By Namini Wijedasa and Tharushi Weerasinghe. April 17, 2022
Hunched over a parcel of rice and curry, five adults and a child share a meal on Galle Face Green. It’s past 4 p.m. on Avurudu day.
All are cultivators: One from Hambantota, another from Kotadeniyawa, a third from Anuradhapura, and the couple and child from Neluwa in Galle. At night, they unfolded a tarp, set up a tent and roughed it out before returning to their homes the next day. Around them, the grounds swelled with a steady wave of boisterous demonstrators.
Like a majority of protestors surging to Galle Face–nicknamed ‘GotaGoGama’ with its own signboards–since April 9, they were angry and disillusioned. And they predicted that more people will arrive next week to air their discontent and to demand that “the Rajapaksas go home”.
“Nobody brought us here,” said Charith Weliwatta, 36, whose two-acre tea estate in Neluwa is yellowing for want of fertiliser. “We organised ourselves. Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Sinhalese, we are all here. They can’t divide us by race anymore. What Banda started, Gota ended.” And he pointed to the statue of S W R D Bandaranaike behind him.
Mr Weliwatta travelled to the protest on his motorbike a one-and-a-half day wait in a petrol line. On the first day, it ran out when he reached the pump. But he persisted because the situation was now unbearable and “has to end, one way or the other”.
“We are not the type that runs for every protest,” said his wife. “We can’t change a country on our own. We stepped out because finally everyone is stepping up. This is a historic moment. Sri Lankans have never before come together in this manner.”
K S Tharanga–his 37-year-old friend from Hambantota–also came by motorbike (24 hours in the fuel queue). He has two demands: abolition of the Executive Presidency and the setting up of “a democracy representative of the people”. “What we have now is pretence of a democracy,” he said.
How are the roads in Hambantota? “They’re lovely,” he scoffed. “We are enjoying the returns now. People use them to dry paddy, kurakkan and gingelly.”
The Galle Face protests are more diverse than anything Sri Lanka has ever witnessed. Participants are from all classes, strata and divides. They take whatever vehicle they can to stream in from towns and villages. Even the Veddas arrived from Dambana. Clergy from all religions were present in large numbers. Famous actors, singers and sportspersons lent support. Some groups travelled en masse by train from the hills, the coastal areas and rural farmlands.
Nimashi, 26, was there with her husband and months-old baby daughter. They took the night train from Polonnaruwa to celebrate New Year at Galle Face and were heading back in the afternoon. “I’m here to secure the future of my child,” the university student said. “There is an unhealthy concentration of power in the hands of a few persons. Rulers are our servants. We appoint them through our vote but they have exploited us. They think they can subjugate us by offering a job, a saucepan or a toilet. They cannot. They must be accountable to us.”
A short distance away, Tamils Sinhalese and Muslims served traditional sweetmeats from a hastily set up tent in the middle of the road. “Ven Kottawe Nanda Thera, the Chief Prelate of the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Centre in New York sent us money to prepare food for protesters,” said Ven Welahinne Wagissara Thera, who was distributing milk rice. “When we got here, we found others looking for space. We ended up in this tent together.”
Next to him, a Tamil child with flowers in her hair carefully placed potato bondas on paper plates extended by protesters. There were drinks and bananas. Elsewhere, as on other days, manioc and pol sambol overflowed. And one food truck handed out packs of string hoppers, dhal and soya meat curry.
Ramesh, 40, was there with five other friends from the hill country. “We came to express support to this protest,” he said, while eating sweetmeats. The cost of living was their main concern. “A kilo of dhal is Rs 500,” said S Balatharsan, 50, from Nawalapitiya. “All the people of this country must stand together.”
The main demand at Galle Face is for all Rajapaksas to quit. The broader cry is against corruption, family rule and concentration of power. There is a loud call for accountability, auditing and asset declaration. And for there never to be a repetition of the mismanagement and abuse that led Sri Lanka to bankruptcy. The placards and the long white banners hung up for people to write messages on were explicit.
“Everyone who is here came because they feel pain for the country,” one student organiser shouted into a megaphone. “If you cannot shout, at least clap for us!” And everyone around him applauded.
“From this Avurudu onwards, we will no longer be fooled,” said Lahiru Weerasekera, 32.
Behind him, a woman shouted into her mobile phone: “Mama aragalayata awa. Aragalaye inne den.” (“I came to the struggle, I’m at the struggle now”.)
