Sri Lanka Opposition, civic activists, unions take out anti-government rally

Watch | Anti-government rally in Colombo

Police block the protest that sought an end to ‘govt. repression’

Updated - November 02, 2022 08:06 pm IST

Published - November 02, 2022 07:16 pm IST - COLOMBO  

The Sri Lanka Police on Wednesday blocked an anti-government protest march organised by Opposition parties, civic activists and trade unions who demanded that the Ranil Wickremesinghe government “stop repression” and address the persisting economic crisis.

Members of Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Force), along with student groups, lawyer and journalist collectives, and worker unions began a march from the busy Maradana locality north of the city centre, and planned to proceed towards Colombo’s Fort area. However, the police who earlier denied permission for the protest — despite many, including Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission, issuing statements underscoring citizens’ constitutional right to dissent — blocked participants from proceeding after a point.

Wednesday’s march followed a protest rally organised by trade unions affiliated to the Opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) last week, and points to a potential new wave of protests in Sri Lanka, as citizens reel under hyperinflation — 66 % in October — and food inflation of over 85 %, amid reports of starvation and a growing concern over state repression.  

Sixty-seven-year-old Zulaiya Biwi had come with her sister to the protest. “We can’t allow this to go on. Everything from our light bill and water bill has increased so much. Food items are very costly. How are we supposed to eat?” she asked.  Forced to close her small, home-based apparel business, she is struggling to earn a living.

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Jude, 50, who runs a fish stall at the wholesale market in Peliyagoda town, said his earnings have been badly hit by the price hikes in fuel. “Every day has become such a struggle. I am just unable to cope. We have no other alternative but to protest and seek solutions,” he said. For some protesters, a solution included elections, so people have a say in who governs them.

Accusing President Wickremesinghe of “just protecting the Rajapaksas”, Ms. Zulaiya said: “All the thieves and crooks are safe, but innocent people and youth are being jailed. Ranil [Wickremesinghe] did not come to power winning an election, he will not help us, he must go.”  Some protesters reflected the sentiment in the message on their headbands that read: “Ranil go home”, not unlike “Gota go home”, the slogan that dominated the people’s uprising earlier this year that led to the former President’s dramatic ousting in July.

Several posters at the protest site referred to government “repression”, the controversial rehabilitation bureau Bill, that critics fear would sanction abuse and torture, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act that rights defenders deem “draconian”. In August, authorities detained three student leaders under the much-dreaded law, prompting wide condemnation from rights groups. The SJB and other protesting groups urged the government to “stop repression” and repeal the PTA.

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