HISTORY IN THE MAKING

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In a historic turn of events, Sri Lanka citizens ousted an Executive President through islandwide protests, drawing the attention of the whole world.

This is the first time; a President is ousted before completing his term following public protest in Sri Lankan history.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who received 6.9 million of votes in Presidential Election 2019, promised a better future for the country. He said he would end the corrupted politics and established discipline in the country. Rajapaksa pledged to bring a new era of politics to the country.

However, his failures started to mount when his government, soon after being elected in 2020 with a landslide victory which gave them a two-thirds majority in Parliament decided to introduce massive tax reliefs. Decline of State income became worse when the tourism and export sectors collapsed following Covid-19 pandemic.

His chemical fertiliser ban gravely affected the agriculture sector, leading the country into a food shortage.

However, neither Rajapaksa nor his government did not accept the fact that the country was on the face of massive economic turmoil.  The ministers in his Cabinet mocked those who warned about a forex crisis and chemical fertilise ban.

Farmers, islandwide took to the roads demanding fertiliser. They carried out protests since the middle of last year.  However, Rajapaksa and the government was in a firm stance that the ban on chemical fertiliser would not be lifted.

The country a leading example for the rest of the Asia once declared as a failed state. Soon, the citizens could not even fulfil their basic needs owing to the escalating economic crisis. Therefore, naturally, as any other country, Sri Lankans too demanded the resignation of the President who must take the accountability for the abyss they were forced into.

Candle light protests had been organised in several areas by a civil society organisation called Black Cap Movement in the Western Province against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government including at Jubilee Post Junction where Rajapaksa’s private residence is.

At this time, the number of hours of daily power cuts was increased day by day. The longest power cut was 13 hours.

On 30 March, a protest was organised at Viharamahadevi Park.  A youth, Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne posted on his facebook on 29 March that he would come to the road on the next day to protest against the President and the government alone. This facebook post went viral, and hundreds of people gathered at Viharamahadevi Park on the evening of 30 March. 

31 March – Mirihana boils up

The pressure mounted on Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government reached its pinnacle when thousands of protesters gathered near Jubilee Post junction in Mirihana where Rajapaksa’s private residence is nearby.

The protest started with few hundreds of people in the evening. However, with the time, thousands of people gathered at Jubilee Post junction.

After few hours, the Police and the military attacked the protesters to disperse the crowd.

A total of 45 persons involved in the protest were arrested, Police Spokesman S.S.P Nihal Thalduwa said.

Several vehicles were set ablaze belonging to security forces, including an army bus, a police bus, two motorcycles, a jeep and a three-wheeler.

However, no one has arrested with regard to setting fire on Army bus so far.

While 37 persons were injured and admitted to the Colombo National Hospital, five Police Officers including an Assistant Superintendent (ASP), fourteen Special Task Force officers, three journalists and civilians were amongst those injured.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa declares a temporary State of Emergency following the protest near his private residence on 1 April. 

Despite the State of Emergency and the curfew, protests and Hartals were carried out islandwide with a massive participation of the citizens.

Almost all of Sri Lanka’s cabinet resigns on 3 April, leaving President Rajapaksa and the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa – the prime minister – isolated. New cabinet was appointed on 19 April.

On 4 April, protests were organised in every town in the country as well.

9 April – GotaGoGama established

The protesters who gathered in front of the Presidential Secretariat decided to stay at Galle Face site until Gotabaya Rajapaksa tendered resignation. They established a model village near the Presidential Secretariat and named it ‘GotaGoGama.’

GotaGoGama soon became the heart of the ‘Aragalaya.’ It undoubtedly bears the hopes of the entire country for a better future that is free from family rule, nepotism and corruption.

19 April – Police kills a person during a protest for fuel in Rambukkana

In a tragic turn of events, a civilian was killed while a dozen others were injured when Police opened fire to disperse angry protesters that was blocking the main railway line and the main road in Rambukkana.

Subsequently, Police imposed an indefinite curfew effective from last night in the Rambukkana area.  

A large number of civilians gathered near fuel stations since Monday night were agitated by last morning as fuel bowsers which came to the fuel station did not unload stocks until prices were increased on night of the previous day (18).

They eventually blocked the main road and the main railway line in protest. Police said, the protesting mob continuously refused to vacate the railway line thus they used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Twenty-four injured individuals who were at the scene were admitted to the Kegalle Hospital including 10 Police personnel. 

“They began pelting stones at the Police and Police opened fire,” Police Spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa said. 

A protester told Ceylon Today that Police fired at the mob twice within a span of half-an-hour. 

 “Police fired tear gas at the protesters. The protesters then threw a few tear gas canons back at the Police. Then some protesters pelted stones and Police opened fire. About half-an-hour later, the Police once again opened fire, this time they fired from the rear,” he alleged. 

Although the Police alleged the protesters set a three-wheeler on fire, the driver of the vehicle testifying before the Kegalle Magistrate Wasana Navaratne during Magisterial Inquest said he saw a group of Police officers started the fire.

