A camp in Sri Lanka's capital becomes focus of national protests as PM offers talks

Thousands of people take to streets of Colombo to call for President Rajapaksa to step down

On a patch of grass near Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's office in the capital Colombo, about two dozen tents have been erected in a small but growing camp that is becoming the focal point of national protests.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Sri Lanka in the past few days to call for Mr Rajapaksa to step down, venting their anger at soaring inflation and lengthy power cuts caused by the spiralling economic crisis.

On a handwritten board next to the tents, not far from the colonial-era presidential building adjoining Colombo's water front, stands a sign: Gota-Go Village.

The slogan “Gota go back”, also referring to Gotabaya, is being chanted at demonstrations sweeping Sri Lanka, in an unprecedented public outcry that has brought together people of different faiths, ethnicities and social groups.

Close to the protest camp on Monday evening, a group of Christian nuns in white habits walked past a police barricade, where 11 protesters sat chanting. One held a poster saying “Our Govt Failed Us” .

A short distance away, three Buddhist monks in bright saffron robes stood in the crowd.

'Our only hope'

At the edge of a lawn, behind some tents, around 30 Muslim men sat in two lines to break their Ramadan fast.

Farzana F Haniffa, a professor of sociology at the University of Colombo, said the protest site had become a space where all Sri Lankans could come together in a rare show of unity.

One common cause was anger at what protesters said was economic mismanagement by the Rajapaksa family.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president's elder brother, serves as prime minister and their younger brother, Basil, was finance minister until recently.

The administration said it is doing what it can to drag Sri Lanka out of a crisis that has left it unable to buy fuel and medicine and struggling to pay its debts.

Some protesters said they would only leave if the Rajapaksas stepped down. Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a televised address the protests were hampering attempts to improve the situation.

Walking around barefoot early on Tuesday, after another night of heavy rain, Mary Suwen was rearranging tents that her husband had brought in from his adventure tourism business.

“The country is in a crisis, so you can't stay at home,” said Ms Suwen, 27, a civil engineer.

“We need to pressure them,” she said, talking of the Rajapaksas. “They need to be accountable to the people.”

Gagana Atapattu, 22, said he was part of the election campaign that brought Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power in 2019, but now regretted working for him.

“I'm now suffering for what I did,” he said, as he helped to manage donations of food, water and other supplies that Sri Lankans were bringing to be stored in large open tents.

Among those donating was YC Kanthi, who waited in a long queue for fuel and then drove 15 kilometres to deliver a pile of buns stuffed with caramelised onions for the protesters.

“I gave a special order to a nearby bakery and had them made for these youngsters,” said Kanthi, 53. “They are our future, they are our only hope out of this mess.”

PM offers talks

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka's prime minister offered talks with protesters calling for the government to step down over its handing of an economic crisis as the opposition threatened to bring a no-confidence motion against it in parliament.

"The prime minister is ready to start talks with the protesters at Galle Face Green," his office said in a statement, referring to a protest site that has become the focus of discontent.

"If protesters are ready to discuss their proposals to resolve the challenges currently facing the nation, then the prime minister is ready to invite their representatives for talks," the office said.

Updated: April 13, 2022, 9:39 AM
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