By Thursday, participation grew by leaps and bounds. People kept coming–and coming. There were bottlenecks in some areas, so heavy were the crowds. The main activity continues to be around the entrance to Presidential Secretariat where student unions with loudhailers shout slogans, day and night, without a break. They keep the momentum going.
Also in that corner are the more politically motivated groups with an unwavering focus on the stated objectives. Closer to the Galle Face Hotel end of ‘GotaGoGama’ it is more relaxed with children blowing bubbles, flying kites and lolling on the green.
As the numbers rose, so have the various interests groups backing what is now being called the “janatha aragalaya” or the “people’s struggle”. A structure has fallen in place. The stalls came up, the ambulances and medical tents, the artist corners, library, the legal aid tent, phone charging stations, recycling point for plastic bottles, multiple music tents and puppet shows, drawing materials for children, portable toilets and food for everyone.
One group handed out mikes for protesters to express themselves. Another stall had Bristol board with markers and crayons for those who didn’t come to the site with placards. By Saturday, an “international media centre” came up for press conferences and media-related work. And a “devil dance” was in the works to “chase Gota away”. Puppets shaped like crows and other characters. There was an abundance of masks and air horns. On Thursday night, there were funeral wreaths with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s photo affixed to them.
The facilities, including food and water, are predominantly donations and they keep coming–all kinds of biscuits, paper serviettes, tea and buns, even expensive, elusive powdered milk. “We have everything here but coffins,” said W R Rukshan, 30.
Midweek, the “isso vadey” vendors of Galle Face who are usually near the sea moved to the sides of the main road along with the “sara vita”, ice cream, “achcharu” and pineapples. A cigarette went for Rs 100. And in some pockets there was alcohol.
It was pouring on Tuesday but it didn’t stop people from arriving, feet squelching in the mud. In the night, there were volunteers shouting “maalu paan, maalu paan”. Some handed out raincoats and garbage bags for people to wear.
A tent labelled ‘Power to the People’ had no shortage of helpers. It overflowed with everything from water to biscuits to cooked food. Dinner comprised of at least five different varieties, that day. They even ran out of paper plates and cups. The mood was unflinchingly upbeat.
Overnight on Wednesday, the number of stalls increased and black flags with anti-Government and anti-Rajapaksa slogans flew from light poles. There were a lot for loudhailers and also megaphones in strategic areas. The proliferation of national flags added to the colour. And the chanting, the slogans, the singing and endless tooting, some of it rhythmic and coordinated, gave Galle Face a carnival atmosphere without ever diminishing the political reason for this unprecedented mass gathering.
By the end of the week, however, the infrastructure was groaning. More people were sleeping over in tents, including near the Bandaranaike statue. There was a danger of children being lost in the crowds.
Among them was Prashan Wickramasighe, 30, who was working around Galle Face with his three-year-old daughter and wife, Thathsarani, also 30. The businessman, from Kadawatha who sells wedding invitations and cake boxes, started joining the anti-Government protests 13 days ago and has been camping at Galle Face since April 9.
“Our first demand is ‘Go to jail, Rajapaksas’,” said Thathsarani. “But not till you return all the money you took from us.” Her home, she said, is around 35km interior from Kadawatha town. She hasn’t been able to stay overnight because of her young child. But she will come “even on shift basis till the Rajapaksas all leave”.
There were young children at the protests–babies who were just a few months old. It was a matter of concern for Farizul Faraj, a 33-year-old First Aider studying to be an Emergency Medical Technician. The “pharmacy” at Galle Face stocked a large array of donated over-the-counter medication from panadol and “asamodagam” to antibiotics, balm and Strepsils.
Over the past six days, volunteers have seen a range of ailments including trauma, asthma, low and high blood pressure, hyperthermia (when it’s not raining, it is blazing hot) and hypothermia, toe infections, allergies, diarrhea and loose motion. There were some heart cases, too.
“I have two major worries,” Mr Faraj said. “One is that people bring very small children to this site. A baby was rushed here the other day verging on hypothermia. I wrapped her in my last emergency blanket and sent her to hospital. The other is those who do stunts. For instance, there are people who spray insecticide aerosols on fire to induce a big flame. I had a case with damaged eyes. There was another man who dislocated his shoulder trying to stop a moving bus.”
The throng could reduce by next week when schools reopen and protesters return to workplaces after the holidays. But the verdict is still open on which way this will swing.