Colombo: Members of the Sri Lankan parliament took to the streets Sunday to protest against the incumbent Rajapaksa government, defying the weekend curfew in place from Saturday 6 pm to Monday 6 am.
The curfew was put in place to quell large scale protests that had been planned across the island country. Around 664 people were arrested for violating curfew Saturday night, with the police questioning anybody out on the streets past 6 pm.
However, members of the opposition broke curfew and went ahead with their protest Sunday, chanting “Go, Gota, go!” and “Gota, go home!” — a reference to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
“We came as members of parliament today to protect the fundamental rights of the people of our country,” MP Mayantha Dissanayake told ThePrint. “Democracy will prevail. You can’t hoodwink people like this. The country is in dire straits politically, economically and socially, and we will fight with the people.”
The economic crisis in Sri Lanka took a turn Thursday, 31 March, when protestors encircled President Rajapaksa’s home. A state of emergency was declared Friday, and the surprise curfew came into effect the next evening.
“We are really glad that people have realised the reality now,” said Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, a former military chief and member of parliament. “We are all united now. Even the policemen who are standing here. You can see their body language. They are with us.”
“The government is cornered and helpless. They have no solutions. The only option they have now is to go home,” Fonseka added.
Spontaneous protests despite social media ban
On Sunday morning, the streets of Colombo were barricaded and eerily silent. But by Sunday afternoon, the mood had changed — and people were on the streets unprompted by organisers, who told ThePrint they had decided to stand down out of concerns for safety.
The protests have been taking place for over a month, in response to long power cuts and shortages of essentials like fuel, milk, and rice. Sri Lankan citizens have been asking the Rajapaksa government to step down, with slogans like #GoHomeGota.
The Sri Lankan government also blocked Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Viber, TikTok, Snapchat, IMO and Telegram early Sunday morning. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission said the ban was a request from the Ministry of Defence.
However, after sharp criticism, the government restored access to the social media platforms Sunday afternoon.
The social media ban was also seen as a move to stop people from mobilising. However, most people continued using social media through VPN — including members of the government like Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, who criticised the ban despite being the nephew of President Gotabaya and son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
While organisers told ThePrint they weren’t planning for mass scale protests, people gathered in neighbourhoods like Kotta, Nugegoda and Rajagiriya. Violence broke out in Kandy, with police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse student protestors at the University of Peradeniya.
However, in other parts of Sri Lanka, such as Homagama Saturday evening and Ragama Sunday afternoon, the police was observed not intervening against protesters.
Opposition MPs told ThePrint that the people’s anger is justified. “It’s not practical to keep people confined in a state of curfew,” said Field Marshal Fonseka. “They have no food. They have no diesel, no electricity, no gas. One of these days, the government will feel the power of the people.”
Lawyers also make their view clear
The legal community in Sri Lanka has also made its feeling clear. The Bar Association expressed grave concern over the situation, and over 300 lawyers went to offer pro bono legal aid to the 53 persons arrested after Thursday’s protest at the President’s residence.
Lawyers were also present to offer support to student activist Thisara Anurudda Bandara, who is the adminstrator of a Facebook group called ‘Go Home Gota’. Bandara was arrested just past midnight Saturday under Section 120 of the penal code, which is an offence to “excite or attempt to excite feelings of disaffection to the State”. He was detained at the police station, and was finally produced at court and granted bail at around 2 am Sunday.
A moment to be proud of when the legal community united to uphold justice and resist the impunity of the State.
— Mahishaa Balraj (@Mahi_shaa) April 3, 2022
“There’s been resounding support from the legal community. I think the momentum will help us push against any kind of impunity the state has in attacking, arresting, or detaining civilians,” said Mahishaa Balraj, an attorney at law. Balraj and other lawyers were present until Bandara was granted bail.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)