A season of protests in Sri Lanka as crisis worsens 

Published - March 16, 2022 10:26 pm IST - COLOMBO

An opposition activist shouts slogans holding up bread as he protests along with others against rising living costs, at the entrance of the president’s office in Colombo on March 15, 2022.

An opposition activist shouts slogans holding up bread as he protests along with others against rising living costs, at the entrance of the president’s office in Colombo on March 15, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

Sri Lanka is witnessing a string of protests this week by the political opposition and citizens, who blame the Rajapaksa administration for the country’s current economic crisis, sharply felt in the persisting shortage of fuel, cooking gas, and basic commodities that remain unavailable or unaffordable for many.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands gathered along capital Colombo’s sea-facing Galle Road, leading up to the Presidential Secretariat, in a rally led by Sri Lanka’s main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Force). Party members and supporters raised anti-government slogans, asking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa “to go home”. An image of an angry protestor, raising a pole with two loafs of bread stuck to it, was shared widely on social media, with captions about the dire state of people who are unable to buy even essential items. The Sri Lankan rupee further dropped to nearly 265 to a U.S. dollar, as importers struggle to find dollars.

“If this Government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa cannot build the country, hand it over to us. We will build the country and show,” Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa said in his address, challenging the government to hold snap presidential polls that are otherwise due in 2024. “You have been suffering now for two years. Can you suffer anymore?” he asked the large crowd gathered at the spot. The SJB held a similar protest in November 2021.

Citizens’ protest

It is not just the political opposition that is resisting in Sri Lanka, citizens in different pockets are holding independent vigils and protests to register their anger and disappointment with the government, over prolonged power cuts and persisting shortages. Long queues at petrol stations and LPG distribution centres have become a common sight, amid growing reports of poor families eating fewer meals to cut costs.

Distancing themselves from all main political parties, the protesting citizens said they have little faith in any of them. Private sector employee Aruna Wanigasooriya had never been to a public protest in his life until recently. Holding a candle and a poster asking politicians not to ruin the country, he stood along with some 200 other people at an upmarket Colombo locality earlier this week. “Everyone knows there is a crisis. But the government does not have any strategy or solution for this problem. I am very upset, because this is our country and our children have to grow up here and live here. Where are we headed?” he asked.  

An 84-year-old lady joined the protest, while being seated on a stool by the pavement. “I am desperate,” she said, asking not to be named. “When you read the papers, or watch TV, you see how our people are just suffering. It’s only a matter of weeks before poor people take to the streets. The situation is very bad,” she said.

Hashtag war

It is not as if the government, which came to power on a formidable mandate, is untouched by the mounting public rage and criticism. It appears to feel the pressure, going by a senior minister’s recent twitter message putting out the hashtag “#WearewithGota”, apparently countering ‘#GohomeGota” that is trending on social media.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Canada have issued travel advisories to their citizens visiting Sri Lanka, warning them of the “deteriorating economic situation” and shortage of basic items. Sri Lanka has called the advisory “inaccurate”. “It could exacerbate the prevailing economic vulnerabilities at a time when the country’s tourism industry has just begun to revive itself consequent to the global pandemic and when the country is most in need of foreign remittances to reinvigorate its economy,” Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said in a statement.

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