6 May – Underwear Protest

In a unique protest, male and female undergarments were hung on Police barricades set up near the Parliament (Polduwa Junction).

The protesters hung undergarments with various anti-government slogans written on them, demanding the President to step down immediately.

9 May – SLPP goons set country on fire

Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his close confidants led by MP Johnston Fernando and Sanath Nishantha provoked SLPP supporters and instigated them to attack peaceful protesters in front of Temple Trees and Galle Face in a final attempt to retain power that resulted in a bloodbath in the country.

Violence escalated all over the country, when a large number of Mahinda Rajapaksa supporters attacked peaceful protesters at the GotaGoGama protest site at Galle Face in Colombo, killing 9 people, including a Parliamentarian. After creating the chaos, Prime Minister Rajapaksa tendered his resignation.

At least 223 persons were injured during the attack on Temple Trees and Galle Face.

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. It is alleged that the Police did not do enough to prevent the clashes when the pro-Rajapaksa group was heading towards Galle Face.

Enraged by the attacks on peaceful protest sites, people across the country took to the streets and started to attack the buses that were carrying pro-Rajapaksa protesters and property of ruling party politicians.

The people responded to violence spurred by the pro-Rajapaksa group by assaulting them in return. Dozens of Rajapaksa supporters were blocked by the anti-government protesters after they jumped into Beira Lake in Colombo. Rajapaksa ally Mahinda Kahandagama was assaulted by the protesters too.

Just after the reporting of the attack, JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake arrived at GotaGoGama. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and a group of SJB MPs also visited the scene, but were chased away by the protesters.

Furthermore, buses that carried the pro-Rajapaksa group to Colombo were blocked and attacked as well.

The ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in Medamulana, Hambantota was attacked by protesters. The Rajapaksa Museum in Medamulana was set on fire as well. Houses and vehicles of MPs including Gamini Lokuge, Sanath Nishantha who led a pro-Rajapaksa group to Galle Face, Johnston Fernando, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, Janaka Tissakuttiarachchi, Shantha Bandara, Kanaka Herath, Nimal Lanza, Anusha Pasquel, Prasanna Ranatunaga, Kanchana Wijesekara, Ali Sabri Raheem and Moratuwa Mayor Saman Nanda Lal who led the group to Galle Face were set on fire by angry protesters. Avenra Gardens Hotel in Negombo was attacked too.

Ruling party MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala and his driver were killed by a mob in Nittambuwa. One youth who was among three persons shot by a security persons of the MP when the angry mob surrounded the vehicle. Two more people were killed in Weeraketiya in a shooting at the residence of the Chairman of Weeraketiya Pradeshiya Sabha while five others were injured. 

Immediately after the clashes, Police curfew was imposed in the Western Province. However, following the escalating riots, general curfew was imposed islandwide.

GotaGoGama was rebuilt on the next day (10).

9 July – People occupy President’s House in Fort

In a historic turn of events, tens of thousands of people occupied the Presidential secretariat, the President’s House in Fort and the Temple Trees, following a mass scale protest which they called ‘the final battle’ to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government.

A mass scale protest had been organised as it was the third-month anniversary ‘GotaGoGama.’

Although the public was suffering from the fuel crisis and food crisis, many arrived in Colombo in the morning of Saturday sacrificing the last drops of fuel in their vehicles. Many came on foot while people from distant areas managed to get there on time by train. They headed to Colombo by various modes of transport, braving the fuel crisis, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. A container vehicle on the road was also seen bringing a group of protesters.

To disperse the crowd gathered in Fort, the Police started to fire tear gas and water cannon after 9.00 a.m. However, it did not stop the sea of people from joining the protest.

The Armed forces fired live ammunition at the people who gathered near the President’s House.

Dozens of protestors sustained injuries due to the attacks by the Police and the Armed Forces.

A person was seen beaten mercilessly, by Police officers using poles and batons, when he crossed the barricade in front of the President’s House. This prompted the thousands of the people to break through the barriers and occupy the President’s House. The protesters also broke the human shields of Police and Armed Forces and the iron barricades.

Amidst heavy attack of tear gas and water cannon in the surrounding area, the protesters managed to clear the path towards the President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat.

All the roads surrounding the area were seen as a sea of people. They did not back off and marched forward together, helping those who came under tear gas attacks.

The constructions sites and several hotels offered water to the protesters who were temporary backing off after coming under tear gas attacks. Some hotels offered food to the people who ran into the hotel premises to find shelter.

At the end, when the hundreds of thousands of people marched forward, the Police and Armed Forces stepped backwards.

The protesters then occupied both the President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat. In the evening, the protesters also occupied the Temple Trees and were seen using the gym in the premises.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was evacuated from the President’s House in the morning on 9 July, fled to Singapore via the Maldives. He sent the resignation letter to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

By Methmalie Dissanayake