In order to brainstorm strategies to resurrect Sri Lanka’s faltering protest movement, a group of about a few dozen activists began gathering on a regular basis in June at a seaside tent camp in Colombo.
The group, that included a popular playwright, a digital strategist, and a Catholic priest, was a resounding success.
Within a few weeks, Colombo was overrun by tens of thousands of people. After intially squabbling with police, protesters took over important official houses and buildings, pressuring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his prime minister to commit to resign.
Chameera Dedduwage, a digital strategist at a prominent advertising agency who joined the team that assisted in organizing the uprising, stated, “I’m still trying to process it.”
“It was 50 percent premeditation and coordination, another 30 percent willingness of the people and 20 percent luck.”
Veterans of those tiny gatherings explained in interviews how they collaborated on a multi-pronged strategy to breathe new life into the movement known as “Aragalaya” or “struggle” in Sinhala.
The movement began in March, when thousands flocked to the streets to protest long power outages and rising prices, as well as to demand that the Rajapaksa family, who had controlled the country’s politics for much of the previous 20 years, step down.
Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda, president from 2005 to 2015 and prime minister at the time, resigned on May 9. Basil, the younger brother, resigned as a lawmaker on June 9.
As a result, Aragalaya activists chose July 9 as the date on which they wanted to oust the president.
According to the three participants, a strategy formed to combine internet agitation, meetings with political parties, labor unions, and student groups, and door-to-door canvassing to bring enough people back on the streets for a last push.
Public dissatisfaction with chronic shortages, which have slowed the economy to a halt, and the president’s obstinate reluctance to step down has been festering for weeks.
Huge masses poured on Colombo on Saturday, outnumbering security troops deployed to guard government buildings and upending Sri Lankan politics. They rode trains, buses, lorries, and bicycles, or simply walked.
“Gota Go Home!” screamed the people in Colombo’s Fort neighborhood, enraged by the country’s greatest economic crisis since independence.
They rapidly stormed the president’s colonial-era mansion before attacking a section of the presidential office and entering the prime minister’s official residence 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) away.
Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been taken to undisclosed safe locations, and they both announced their resignations within hours, allowing an all-party interim government to take office.
If he steps down on Wednesday, Rajapaksa, a war hero who was both respected and feared, will be the first incumbent Sri Lankan president to do so.
“I think it is the most unprecedented gathering in this country. Full stop,” according to Ruwanthie de Chickera, a playwright who is part of the core group of Aragalaya campaigners.
‘Everyone On Board’
“Which means basically through Facebook, we can practically reach every corner of the country at no cost,” Dedduwage explained to Reuters while seated in a tent at “Gota Go Village,” the primary Colombo protest site that mocks the president.
Early in July, Sathya Charith Amaratunge, a marketing expert living in Moratuwa, some 20 kilometers from Colombo, who had previously participated in anti-government protests, was one of the people who got the group’s social media messages.
The 35-year-old took a poster that stated “The Country to Colombo, July 9” in Sinhala that he had gotten via WhatsApp on July 2 and posted it on his own Facebook profile.
He started planning a movement that would ultimately see tens of thousands of people march with him to Colombo that evening.
According to Dedduwage, other Aragalaya members directly contacted opposition political groups, labor organizations, and student unions, including the powerful Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), to increase support.
The IUSF, one of the biggest student organizations in Sri Lanka, is known for its political agitation and has clashed with the police during previous protests, tearing down police barricades during usage of tear gas and water cannon.
The Aragalaya group also requested volunteers to visit tens of thousands of homes throughout Colombo, including government housing estates for the middle class, some of which were close to the main protest site.
More than 30 “Gota Go Village” locations that had popped up in towns and cities around the nation were cited by organizers as a way to draw people from outside the metropolis.
Police issued a curfew in many Colombo-area districts late on July 8; activists claimed this was done to prevent the planned rally. According to police, the action was taken to preserve public order. Fearing arrest, some core group members quickly relocated to safe houses.
Catholic priest Jeevanth Peiris, a member of the activist organization, was concerned that the limits might force just a small number of people to show up the following day. Transport options had been limited for weeks due to fuel shortages.
“We honestly expected only 10,000 with all these restrictions, all this intimidation,” he told Reuters, dressed in a white cassock. “We thought 5,000 to 10,000.”
‘People Didn’t Want To Give Up’
After a week of circulating posts on Facebook and WhatsApp, marketing specialist Amaratunge said he set out on foot from Moratuwa with about 2,000 other demonstrators early on July 9. This is roughly the size of group he had anticipated.
Amaratunge claimed that he did not realize how many people wanted to visit Colombo until he had already departed his hometown. The curfew, which the police lifted early on Saturday, had infuriated many people.
Several hundred people can be seen strolling down the major route to Colombo in various Facebook livestreams recorded by Amaratunge on Saturday, some of whom are clutching the national flag.
Tens of thousands, in Amaratunge’s estimation, ended up joining the march he was on and arrived at the Colombo fort region. A police official who spoke on the record under the condition of anonymity said that there were at least 200,000 people in attendance.
As waves upon waves of people came in Colombo and marched towards the main protest location, members of the Aragalaya core group cited that number multiple times.
According to Dedduwage, organizers estimated that it would take about 10,000 people to overpower security guards at each of the four entrances to the president’s home.
After overpowering a sizable deployment of security personnel and tearing down police barriers and water cannons, demonstrators brought down the massive gates protecting the president’s home in the early afternoon.
By night, demonstrators had taken over Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe’s official mansions, uprooted the railings in front of the presidential secretariat, and took over a portion of it. An attack occurred on and a portion of Wickremesinghe’s private property was set on fire.
The leaders were prepared to go in a matter of hours.
Peiris, the priest, who claimed to have participated in altercations with police, recalled: “There were so many elderly, teenagers, youth, women.”
“People didn’t want to give up, didn’t want to withdraw.”
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