Sri Lanka’s protest movement toppled a president, then came the crackdown
By Avani Dias and Alex Barry
Sri Lankan protesters were triumphant, the power was finally in their hands and the world was watching.
On July 9, as thousands stormed the president’s official residence – swimming in his pool, watching his TV and laying on his bed – Wimukthi Ranasinghe was there live streaming the mayhem to his followers on Facebook.
As he toured the president’s palatial Colombo home with his phone, the 25-year-old’s videos started going viral.
It was the peak of the protest movement’s power.
After months of calls for his resignation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit the presidency and fled the country.
But in the weeks since, as the world’s gaze has turned away, the sense of triumph and impunity felt by protesters that day has curdled into a climate of fear.
Since Rajapaksa’s successor Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed the presidency on July 20, more than 140 protesters have been arrested and many of the movement’s leaders have been driven into hiding.
Days into the role, Wickremesinghe extended a state of emergency giving himself the power to make regulations and override existing laws to deal with the unrest.
Wimukthi is among those who were arrested and is now facing charges of threatening parliamentarians on the internet for a Facebook video encouraging people to protest at MPs’ homes.
Wickremesinghe defended the arrests, telling the ABC he’s determined to restore “law and order” to the country after months of protests.
“We arrest people who broke the law,” Wickremesinghe said.
“I am not the one who does it. It’s been left to the police, like in your country, and the police have decided to charge them. Everything has been done legally.”
‘They told me to bring him in’
In the days after her son was arrested, Wimukthi’s mother Manel felt a range of warring emotions: fear, worry, frustration. Even anger.
Wimukthi was always a conscientious boy who listened to his parents.
But when she warned him not to join the protest movement sweeping Sri Lanka, her son became defiant.
“I told him, ‘Don’t go. We can’t fix the country’,” Manel said.
“And he said, ‘Mum, please be quiet. So many people have taken to the streets. We can’t just hide like cowards. Aren’t you even embarrassed?’
“And he left. We couldn’t do anything to stop him.”
As a teenager, Wimukthi became conscious of his family’s wealth relative to the poverty he saw around him.
He would become embarrassed at the shops when he realized his family could afford things others couldn’t.
“Like if he was buying 10 kilos of rice but someone else could only buy 1 kilo, he’d feel guilty,” Manel said.
This year, as Sri Lanka became paralyzed by soaring inflation and shortages of food, fuel and power, the nation’s gaping inequalities have only widened.
Wimukthi came to regret voting for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 election.
The former military officer, from a political dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for the best part of 20 years, had become the focus of the protest movement’s anger.
They accused him and his family of bankrupting the country.
“I voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa like millions of other people. I went to the protests to make up for the wrong decision I made,” Wimukthi said.
As he continued to post live streams from the protests on social media, Wimukthi picked up over four million Facebook followers.
But he also caught the attention of the police. In August, they raided the family home, seizing phones and his computer.
Wimukthi wasn’t there. Instead it was up to his mother to hand him over to the authorities.
“I got scared, I didn’t cry but they told me to bring him, so I took him to the police the next day,” said Manel.
Wimukthi was released on bail after 10 days in custody, time he says felt like 10 years in a “hell hole” after he was made to sleep on the ground with no bedding.
His next court date is more than two months away but his case could take years to finalize. In that time, he’s not allowed to leave the country.
“This is not justice, this is reprisals for protest and to teach them a lesson and to ensure that others don’t protest,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, Sri Lanka’s former Human Rights Commissioner.
“The criminal justice system here is very slow and due process is not followed even when you arrest someone. The process becomes the punishment.”
A protest icon forced into hiding
Father Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest who led the occupation of government buildings alongside Buddhist monks in July, is a well-known face in Sri Lanka’s protest movement.
Before the demonstrations kicked off in April, he was living in a remote village in central Sri Lanka and seeing the worst effects of the country’s economic crisis.
The island nation imports many basic goods such as fuel and fertilizer, but for the last year it’s had no money to do so after borrowing enormous sums for bad investments which saw little return.
“Early in the morning, just in front of my cottage where I live, mothers [are] coming and crying because they couldn’t feed their children the previous day,” Father Peiris said.
“Day by day, I saw these people are terribly suffering. I decided that I have to come to Colombo to find some structural change in the system of Sri Lanka.”
Days after Wickremesinghe was sworn in, Father Peiris and four others perceived as protest leaders were slapped with travel bans forbidding them from leaving the country.
He was charged with unlawful assembly and illegal entry to the presidential residence.
Father Peiris retreated to secret hiding spots to avoid arrest, protected by Catholic churches, with only his friend’s phone to give him news about how their struggle was going.
“We realized that they’re starting to repress the whole protest moment and we saw how they started … arresting our activists,” he said.
“I heard that they’re going to raid the place where I was in Colombo in a church so I … immediately rushed and changed [locations].”
In the dead of night, he moved between churches to avoid authorities.
Priests from different parishes drove him in cars with black tinted windows; he would duck any time a car went past.
Several protesters like Father Peiris told the ABC that police questioned their families and told them to discourage relatives from going to protests.
“We are being hunted and our elderly parents and families are intimidated,” Father Peiris said.
After 16 days in hiding, he presented himself to the police station.
Nuns and priests turned out in force to support him, holding banners reading ‘Withdraw emergency law’.
