Sri Lankan protesters: “There are no ethnic groups or religions here, we all wanted to kick out the president” | International

Participants in the popular revolt celebrate, this Friday, the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in front of the presidential palace in Colombo.
Participants in the popular revolt celebrate, this Friday, the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in front of the presidential palace in Colombo.DINUKA LIYANAWATTE (REUTERS)

Riffa leaves her three children at home every day to join, even for a while, the protests that are still alive in the Galle Face park in Colombo due to the deep economic crisis that Sri Lanka is going through. The woman, a 40-year-old housewife, arrives “in a very crowded bus” to the tents that occupy the promenade facing the Indian Ocean. “I do it for them, for my children, because they deserve a better future. If I stayed at home I would feel like I’m not doing the right thing,” says Riffa, who covers her hair with a silver hijab and smiles as she descends the majestic stairs of the presidential palace. The assault on the complex last Saturday caused the flight and resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The fall of Rajapaksa has united Sri Lanka (22 million inhabitants) and it is not a figure of speech. In a country historically divided by ethnic and religious conflicts, the popular uprising over the rising cost of living and the lack of basic products (food, fuel, medicine) has mobilized citizens from all communities. Riffa, who is Muslim and belongs to the third group with the largest presence on the island (9% of the population), corroborates this: “There are no ethnic groups or religions here. We all wanted to kick out the president. And we have achieved it”.

Riffa accuses the Rajapaksa dynasty – which has held political power in the country for the last two decades – of having fomented hatred and rivalry between the Sinhalese majority (75% of the population, many of them Buddhists) and the different minorities. . “The powerful do not want us to be together. They want to separate us and blame Muslims for all evils. But now we have seen that we need each other and I am proud of this country, ”she says, referring to the jihadist attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, which left 269 dead in churches and hotels in Colombo, the country’s main city. The attacks temporarily interrupted the arrival of tourists – one of the main sources of income for the country – in a prologue to the total stoppage brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Two nuns, with the cross perched on their chest and dressed in blue robes, walk along the esplanade of the presidential palace and a group of five ethnic Tamil university students watch them pass. When asked to converse in English, they all smile at Sureshraj, a 23-year-old nursing student, who shares the same feeling that, even for a moment in the island’s troubled history, they are all part of one people. “We are together for the same reason. The government uses color or religion to stay in power. They have wanted to give privileges to the Sinhalese, but now they have seen that they also suffer and that it is not only us who are discriminated against, ”he says.

In 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka launched the definitive offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Land, with which it put an end to a bloody civil war of more than three decades. The country’s president was Mahinda Rajapaksa at the time, and his brother Gotabaya – now fled to Singapore – was responsible for the Armed Forces that, according to the UN, caused “a bloodbath” in the northern region of the country, where it is concentrated. the Tamil population.

The Rajapaksa have fostered Sinhala nationalism and have privileged that community as a way to gain a foothold in power. Significantly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s inauguration ceremony as president in 2019, following his election victory, took place in an ancient Buddhist temple built by a 2nd century BC king. C. that stopped a Tamil invasion. Without going so far back in time, during that campaign he capitalized on the fear of the Muslim minority and cast suspicion on the Tamil Hindu minority.

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“The end of the war made them appear to that majority as a kind of national hero. But the Tamils, Muslims and other minorities did not feel the same, who were harassed for no reason, ”explains Darshatha Gamage, head of programs at Hashtag Investigation, a group that promotes the political participation of youth and minorities in Sri Lanka. Gamage laments the “lack of transparency and justice” after that dark period.

The transition underway

In the park of Galle Face, the popular celebration continues after the resignation of the president. The party, the music and the fireworks at night gave way, on Friday, to a more relaxed atmosphere. The main objective of the protests has been fulfilled (“Gota go home”, by the first name of the former president) and now the uncertainty is maximum. The demonstrators want profound changes and an improvement in their material living conditions.

At the institutional level, what is to come was announced this Friday by the President of Parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, who after formally accepting the president’s resignation, has called an extraordinary meeting for this Saturday and has set himself the goal of appointing a new president in seven days. “It will be done quickly and successfully. I ask everyone to support this process,” he said before Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president. The demonstrators also demand his immediate departure.

In statements collected by Efe, Abeywardena has stated that he is confident that the transition that is now beginning will be “a milestone in the history of the country”, which is “the oldest democracy in South Asia”. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, for its part, has prohibited Mahinda Rajapaksa – prime minister until last May – and other officials from leaving the country without permission until at least July 28, reports Reuters.

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