Sri Lankan Protesters Defiant Against All Odds

© AFP 2022 / ISHARA S. KODIKARAProtestors take part in an anti-government demonstration outside the Sri Lanka police headquarters in Colombo on May 16, 2022
Protestors take part in an anti-government demonstration outside the Sri Lanka police headquarters in Colombo on May 16, 2022 - Sputnik International, 1920, 17.05.2022
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MOSCOW (Sputnik), Tommy Yang - After an unexpected violence wrecked the largely peaceful protests in Sri Lanka last week, a veteran activist shared with Sputnik the impact of the tragic incident on the nation’s ongoing political struggle.
For almost 15 years, Marisa de Silva has been fighting all kinds of social injustices, which she refers to as the ‘status quo,’ in Sri Lanka. When the country plunged deep into the worst economic crisis since the end of the civil war in 2009, she began to organize small local protests with participants holding candle lights in early March.
Naturally, when nationwide protests broke out in late March as thousands of demonstrators called for the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, de Silva went to the main protest sites outside the residence of the president and the prime minister every day to join the peaceful rally.
After more than 40 days of peaceful protests, during which participants set up tents to serve as libraries or youth education centres, de Silva did not think much when a massive crowd in support of the current government started to gather outside the prime minister’s residence known as the Temple Tree last week.
“I was at Mainagogama, opposite of the Temple Tree. We were standing on the road and chanting. We knew they [the massive crowd of counter protesters] were gathering. I hoped they would pass and leave the protesters alone,” de Silva, 40, told Sputnik.
Unfortunately, what happened afterwards shocked the veteran activist who did not expect the kind of violence that was about to unfold.
“But I was expecting too much [kindness] I guess. As they walked past us, they hit me on the neck and head with their hands. And they hit another girl on the back, while a third girl ducked the attack. I was so surprised that I didn’t recall feeling anything [about being attacked],” she said.
According to the activist, the massive pro-government mob had about 500 people, while there were less than 20 protesters at the Temple Tree site because it was at noon on a Monday.
© AP Photo / Eranga JayawardenaMembers of Socialist Youth Union shout slogans and march towards Sri Lanka's police headquarters carrying a banner demanding the arrest of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapkasa for allegedly assaulting anti government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 16, 2022
Members of Socialist Youth Union shout slogans and march towards Sri Lanka's police headquarters carrying a banner demanding the arrest of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapkasa for allegedly assaulting anti government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 16, 2022 - Sputnik International, 1920, 17.05.2022
Members of Socialist Youth Union shout slogans and march towards Sri Lanka's police headquarters carrying a banner demanding the arrest of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapkasa for allegedly assaulting anti government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 16, 2022
After attacking the peaceful protesters and smashing their tents at the Temple Tree, the pro-government mob went on to the second protest site, known as the Galle Face, outside the president’s residence to cause more damage.
In response to the violent attack from the pro-government mob, a small number of protesters started to fight back and some even tried to seek revenge by attacking the prime minister’s residence.
The police said at least eight people were killed and over 200 others were injured during the violent clashes last week.

Peaceful Protesters Under Attack

For de Silva, who took part in the peaceful protests against the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the very beginning, the violent attacks from the mob last week were clearly part of the government’s strategy to make excuses for harsh crackdowns.
 “The violence that followed around the country, damage and destruction of politicians’ houses and buses that brought mobs to Colombo, became an excuse for the government to impose curfew and bring out the armed forces. They have also issued a shoot to kill order on looters and those who were caught damaging public properties,” she said.
The activist collected video evidence showing that government officials gave instructions to the mob to attack the protesters.
“There was no doubt and there was ample evidence, as I've shown in the videos in my tweets that it was very much state sponsored. The crowds literally merged outside Temple Tree which is the prime minister's residence. They went inside Temple Tree. There is footage of member of parliament Johnston Fernando speaking to them and instructing them to break down the protest sites, and essentially be violent,” she said.
The activist added that the outgoing prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was forced to resign hours before the mob gathered, was also inside the Temple Tree residence at the time.
© AFP 2022 / ISHARA S. KODIKARAProtestors take part in an anti-government demonstration outside the Sri Lanka police headquarters in Colombo on May 16, 2022,
Protestors take part in an anti-government demonstration outside the Sri Lanka police headquarters in Colombo on May 16, 2022, - Sputnik International, 1920, 17.05.2022
Protestors take part in an anti-government demonstration outside the Sri Lanka police headquarters in Colombo on May 16, 2022,
“There is no doubt about the fact that it was state sponsored and the intention was to do be violent with protesters and destroy the protesters’ villages. And there were even sheets filled with lists of names and contact details [of the mob] that were written out on a piece of paper used only by the Parliament,” she said.

Defiant Protesters

Although the protesters were massively outnumbered by the mob, many tried to stand their ground and defend the protest village they had built up for over a month.
“Many of us who were attacked at Mainagogama informed them [other protesters at the Galle Face promenade] that the mobs were coming. Instead of running away, they insisted on defending and protecting the village because a month of their hard work and labour has gone into the village. There were the library, the clinic, the People's Voice tent, the youth centre and the tent of the Sri Lanka Red Cross. These things have come to matter a great deal to everyone, not just the people who were residing within the protest site,” de Silva said.
Unfortunately, some of the protesters were seriously injured while trying to defend the protest village.
“Eventually, many tents have been burned and many protesters had been beaten up very brutally. Many protesters who were beaten by the mob were hit with metal poles on their head. Two of those protesters are still in hospital. There was one particular boy in his early 20s, who had come alone and camped out at the site in support of the struggle. He was in critical conditions in the ICU, who would probably have long term damage to his limbs if he survives. It is a huge sadness and tragedy that has befallen this boy. And if he does turn out to be paralyzed, it is an unforgivable crime,” the activist said.
Nevertheless, de Silva stressed that the violent mob attack failed to intimidate others from joining the protests.
“Protesters continue to stay on the site with more and more supporters flooding into the site all day long. And by night, there was a huge crowd, probably about over 1000 people. There was a huge show of solidarity. There were health workers who had walked out during their lunch breaks in outrage. And by evening, about 2000 trade unions had agreed to support a general strike and said that they were in solidarity with the protesters,” she said.
Despite their outrage over the violent mob attack, de Silva urged protesters to show restraint and continue to express their grievances peacefully.
“Some protesters tried to track down the mob who attacked the protest village. And there were some instances of assault and then the subsequent burning of the politicians’ houses. But that only happened during the outrage following the mob attack in the first 24 hours. And many protesters began to send videos asking for peace and asking for calm. They pleaded:’ we have achieved so much that the Prime Minister has resigned. Let’s keep the non-violent protest going,’” she said.
A court in Sri Lanka has banned the former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from leaving the country and ordered the police to investigate the violent mob attack on the peaceful protesters.
The resignation of the former prime minister wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the protesters, whose ultimate demand is for the president to step down, de Silva pointed out.
“I don’t think the protesters will accept Gotabaya Rajapaksa to continue to be president, because this has been the biggest and longest demand of the struggle, which is for Gotabaya and the government to step down. If Gotabaya stays as president, I don’t think it would be accepted by the protesters,” she said.
Although Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician, became the new prime minister of Sri Lanka last week, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa tried to cling onto power and showed no intention of stepping down amid continued peaceful protests outside his residence this week.
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