Opinion & Analysis

Sri Lanka’s greatest uprising in its history

On July 9 2022, Sri Lanka witnessed the largest uprising in its history where thousands of Sri Lankan citizens gathered in Colombo, demanding president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. Dr Pavithra Jayawardena, Senior Lecturer in the  Department of International Relations, University of Colombo recounts what happened.

Protests based on demanding president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, with the popular tagline ‘Go Home Gota’, have been taking place in Sri Lanka for more than three months. Nonetheless, the president who was considered Sri Lanka’s most powerful executive president, receiving 6.9 million votes – the highest number of votes for a presidential candidate in the history of Sri Lanka - and possessing a two-third majority of the parliament did not change his mind on leaving the position until 9 July.

After expressing their dissent to the president in multiple different ways, i.e., writing letters, negotiations, peaceful protests around the country and also occupying a permanent site named GotaGoGama (Gota Go Village) in front of the president’s secretariat, protesters planned a large-scale uprising on 9 July to pressure the president to resign.

Joining the 9 July event were nearly one million Sri Lankans. But gathering in Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo was challenging for the people.

They needed bravery and dedication to walk into the protest site due to two key reasons: firstly, there was an imposed police curfew on 8 July and secondly, many people had limited transportation.

In the first instance, the Sri Lankan police declared what they called ‘a police curfew’ on 8 July from 9pm with the intention of discouraging mass gatherings. On the evening of 8 July, the police declared that the said curfew is being imposed due to the security threats being reported by the intelligence services. However, this was soon critiqued by several entities including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) as an alleged curfew. BASL issued a press release stating that the police ordinance does not have a provision to impose such a curfew. With these critiques, the police had to finally lift the curfew on the morning of 9 July.

On the other hand, due to the fuel crisis, private transportation has been completely shut down on the island. A week earlier, fuel distribution was limited only to essential services. Private transportation channels were completely closed down. On top of that, the government decided not to issue fuel even for essential services from 8 July. This was done with the intention to weaken public transportation too. This means that people who joined the J9 July protests had no guaranteed transportation to either arrive in or go back home. Many of them walked, used bicycles, or found spontaneous assistance from vehicles being driven to Colombo, with no idea of how to go back or when to go back. We saw hundreds of large vehicles, such as lorries, trucks etc, packed with people who held Sri Lankan flags in their hands joining in the protest from different parts of the country.

In the morning, the protesters massed in front of the president’s official residence and the president’s secretariat in Colombo. The two places are separate properties but are located close to each other.

The protesters were tear-gassed multiple times by the police and were also shot at by the army. Reports say that nearly 100 protesters were wounded and one protester was shot dead. After facing the offensive attacks by the security forces, protesters entered the president’s official residence. Security forces stepped back after realising that they were not able to control nearly a million people. Simultaneously, protesters also stepped into the president’s secretarial office.

By the afternoon, the speaker of parliament, Mr Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena announced that president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has informed him that he will resign on July 13, 2022. With this announcement, the tense situation at the protests was controlled. Those who occupied the president’s official residence and the president secretariate, claimed that they wouldn’t release those properties until the actual resignation is declared.

Towards the end of the day, a group of protesters mobilised around prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s private residence in Colombo, demanding that he should also resign. Here, an attack took place as the Sri Lanka Police Special Task Force attacked six local journalists from Sri Lankan TV channel News first. As this footage went viral, more protesters gathered and by nighttime, the prime minister’s private residence was set on fire. At the time, the prime minister and his wife had already been moved to a safer location.

The entire country was looking forward to 13 July, when the president’s resignation was officially due. From 9 to 13 July, there was various information about whether the president was even in the country. Instead of receiving the official resignation as a form of a letter or a recording, on July 13, it was announced that President Rajapaksa had appointed the Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe as the acting President. It was also reported that the president left Sri Lanka for the Maldives and had plans to fly to Singapore. Meantime, in Sri Lanka, people again felt that they were betrayed and consequently, they took to the streets demanding his resignation. On July 13, protesters were once again tear gassed. Despite these attacks, protesters somehow managed to step into the Prime Minister’s office and occupy it, stating that they wouldn’t leave until the speaker officially announce the resignation.

After moving several times back and forth, the speaker once again assured the population that president Gotabaya would send his resignation the following day once he landed in Singapore. On 14 July, the speaker received his resignation letter. He officially announced the resignation of president Gotabaya on 15 July, after verifying the signature.

After overthrowing the president after many struggles, Sri Lanka is now in the challenge of a peaceful and constitutional political transition.

After several rounds of discussions and party leaders’ meetings, the speaker has called for a parliamentary election on 20 July, to choose the next president. As it is now, there are three candidates who have announced their candidacy for the election, including the current prime minister and the acting president Ranil Wickramasinghe, Mr Dullus Alahapperuma from the majority party - SLPP and Mr Anura Kumara Dissanayake from NPP.

Looking at the Sri Lankan issues in the broader picture, achieving political stability is the country’s need of the hour. Sri Lanka cannot move forward in resolving its economic concerns or in its negotiations with IMF without achieving political stability within the country.

- Asia Media Centre