Rising from the ashes with renewed hope

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“They shot us in our heads. What they did not know was the struggle was beating in our hearts.”

Artist Sujith Rathnayake was painting a Sinhalese sentence which read the above on tiles that were leaned against short walls at Galle Face. His little art gallery inside a tent at GotaGoGama, the anti-government protest site demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation had been burnt down by ruling party thugs on the previous day. However, he was determined to rebuild the hut again, this time with more artistic aspects.

GotaGoGama or Occupy Galle Face defined Sri Lankan politics for 30 days. According to several foreign intellectuals, the world has never seen a protest site like this. It was completely peaceful. The youth and adults shed their political differences and remained there with one intention, which is to get the President to resign. They chanted slogans of a system change in front of the Presidential Secretariat day and night, but never threw a stone at the building. Even amid trying circumstances, they remained peaceful, because they did not want to commit the same mistakes as the previous generations that led the country into bloodbaths. GotaGoGama is the symbol of the people’s struggle ‘Aragalaya’ for a country without a corrupt political and social system.

However, the site was attacked on 9 May. The huts were burnt down. The youths were stabbed with knives and attacked with poles.

The incidents began following Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s meeting with SLPP supporters in the morning. The supporters urged Rajapaksa not to resign. The PM at the meeting vowed to his supporters that he would make any sacrifice on behalf of the country. According to video footage, the supporters were seen urging each other to visit ‘GotaGoGama’ after the meeting.

They then assaulted anti-government protesters who were part of the protest site that was set up in front of Temple Trees under the name ‘MynaGoGama.’

They confronted the anti-government protesters, started to break the huts. Anti-government protesters were assaulted by Rajapaksa supporters and several of their protest-related material was removed and set alight by SLPP supporters.

A few photojournalists were also attacked by several SLPP supporters and were eventually assaulted by those who were at the scene.

The protesters also broke the Police barricades and entered the GotaGoGama protest site. They attacked huts erected by the Red Cross, St. John Ambulance Service and protesters. A part of the library at the protest site was also destroyed.

The Police fired tear gas; however, it was not enough to stop the violence. The Police did not do enough to prevent the clashes when the pro-Rajapaksa group was heading towards Galle Face.

However, unfortunately for the thugs, people were already getting together to rebuild GotaGoGama from the ashes and ruins.

At the time we visited the premises, all the huts that were destroyed by the goons had been restored. GotaGoGama library, the most iconic construction of the site had been erected majestically. Inside, the people were in a different world, with a book in their hand. Staff members of the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Service had resumed their services. Journalists were discussing about the situation in the country inside the media centre. The youths who escaped from the previous day’s horror were hugging each other and smiling.

In the evening, the Police Scene of Crime Officers (SOCO) arrived for a site investigation of the huts attacked and burnt down. They requested the protesters to support them. The protesters, who created a human chain around the SOCO Team, accompanied them to the site where there were burnt-down huts.

When we were leaving the site, a student activist was addressing the crowed at the entrance of the Presidential Secretariat. His voice had become hoarse. But he kept speaking energetically. Hundreds of people around him were listening enthusiastically with new hopes on their faces. On the previous day, when the site was being desecrated by ruling party thugs, their eyes had been filled with tears, while their faces had been painted with horror. However, this was a new day, with new hopes and determination.

“This is the most beautiful country. We have everything here. We need to change this corrupt system. Aren’t we going to change that system my dear brothers and sisters? Aren’t we going to do everything we can to create a prosperous country for the future generations? Aren’t we going to make these corrupt and barbaric leaders resign?” he questioned. The people cheered, vowing not to give up the peaceful struggle.

(Pix by Sarath Kumara, Rebecca Pavey and Methmalie Dissanayake)

By Methmalie Dissanayake in GotaGoGama