Colombo: Galle Face Green the popular promenade in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo has become ground zero for the protest in and around the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. Protests at the 5-hectare strip which now includes an area popularly called the ‘Gota Go’ village are drawing similarities to Egypt’s Tahrir Square during Arab Spring and Chennai’s Marina beach during the protest for Jallikattu — a popular bull-taming sport —in 2017.
Amid high inflation, falling foreign reserves, fuel shortages, power cuts, medicine shortages, and rising cost of living, the ‘Gota Go’ village has been witnessing a carnival-like atmosphere as citizens from all walks of life join hands to protest against the government.
Scores of young men and women are now staying put day and night, right next to the Presidential Secretariat, in what looks like a tent city of resistance. Protesters who are part of the ‘Occupy Galle Face’ movement have one simple message to the country’s most powerful man – “we will not go home unless you do.”
Protests gaining strength
The citizen’s uprising that has been building up for more than a month intensified over the last week with protesters, especially youth, deciding to ‘Occupy Galle Face’, the sea-facing stretch near the Presidential Secretariat. Dozens of tents have sprung up in the area, where some demonstrators stay overnight, and thousands gather at the venue through the day and well into the night, carrying posters sharply critical of the government.
The government had tried to stop these protests on Saturday when the police moved in a fleet of trucks, however, a stand-off was averted as the vehicles were removed after a few hours.
“The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) received credible information from its members of several police trucks being moved into the vicinity of Galle Face Green, where there is an ongoing mass protest. The trucks have now been removed after it was highlighted on social media and brought to the notice of the authorities,” the Sri Lanka bar association released a statement on Friday.
Protest going strong since April 9
Since 9 April, the numbers have swelled at the Galle Face Green. Unnamed sponsors have set up food, water stalls, and even a pharmacy to give medicine. Tents have also come up for people to camp. The children’s day-care center at the site conducts reading and drawing classes for toddlers. A public library in the village works as the nerve center where suggestions are invited from protesters to improve the country’s accountability. Portable toilets, phone charging stations, power generators, stoves, gas cylinders, health care from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society with an ambulance, and a ‘psychology unit’ offer counselling for protesters.
Some of the protesters are resolutely staying back at the venue since, sleeping in temporary tents braving heavy thunderstorms, such as the one Colombo experienced last week.
The carnival-like atmosphere has been drawing curious onlookers and visitors. The number of protesters swells in the evening when many come to fly kites with ‘Gota Go’ written on them, dog owners bring their pets along with similar slogan boards welcoming people to take photographs of their pooches.
The microphones available at the protest site provides a platform for people to voice their opinion freely.
‘We have nothing left to lose’
Minendra (who goes by his first name), an advertising executive who has visited the protest thrice over the past week says, “By coming to the protest site I’m trying to do my small part for my country. Naysayers will say this is all a waste of time, but those who truly believe in this movement know this can be the epicenter for a major change in the country.”
Meanwhile, Shehan Malaka Gamage, an activist who has previously been arrested for alleging that politicians had used the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings to come to power, has been volunteering at the protest site. “I leave around 5 am for a shower and come back at 8.30. I and other protesters came to Galle Face on 9 April and I have not left since then.”
Gamage who takes care of a stall which provides snacks, water, and a phone charging station is one among several volunteers helping to keep the protest going. Most volunteers setting up stalls and community resources don’t wish to be identified. Gamage says he is here despite possible risks because there is nothing left to lose. “We have no medicine, no food, we are deep in debt, and we have lost our dignity. The only thing left to lose is our lives – do we wait till we lose that too or do we start acting to make sure at least our future generations have a better life?”
‘Rain or shine, we are here to protest’
A college student, who doesn’t wish to be identified, says “There is something almost utopic about the protest. When I’m here I feel a bond with the people of this country which I have never felt before. People here actually throw the trash in garbage cans, never once have I been cat-called by a man. I have seen people helping each other with food and water not expecting anything in return. There is an entire system of voluntary organisation to make this a self-sufficient movement. For me, I am here showing my support because it gives me a chance to show my love for the country, and fellow citizens, we can make a difference in this world.”
Lalith, an environmental consultant, said he had visited the protest at Galle Face to distribute food to the people there. “When it rains we could get in our cars and go home. But people are coming here from faraway places carrying infants. There are people here living in tents keeping the movement going rain or shine. I feel they must be supported in some way. I have never seen so much dislike for a family in power (Rajapaksas), and that dislike is expressed in such a non-violent Gandhian way. The people at Galle Face include the silent protesters, and the singing, and dancing almost like it’s a carnival. But this is simply the people’s way of expressing their anger and frustration.”
Urban waterfronts and their socio-cultural impact
Waterfronts have always played a “significant role in transforming the urban fabric of a city or even reshaping a city’s identity”, according to a World Bank blog. For example, Mumbai’s Marine Drive, an affluent boulevard, represents the city to the world as a cultural icon symbolising the hopes and hustle of Indian youth trying to make it in a big city.
Similarly, Chennai Marina Beach is a tourist attraction for being India’s longest and world’s second longest beach. The promenade is also a reminder to the people about the contributions made by freedom fighters and cultural icons.
Colombo’s Galle Face Green besides having ample space to house thousands of people is close to important establishments like the Indian High Commission, the US embassy, five-star hotels like Taj Samudra, Hilton, and Shangri-La, Colombo’s business towers called the World Trade Centre where Colombo Stock Exchange is located. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka is also located in the area. It is also close to the Port City Colombo project developed with Chinese investment. Most importantly located at Galle Face is the place where the Presidential Secretariat, the President’s office is located.
(Edited by: Manoj Ramachandran)