Sri Lanka: Protesters wary of new president, as he vows to clamp down on violence

Many of them do not support him and want him to quit

By Qadijah Irshad

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Published: Thu 21 Jul 2022, 12:49 AM

The Sri Lankan Parliament on Wednesday elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as the eighth executive president of the country. However, the mood at the usually bustling protest site opposite the presidential secretariat in the capital was subdued.

The vociferous protesters who have been demanding a new president, believe him to be a Rajapaksa stooge, and want him to quit. They sit huddled inside their tents, hiding from the heat, and disappointment. None of them want to openly admit it, and the sense of fear is palpable, spoken in hushed voices - and in their silence.

As unverified news of a court order for the tents to be removed from the protest site travel fast, their fear may be driven by Wickremesinghe’s promise not to tolerate violence soon after he was announced president.

“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy, it is against the law,” Wickremesinghe said after offering prayers at the Gangarama Buddhist Temple soon after his win.

“We will deal with them firmly according to the law. We will not allow a minority of protesters to suppress the aspirations of the silent majority appealing for a change in the political system,” he said.

Wickremesinghe was referring to the protesters calling themselves the Aragalaya or the Struggle movement, who are key behind the island-wide protests in the debt-ridden nation that has been plummeting towards certain economic death in the past few months.

Simmering anger over the country’s economic crisis and shortage of essentials, boiled over to mass protests with hundreds of thousands of protesters made up of farmers, teachers, government workers, businessmen and university students from all around the island converging in capital Colombo despite a serious fuel crisis last month.

Protesters stormed and took over key government buildings, including the presidential palace, the presidential secretariat, the prime minister’s office and his official residence, defying a curfew. Last month, mobs set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private residence, demanding him to step down as prime minister.

Protesters of the Struggle have been demanding two key things - that the Rajapaksas, whom they blame for the country’s economic crisis, and Wickremesinghe, whom they believe is protecting the Rajapaksas, to quit.

In May, their protests saw the resignation of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. Last week, it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa who resigned as president and fled Sri Lanka in fear of reprisals.

However, Wickremesinghe, who has been six times prime minister, did not resign. On Wednesday, he was voted in through the power of the Rajapaksa-led ruling party while his own United National Party, which did not win a single seat in the 2020 elections, hold just one seat through the national list in Parliament.

Shortly after his election, he met with the elite police and army units guarding the national parliament to thank them for defending key state symbols, his office said. Wickremesinghe also declared curfew and a state of emergency as soon as he took over as acting president last week after the flight of Rajapaksa.

Some protesters told Khaleej Times that they fear for their lives.

"The government knows our identity, we are not afraid to go on, but our lives may be in danger," said one 42-year-old protester, who plans to seek asylum in a Western nation after being with the movement since its inception.

Although Wickremesinghe does not have a history of violence, the Rajapaksas do.

Behind the two Rajapaksa brothers and ex-presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are many charges. Alleged war crimes and human rights violation charges are just the tip of the iceberg. Extra judicial killings, incitement of anti-racial riots, kidnap and disappearances of journalists and activists who spoke against the government in the infamous “white vans” are some others.

In May, paid Rajapaksa supporters attacked peaceful protesters, resulting in clashes and the eventual storming of the prime minister’s residence, leading to the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister.

“They are afraid right now, and we are counselling them. I am not political, but this is a just cause,” said a woman from a missionary who refused to be identified – another first, and another sign of fear in the protest site.

The protesters who declare they want to solve the issue peacefully, still maintain they want Wickremesinghe out. But their urgency of the past 111 days was replaced with hesitancy.

“We are sad and disappointed and we are not sure which direction we will be going from here. We never expected Ranil to win,” said 27-year-old Narmada Darmakeerthi, a university student at the protest site.

“We will await orders from our committee,” she said, referring to the committee made up of representatives from each section of the protesters including lawyers, an inter-religious group and the LGBTQQI community.

As protesters at the “No Deal Gama” get ready to leave the huts erected opposite the prime minister’s official residence on Thursday, they say that they are just “recharging their batteries”.

“We don’t condone violence, nor do we want it. But we will not stop our struggle,” said Pradeep Kumara, one of the protesters who was in charge of the prime minister’s office after it was taken over.

“The people have placed their faith behind us, and we will deliver.”

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