AG wanted to remand all of them.
  1. On 2nd April midnight admin of the #GoHomeGote Facebook page Anuruddha Bandara was abducted by the police and  HRC SL intervened to locate him. Lawyers, working overtime, were able to get him out on bail next day.
  1. President Rajapaksa declared state of emergency on 02nd April, ahead of the planned protests and imposed 36 hours of country wide curfew from 6.00pm, Saturday the 2nd  till 6.00am on  Monday the 04th . On the same day, social media platforms were blocked  starting from the midnight.
  1. In a surprise move Rajapaksa appointed HRC SL stated that the declaration of emergency had been taken without giving sufficient explanation as to what really threatened national security for the government to take such an extreme measure.
  1. Digital Minster Namal Rajapaksa tweeted that he never condone the social media ban, indirectly pointing the finger towards his uncle, President Rajapaksa. Number of other officials too made critical remarks of Social Media ban.
  1. Activists quickly moved to VPN (Virtual Private Network) and social media ban was thus overturned. On Sunday the 03rd despite the curfew, protests erupted, mainly in the city centres, except in the  Tamil dominated North & East. Main opposition political party  SJB was the first to take to the streets ignoring the curfew. Later JVP led National People’s Force too joined the protest campaign.
  1. As the pressure kept mounting President Rajapaksa revoked the social media ban by mid-day. Tens of thousands of people came out to join the protests which continued till late evening. Toppling the Rajapaksa family rule had become the focus of the protests.
  1. To appease the protestors, cabinet of ministers resigned  en masse around midnight on 03rd April. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained in their respective posts.
  1. On 04th April whole country erupted in huge protests never seen in the country before,  demanding the Rajapaksa government to resign. Protestors gathered outside almost all government MPs’ houses as the public anger rises calling on the government to go home. Around 2000 protesters marched towards even PM Rajapaksa’s ancestral home in their stronghold Tangalle & police had to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters. In Colombo, protestors marched towards Presidential Secretariat and PM’s official residence Temple Trees.
  1. For the first time Tamils staged #GoHomeGota protests on 04th in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Huge numbers gathered to protest under the leadership of TNA in the East. In Colombo Tamil participation was minimal though Muslims joined the protests in hundreds.
  1. On 04th four new ministers were reappointed. Basil Rajapaksa, the former Minister of Finance was not reappointed. President Rajapaksa’s lawyer and former Minister of Justice Ali Sabry was appointed as the finance minister. The cabinet reshuffle did not make any impact on the protests.
  1. President Rajapaksa invited all political parties representing Parliament to accept ministerial posts and join in finding solutions to the national crisis but his plea was rejected by all opposition political parties.
  1. The largest opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has called for dissolution of the parliament. The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) called for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign first, general election to be held and a government approved by the public to be appointed”.
  1. So far there is no viable solution to the present crisis at the horizon. The crisis is not only an economic one bus also an issue of governance.
  1. The most striking feature of the #GoHomeGota protests is the participation of middle class youth, both male and female, in large numbers and its creativity. Participation of the trade unions, NGOs and other traditional civil groups are minimal. Another such a feature is that young parent’s participation in the protests with their kids. Encrypted messaging networks have been created for each district by the #GoHomeGota campaign.
  1. The leading figure of the #GoHomeGota social media campaign is one Pathum Kerner, who resides in the UK at present. He has served as doctor in the Sri Lanka Army during 2008-2009. An eloquent speaker, he has sizable following in social media. In recent you tube discussion he rejects the idea of interim government proposed by President Rajapaksa but envisages 3-6 months of different kind of interim arrangement before a parliamentary election is held. He hints that they will contest as political party in future elections.
  1. It is difficult to fathom the ownership of ongoing protest campaign by any organisation. Majority of the protestors, it seems, does not belong to any organisational set up or adheres to any political opinion. They are angry of their present and future being destroyed by the ruling class and wants a paradigm shift of politics in Sri Lanka.


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