Colombo: Sixty-year-old M.L.T. Joseph — dressed in a pink raincoat and blue shower cap when ThePrint caught up with him Friday — has been volunteering as ‘head chef’ at Colombo’s main protest site against the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa led government in Sri Lanka, trending on social media as ‘#GotaGoGama (or Gota Go Village)’. The protest here, at the city’s upscale Galle Face, which started in the wake of the economic crisis facing the country, entered its 34th day Friday.
The big question on Joseph’s mind is whether India took Mahinda Rajapaksa. “Has Mahinda come to you?” he whispers in Tamil to ThePrint. His younger assistants at the village kitchen — made up of two medium-sized rain proof tents, under which people and a lot of pineapples share space — tease him for falling prey to “fake social media posts”. He ignores the teasing and leans in to ask, “So he is still in the Trincomalee naval base”, a reference to the former PM’s reported whereabouts.
It was past-3pm and Joseph had started preparing dinner for the day — tempered dry fish, chicken curry and dhal. For dessert, there was fruit salad with mango, banana, and pineapples, which a farmer had recently donated a heap off, a volunteer at the site said. The fruits were being dutifully chopped into tiny squares by four young people sitting around a large vat.
When ThePrint caught up with Joseph, he was slashing a packet of salt, grabbing a fistful, and throwing it into a large vessel of boiling pulses. “Janatipati seriyila,” he said, which loosely translated meant, “The President is no good”.
Ironically, it was President Rajapaksa, who some years ago had declared the large plot of land to the left of the secretariat as a ‘Demonstration Site’. It is here that the ‘protest village’ again him stands today.
“This (the allotment of the demonstration site by Rajapaksa) was to get people out of protesting in the area in front of the President’s Office,” said Suchith Abeyewickreme, a Colombo resident and trainer in ethics. “This supremely backfired!” he added, with a chuckle.
The ‘Gota Go Gama Village’ formed organically over the last month and today includes its own kitchen, a medical center run by the Sri Lankan Red Cross, a library with 10,000 books, an art gallery and a ‘Teargas Cinema’ hall that screens films. On Friday at 6.30PM, a screening of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You — a film about a delivery guy and his family, who struggle to get by in modern-day England — was scheduled.
The ‘village’ also has a ‘People’s University’, which is a space for like-minded people to get together and debate the state of the economy and polity. “It also has a space for Rastafarians (members of a social movement that had started in Jamaica),” a volunteer says.
The protest which volunteers claimed to be proudly democratic and devoid of a single leader, will continue till the President resigns, they said.
‘Happened for the first time in Sri Lanka’
On Friday, a day after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the country’s new Prime Minister, following the resignation by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (also the President’s brother), the mood at the ‘village’ was contemplative.
Responses to questions on Wickremesinghe ranged from “this will hopefully be good for Sri Lanka” to “he is a failed politician” to “he has no legitimacy”.
Fazmy Mohammad, a former chemist and one of the volunteers who manages the village library puts it bluntly, “We want to change systems, not just heads.”
Mohammad was sitting under a blue tarpaulin, which was constantly being pummeled by the short bursts of rain that Colombo witnessed on Friday.
“Actually, we didn’t sleep the entire night since the rain came down hard and we had to protect all the books,” he explained. What started with five volunteers and 20 books, is now a 50-volunteer and 10,000-books library. “All donated,” added Mohammad. “Even the elaborate teak bookshelves came from a Buddhist temple. People just came by and asked, ‘What do you need?’ and the next day they dropped it off!”
At 4.30pm Friday, seven visitors to the library were enjoying the cool environs of the library tent, with books in their hands, as others stood browsing, or even snoozing. On the shelves were books in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil of all genres — politics, love, revolution, and even books on competitive exams.
“This whole system runs on trust, there is no register for borrowed books. We tell visitors, if you forget to return a book, just donate it to your local library,” said Moammad. “What we are doing here is a revolution based on love and knowledge!”
For Ramindu Perera, a lecturer in law at the Open University of Sri Lanka, this “revolution” has come in the form of a shift in political discourse from just two years ago.
“Two years ago, the anti-Muslim sentiment was extremely strong and look at us today, it is a great display of all ethnic and religious groups coming together in unity,” Perera told ThePrint.
He added: “Such a protest has happened for the first time in Sri Lanka where there is no one person or political party leading the group. When we all came together to Occupy Galle Face, it was a charged and enthusiastic sight with anger, hope, and an imagining of a possibility of a new political conscience.”
‘Dropped everything and ran’
Over the past month, the protest site has evolved into two separate sections — the ‘village’ on the demonstration site and the tents that have come up along the main Galle Face Road, in front of the Secretariat, which is also a space sectioned off for sloganeering by protestors.
On either side of the road are various groups — the very political Inter University Student Federation, environment groups, Youth for National Policy, soldiers who lost limbs in the country’s past civil war, professionals who have come out in solidarity, and medical students volunteering under the curious banner of ‘China Border Beheth Sappuwa’.
“Behind us is the China border,” said Hassan Munaf Muzeer, a medical student from Kandy, who volunteers in the tent. “In 2019, the government handed over this large piece of land to China, to build a port city which will see buildings, hospitals and parks. They brought their own labour and machines, and I am sure even the sand came from China,” he laughed. “Soon, we will need a passport to cross this fence!” said Muzeer, pointing across the road, behind the ‘village’ at the Shangri-La Hotel and the One Galle Mall. “Those have also been bought off by the Chinese.”
Late on Friday afternoon, the Sri Lankan CID dropped by the village to interview protestors who were harmed in Monday’s violent attacks, when goons allegedly hired by the ruling-party went on a rampage. Abeyewickreme thinks of it as an inflection point for the protests. “The attacks on the protestors actually brought people together,” he said.
According to some social media accounts, nuns and priests stayed up through the night, a day after the attacks to protect the area from any outside elements.
For Abeyewickreme what happened on 9 May — when alleged goons ‘attacked’ protestors was an inspiring sight. “People began running from all directions to stand in support of the protestors. There were women in sarees, men in uniforms, women in high-heels, hospital attendants all running towards the protest site. It was really inspiring to watch, and the government did not see this coming,” he recalled
A young man who had been on duty at the front desk of a luxury hotel very close to the protest site, said there were thousands of people running to support the protestors. “I dropped everything and ran too!”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)