Colombo: Anti-government protests will continue in Sri Lanka until acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe resigns, leaders of the movement announced Saturday.
The development comes two days day after the island nation’s embattled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned Thursday.
Buddhist monk Mahanama, one of the 23 leaders of the movement, who call themselves representatives of Gota Go, addressed a press conference Saturday and alleged that Wickremesinghe took control of the government in a “conspiratorial way”.
“We as protesters never wanted to make Ranil [Wickremesinghe] the president,” he said at a press conference held at the ‘Gota Go’ protest site. “But after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister on 9 May, Ranil [Wickremasinghe] became PM not to solve people’s problems or for love of the country but to protest against the Rajapaksas,” he said.
Another protest leader Nuzly Hameem said that Wickremesinghe took over as president on 9 May despite being “rejected by the people”.
“We have achieved the main target of Gota Go Village which was ousting President Gotabaya. But after 9 May [after then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned], when President Gotabaya appointed Ranil as PM, we said we won’t be accepting this because he wasn’t elected as an MP by the people. Ranil was selected by the [then] President and rejected by the people”.
After Gotabaya fled the country to the Maldives on 13 July — and then Singapore, from where he announced his resignation — Prime Minister Wickremesinghe took over as the acting president. He was sworn in Friday after the speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament accepted Rajapaksa’s resignation.
Gotabaya’s resignation letter was read out loud in Parliament Saturday. “Within 3 months of becoming President, Sri Lanka too had to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic,” the letter said. “By that time Sri Lanka was facing economic challenges and I am glad that I was able to protect people from the pandemic during that time. 2020 [and] 2021 the country had to be in lockdown, and economic growth and foreign currency inflows slowed down. I believe I tried my best to solve these challenges, including attempting to form an all-party government,” the letter said.
The presidential election in Sri Lanka will be held on 20 July.
‘We’re not going anywhere’
Despite the resignation, however, the fervor of the protest hasn’t ebbed: indeed, at “Gota Go”, the nerve centre of the protest that sprang up at Colombo’s Galle Face on 9 April, protesters have only been swelling in numbers.
“We are not going anywhere. We will stay because we need to find a leader who will work for the country and make it better again,” a protester at the “Gota Go” site told ThePrint. The protester has been staying at the site since 9 April and sleeps in a tent with 17 others. She’s from Madampe — a town 74 km away from Galle Face — where she ran a catering business.
“[It] could not continue because of the high inflation and food shortage. It was coming to a point where cannot live in our own country,” she told ThePrint when asked why she decided to join the protests.
Gota Go, named after Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who’s called Gota for short, now looks like a full-fledged village.
There are tents with signboards with addresses to help organisers use to keep track of the people they’ve given food to.
Two of the tents are used for farming — a herb garden and green vines — a young protester tells ThPrint.
“It’s by the farming uncle”, said a young man. “Wait for him, he’ll turn up soon.” The “farming uncle” never showed up, however.
There are bright blue mobile toilets nearby. Protesters use the taps installed outside a nearby hotel, the Shangri La, to bath.
There are lines to dry clothes, a school, and a library nearby.
One woman having her lunch nearby told ThePrint that she’s been at the protest site for two months now. She worked at a church in Jaffna — many hours away from the capital.
“I heard about all the suffering our country was facing and decided to come here,” she said, showing ThePrint a wound she got during the 9 July protests to take over official residences of the President, prime minister, and the Presidential Secretariat.
A protest leader who didn’t want to be named told ThePrint that now that Rajapaksa had resigned, there was a possibility that Gota Go” will be renamed but said that some leaders were reluctant given how iconic the name had become.
“Perhaps a name change is a possibility if Wickremasinghe is elected president by the Members of Parliament voting when Parliament meets on 20 July,” he told ThePrint.
Protest leader Hameem said although protesters were demanding Wickremesinghe’s resignation there was no call for protesters to take to the streets at the moment.
Another protest leader, Jeewantha Peiris, a pastor, called Rajapaksa’s resignation “people’s victory”.
“We will be having a remembrance service today (16 July evening) for the people who lost their lives during the protest movement,” he said. “We wanted Gotabaya out, then asked for Ranil to leave — so this protest will continue.”
Eight people lost their lives in the protests that began in April.
There’s now a possibility that Wickremasinghe — who became an MP in 2021 after his party nominated him — will get enough votes from MPs to become President, a protest leader said.
Eighty Members of Parliament from Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the single largest party in the Sri Lankan Parliament with over 100 seats in a total of 225, favour Wickeremesinghe as president.
Former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — who resigned in May after protests against him and his brother Gotabaya escalated — belongs to the party. It was also the SLPP that endorsed Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their presidential candidate in 2019.
A breakaway faction of the party, meanwhile, is supporting Dullas Alahapperuma for the position.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)