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  • A core of activists rallied thousands to demonstrate
  • The push reignited a waning national protest movement
  • Huge crowds descended on Colombo, government buildings occupied
  • President and Prime Minister agree to resign after dramatic scenes
  • Countries in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis

COLOMBO, July 11 (Reuters) – In June, a few dozen activists began meeting regularly at a seaside tented camp in Colombo for hour-long sessions to find ways to revive the protest movement in decline of Sri Lanka.

The group, which included a Catholic priest, a digital strategist and a popular playwright, succeeded beyond their wildest hopes.

Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Colombo. After initially clashing with police, protesters occupied key government buildings and residences, forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his prime minister to pledge to step down.

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“I’m still trying to process it,” said Chameera Dedduwage, a digital strategist at a major ad agency who was part of the team that helped organize the uprising.

“It was 50% premeditation and coordination, 30% will of the people and 20% luck.”

In interviews, veterans of these small gatherings described how they agreed on a multi-pronged campaign to breathe new life into the movement widely known as ‘Aragalaya’, or ‘struggle’ in Sinhalese. .

The movement had begun in March, when thousands of people took to the streets to express their anger at the long power cuts and soaring prices, and to call out the Rajapaksa family who had dominated the country’s politics for a great part of the last 20 years to leave power.

On May 9, Rajapaksa’s older brother Mahinda – president from 2005 to 2015 and then prime minister – resigned. On June 9, the younger brother Basil had resigned from his post as legislator.

Thus, Aragalaya militants targeted July 9 as the day they hoped to overthrow the president himself.

A plan has emerged to combine online agitation, meetings with political parties, unions and student groups and door-to-door campaigns to get enough people back on the streets for a final push, according to the three participants.

Public frustration over the ongoing shortages, which have crippled the economy, and the president’s stubborn refusal to step down, had been simmering for weeks.

Aboard trains, buses, trucks and bicycles, or simply on foot, huge crowds converged on Colombo on Saturday, outnumbering security forces deployed to protect government buildings and upending Sri Lankan politics.

“I have to go back home!” Crowds chanted in the Fort area of ​​Colombo, seething over the country’s worst economic crisis since independence.

They quickly broke into the president’s colonial-era home, before storming part of the presidential office and entering the prime minister’s official residence 2.5 km (1.6 miles) away.

Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been moved to undisclosed safe locations and within hours separately announced they would step down to allow a multi-party caretaker government to take over.

If he steps down on Wednesday as promised, Rajapaksa, once a revered and feared war hero, will become the first sitting Sri Lankan president to step down. Read more

“I think this is the most unprecedented rally in this country. Period,” Ruwanthie de Chickera, a playwright who is part of the hard core of Aragalaya activists, told Reuters.

Representatives for the president and prime minister did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the protests and why they stood down. Their fate has not been made public.

“ALL ABOARD”

Sri Lanka has around 5 million households and 8 million active Facebook accounts, making online outreach a hugely effective way to reach protesters, said Dedduwage, the digital strategist.

“Which basically means through Facebook, we can practically reach every corner of the country at no cost,” Dedduwage told Reuters, sitting in a tent at the “Gota Go Village”, Colombo’s main protest site that mocks the president. .

In early July, one of those who received the group’s social media messages was Sathya Charith Amaratunge, a marketing professional living in Moratuwa, about 20 km from Colombo, who had participated in earlier anti-government protests.

The 35-year-old took a poster he received via WhatsApp on July 2 that read “Colombo Country, July 9” in Sinhala, and uploaded it to his personal Facebook page.

That night he began planning a campaign that would eventually see tens of thousands join him on a march to Colombo.

Other Aragalaya members have directly approached opposition political parties, unions and student unions, including the influential Inter-University Federation of Students (IUSF), to build support, according to Dedduwage.

The IUSF, one of Sri Lanka’s largest student groups, is renowned for its political agitation and has clashed with security forces during recent protests, dismantling police barricades amid tear gas and water cannons .

The Aragalaya group also asked volunteers to visit thousands of homes in parts of Colombo, including middle-class government housing estates, some within walking distance of the main protest site.

To bring in people from out of town, activists tapped into more than 30 “Gota Go Village” sites that had sprung up in cities and towns across the country.

Late on July 8, police imposed a curfew in several neighborhoods around Colombo, which activists said was aimed at blocking the planned protest. Police said the move was to maintain public order. Some members of the core group quickly moved to shelters, fearing arrest.

Jeevanth Peiris, a Catholic priest who is part of the activist group, feared that only a few thousand people would turn up the next day because of the restrictions. Fuel shortages have reduced transportation options for weeks.

“We were honestly only expecting 10,000 with all these restrictions, all this intimidation,” he told Reuters, wearing a white cassock. “We thought 5,000 to 10,000.”

“PEOPLE DIDN’T WANT TO GIVE UP”

Early on July 9, marketer Amaratunge said he walked from Moratuwa with about 2,000 other protesters, about the size of the group he expected after a week of sharing posts on Facebook and WhatsApp.

It was not until he left his hometown that Amaratunge said he realized how many people wanted to go to Colombo. Many had been angered by the curfew, which police withdrew early Saturday.

In several Facebook live streams posted by Amaratunge on Saturday, several hundred people can be seen strolling down Colombo’s main road, some holding the national flag.

According to Amaratunge’s estimate, tens of thousands of people eventually joined the march he was on and reached the Colombo fort area. According to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the crowd there has grown to at least 200,000 people.

Members of the Aragalaya core group said several times that number participated, as successive waves of people arrived in Colombo and marched to the main protest site.

Organizers had roughly calculated that it would take about 10,000 people to subdue personnel guarding each of the four entry points to the president’s house, Dedduwage said.

In the early afternoon, after dismantling police barricades and requisitioning water cannons, protesters dismantled the tall gates guarding the president’s house and overwhelmed a large deployment of security forces.

At night, the official residences of Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe were occupied by protesters, who uprooted the fences outside the presidential secretariat and took over part of it. Wickremesinghe’s personal residence was attacked and part of it was set on fire.

Within hours, the leaders were ready to go.

“There were so many old people, teenagers, young people, women,” recalls Peiris, the priest, who said he took part in clashes with police.

“People didn’t want to give up, didn’t want to step down.”

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Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Uditha Jayasinghe; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Peter Graff

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