Colombia, Sri Lanka – Tens of thousands of Sri Lankan protesters occupy the President’s House, the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s official residence in growing anger over the island nation’s unprecedented economic crisis.
The chaos began on Saturday when angry Sri Lankans stormed the official residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a 73-year-old member of the powerful Rajapaksa clan whom protesters blame for the country’s worst economic crisis since 1948.
Rajapaksa is expected to officially step down on Wednesday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has also offered to step down once a multi-party caretaker government being discussed among political parties to resolve the crisis is formed.
However, protesters rejected a multi-party government and said they would not leave government buildings until the president and prime minister formally resign.
What do the protesters want?
“We demand the immediate resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. After that, an interim government must be in place for at least six months,” Shabeer Mohamed, 22, told Al Jazeera.
“We are against a multi-party government,” he added.
Most protesters do not want the Rajapaksa-controlled Sri Lanka Podjana Party (SLPP) to be part of a multi-party government.
Melani Gunathilake, 35, said protest leaders strongly oppose a multi-party government, a move she said would have the “Rajapaksa cartel” controlling the government behind the scenes.
“Our demand is for an interim government, not a multi-party government,” she told Al Jazeera.
An action plan released by protesters on July 5 sets out six key demands, including the formation of a popular council made up of members of “Janatha Aragalaya” (popular struggle) to oversee the country’s political transition.
The establishment of a new constitution that enshrines the sovereignty of the people during the term of an interim government is among the main demands of the protest movement.
Mohamed said some representatives of the protest movement were due to meet with political parties and trade unions later on Tuesday.
“There we will reiterate our demands recently set out in our action plan,” he told Al Jazeera.
Six main demands of the leaders of the protest:
- President Gotabaya Rajapaksha should immediately step down
- Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government should also resign immediately
- An interim government should be put in place for a maximum period of one year
- A new constitution that endorses the sovereignty of the people is established by referendum, hopefully within a year
- The executive powers of the president must be reduced and democratic institutions strengthened until the new constitution is drafted
- The fundamental objective of the caretaker government should be to implement the above proposals
Although there is no leadership structure or single organization representing the mostly young protesters, the Interuniversity Student Union, widely seen as the student wing of the left-wing frontline Socialist Party, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Affiliated Socialist Youth Union, among others, play a prominent role in the Janatha Aragalaya.
The caretaker government should make necessary reforms and pave the way for a new generation to take control of its future through early general elections, Eranga Gunasekara of the Socialist Youth Union told Al Jazeera.
According to the Sri Lankan constitution, if the president and prime minister resign, the speaker of parliament takes over the presidency. Current President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene is a relative of the Rajapaksas.
On Abeywardene’s possible appointment as interim president, Melani says protesters are worried despite him being “no better than anyone else”.
“The options we have left are no better but we respect the current constitution. That’s why we called for a new people-centered constitution within a year,” she told Al Jazeera. “We don’t want to go beyond the constitution.
Vimukthi Dushyantha, 29, of the Black Cap movement, says while there is consensus among protesters on some issues, there is no common set of demands as protest leaders differ on other issues .
“The Frontline Socialist Party, for example, calls for a People’s Council, but none of these groups has a common program. Therefore, the best option is to go for an early election after addressing the immediate issues in a short period of time,” he told Al Jazeera.
Dushyantha is of the opinion that the caretaker government should amend the constitution to reform the all-powerful executive presidency and take immediate steps to ease the pain caused by the economic crisis.
Since 1978, Sri Lanka has been governed by an executive presidential system. A reformist government in 2015 stripped the presidency of much of its powers and gave them to parliament.
In October 2020, less than a year after becoming president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with the help of his elder brother, then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, proposed an amendment in parliament, giving himself sweeping powers.
Dushyantha says it might take longer than expected to appoint a replacement for Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the current system for replacing the head of state is “quite complicated”.
Will the protesters contest the elections?
Ranhiru Subhawickrama, 29, represents another group of protesters, who agree with the main demands: the need for an interim government and snap elections within six months. His group, he says, will certainly participate in the next general elections.
“We have no confidence in these 225 deputies and in the current political structure in general. The other thing is that they call it an apolitical movement, but several political parties are involved in it. So we will take our movement forward as a new political movement,” Subhawickrama told Al Jazeera.
Echoing the demands of the action plan, he also stressed the need for “some kind of role” for the protest movement within the interim government.
Gunathilake said she does not want to run in the next election, but she expects many of the protesters to be lawmakers in the next parliament.
The action plan also stresses the need “to eradicate racism and racial oppression” and to “strengthen the relevant legal foundations that affirm the equality of religion, language, sexuality and other cultural identities as well as as democracy and political freedom”.
Gunathilaka said the country’s leaders were using racism as part of their “divide and conquer” strategy to distract from corruption, rights abuses and mismanagement of the economy.
“The oppressor’s strategy has been to divide the oppressed and keep them in the fight to continue their misdeeds,” she said.
For decades, Sri Lanka has been in a bloody civil war with the Tamil minority demanding a separate state in the north. The rebellion was brutally crushed in 2009 by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya as Defense Secretary.
Since then, the Buddhist-majority country has witnessed heinous attacks against Muslims who make up less than 10% of the island’s population.
Gunathilaka hoped that a new generation of Sri Lankans would set an example to the world of people power in a post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.