A few days later, he was granted bail by a magistrate.
Defending the demonstrators
To deal with the increase in arrests, a group of 300 lawyers are representing the protesters for free, led by attorney Nuwan Bopage.
He works out of a small office in Colombo, driving between courts and police stations in his own car to offer his services to protesters.
“We have a duty [to] the protesters, we have a duty for our country and actually … I can sacrifice my private practice and support these [people] and safeguard their rights,” he said.
“We have to make sure that there’s no torture inside the police [stations] and the other difficult task is when they arrest most of the suspects, they are not giving their whereabouts.”
Bopage has also been active in the protests.
When authorities started forcibly removing protesters from their camp at Galle Face Green (within 24 hours of Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming president), he himself was taken away by security forces.
“They wanted to take into custody one very disabled person,” he said. “Then, actually, I defended him, and I showed my identity card.”
Bopage said he was dragged away by the army officers and assaulted.
Authorities accused him of unlawful assembly and criminal trespass. They said that, as a lawyer, he was violating the Constitution and is unsuitable to be in the legal profession.
“They are trying to remove us from the profession and avoid whatever safeguards we are giving to the protesters,” Bopage said.
Coming out of hiding
After weeks in hiding, some protesters recently re-emerged and took to the streets of Colombo again.
Student leader Wasantha Mudalige, who heads the Inter University Student Federation, a group with around 150,000 members which has been at the forefront of the uprising, was laying low in a secret location until appearing at a rally along a main road in Colombo.
The march was orderly and contained, protesters were careful to stay in one lane as bystanders watched the action.
Protesters held placards calling for the new president to resign and for systemic changes, including taking away sweeping powers from his position.
“Ranil Wickremesinghe is using the Constitution to oppress the protesters while relishing in his powers,” Mudalige said to the gathered crowd.
“We are not afraid of Ranil Wickremesinghe.”
Pro-government groups claim Mudalige’s federation has radicalized the once-moderate people’s movement while getting funding from NGOs and foreign governments.
Mudalige dismissed the accusations as a sign of the government’s desperation.
“When you study the protesters’ demands, it’s not hard to tell whether it’s a foreign-funded or NGO-funded protest, or if it’s a protest for the people’s struggle,” he said.
Later that day, Mudalige was arrested while fleeing the protest when government troops deployed tear gas and water cannons, tactics protesters said are becoming more common under President Wickremesinghe.
“The protests were clearly peaceful,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, the former Sri Lanka Human Rights Commissioner.
“We saw the police were wearing new uniforms, they had new riot gear. Where did they get the funds for all this in the midst of an economic crisis?”
Mudalige and two other students were detained under Sri Lanka’s controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) – an order signed by President Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defence Minister.
Human rights groups and the European Union have raised concerns about the Act, which allows people to be detained for up to two years without a court appearance.
“Torture under the Prevention of Terrorism Act is very normal,” Satkunanathan said.
“This Act is used to create fear, to silence people, to crack down on dissent. So the fact that the government is using it is not surprising.”
‘I know the groups you have spoken to’
In an interview with the ABC, Wickremesinghe said his actions are driven by the need to return stability to Sri Lanka and that people who damaged government property must face consequences.
After the presidential palace takeover in July, Wickremesinghe’s personal home was also burnt down.
“Do you think occupying the president’s house or burning my house, occupying the prime minister’s house or coming to occupy the Parliament, do you think any of them would’ve solved our problems?” he asked.
Wickremesinghe claimed credit for making progress on an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout to fix the economic crisis.
The proposed $4.3 billion loan is contingent on the government increasing revenue, which will mean raising taxes and requiring more Sri Lankans to pay tax.
The government will also privatize state holdings like Sri Lanka Airlines, which could lead to job losses.
WhileWickremesinghe acknowledged there will be a period of “pain”, he said the protest movement represented only a minority of the country and levelled criticism at the ABC for speaking with the demonstrators.
“I understand the majority of the country is suffering and they want a solution. They were not out there,” he said.
“I know the groups you have spoken to. But you didn’t speak to the majority.”
The day after our interview, while on the way to speak with one of the “groups” the President mentioned, our ABC crew vehicle was pulled over by police and searched.
“Who exactly is in the car? Where are you going?” an officer asked.
“We’ve got information and we’re searching for a protester. This vehicle number was associated with it.”
Finding nothing, the officers let us go. But five minutes later, we were again pulled over by police and the same search was repeated.
As a climate of intimidation takes hold in Sri Lanka, protesters are pushing ahead with their calls for systemic change, saying that’s the only way the economic problems can be fixed.
They’re now holding meetings with people in every region of Sri Lanka to create an alternative to parliament, known as a “people’s council” modelled on revolutions in other countries.
“We are not ready to give up,” said Father Peiris.
“The repression will take place, imprisonment and arresting but we believe that this is people’s moment and people’s supreme power is still there.”
The protesters are determined to capitalize on the rare and historic wins they’ve had this year.
“I believe the most important thing is irrespective of race, religion and political views … the majority of society joined this protest and contributed,” Bopage said.
“I think this is a revolutionary mass movement, that’s why it’s very important, I think it’s the most important uprising of the history of the country.”
– Foreign Correspondent – abc.net.au
-Pix- Alex Barry/-.(Foreign Correspondent