POHOTTU AS USA’ S PROXY Part 6A
Posted on July 11th, 2022

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Shivanthi Ranasinghe observed in May 2022 that for the past two months, the country has been experiencing different types of protests. Television news from March 2022 onwards showed groups of people in different towns blocking the main roads protesting against the shortage of petrol, gas, kerosene, as well as electricity cuts. These protests continued into June 2022 and scenes from them were seen daily in television news. There was a demonstration in Horowopotana on April 21st.

Shivanthi observed that these protests did not erupt in just one area, they erupted in several areas simultaneously. This shows that the protests are organized by a central force. They remind one of the USA sponsored  Arab Springs, she said. A protest of this nature and scale strongly indicates the support of INGOs as well.

The protests that ended in violence on 31 March were of very serious nature. The violence erupted closer to midnight, which in itself was unusual for a protest. Usually, protests are very much a daytime affair. It was very clear that something very serious was afoot threatening national security said Shivanthi .

However, that glimpse of violence thereafter disappeared and was replaced by protests by Colombo yuppy crowd. Usually, protests in Sri Lanka are by lower middle class youth whose slogans are in Sinhala. These protestors however were mostly from middle or upper middle class and the primary language of protest was English, concluded Shivanthi.

Then  came  an impressive  countrywide token strike on April 28. Trade unions representing banks, railways, education, harbour, electricity, postal, apparel industry and tea estate workers joined in.

 This was followed by an equally impressive  country wide hartal on May  7th. This hartal would beat all previous hartals in the country, the organizers said. It did. This hartal was certainly  even more successful than the 1953 hartal, analysts said.

Over 1,000 government and private sector trade unions, representing all sectors from transportation to banking, participated.  Employees of government, semi-government and private institutes also joined. The country came to a standstill with almost all public and private sector services halted. All regional traders associations  supported the hartal. Shops closed in all towns. Trains  and private buses did not operate.

Demonstrations were held in  towns. Workers in Katunayaka, Biyagama, Seethawaka, Kotagala and other Free Trade Zones, too, joined the demonstrations. The staff of the Colombo National Hospital, Lady Ridgeway Hospital, the Castle Street Hospital, and other health institutions, did not take part in the strike, but they held demonstrations during the lunch hour and in the evening. Organizers asked people to hoist black flags in their houses.

Protests that began as small groups in every nook and corner, suddenly, in a well coordinated move shifted to the front of the Presidential Secretariat. There were  two agitation sites,  a major one located at the Galle Face in front of the Presidential Secretariat, called   GotaGogama”  and in  a minor one, later on, in front of Temple Trees, called Mynagama.  GotaGogama  started on  April  9th..  Multiple GotaGogama branches” have sprung up in Anuradhapura, Kandy, Galle, and Negombo, reported the media on April 22.  

 Observers noted that the title given to the gama was in English, it was GotaGogama”. it was put up in foot high letters on a name board at  Galle Face. There was also briefly, the title GotaGotta Go, which sounds American.

The Galle Face venue caught on, precisely because it was  Galle Face”. Yahapalana 2 and the USA  had selected the location well.  it provided a location for protests,  to allow the public to ventilate its  anger and  grievances in a controlled   location.

GotaGogama attracted a large number of supporters within a very short time. The majority of the protesters were the angry public, happy to be given a  convenient place in which to shout out their anger. There was a steady stream of supporters. People arrived to demonstrate, even in the pouring rain. Raincoats and garbage bags were handed out to them.  

The logistics at GotaGogama were   sound.   There was a core group of mature youth, permanently there,  providing services and organizing  the crowd. There were loudhailers and also megaphones in strategic areas. One group handed out mikes for protesters to express themselves. A stall had Bristol board with markers and crayons for those who didn’t come to the site with placards.

As GotaGogama progressed it became a major venue for protest. Group after group came here to   protest, shout,  complain. They included  professionals, academics, lawyers,  artists. They were  greatly   welcomed by the loudly complaining public.

The legal and Medical professions came in deputation to announce their displeasure. Artists, religious leaders, sports personalities also came to  support GotaGogama.. Television news showed the protests in their daily broadcasts. While visibly exhausted, participants are persistent, observed the media.

The pubic  came to Galle Face to demonstrate even during the Sinhala  New Year, which is always reserved for family reunions. Instead of travelling back to their homes, in the villages, entire families, young and old alike, left their homes to come to Galle Face.

The crowds enlarged in the evenings when the usual Galle Face visitors join the Aragalaya partly out of curiosity. The numbers at the protest site increased during holidays  and dropped as the work week commenced. The bulk of the crowd was middle class Colombo residents. They were able to shuttle between home and Galle Face

GotaGogama  soon became a temporary  settlement with protestors living on Galle Face Green in tents. These  tents occupied the large expanse of grounds at Galle Face, at the Presidential Secretariat end. There were washrooms and  food stalls.  

 Groups took turns to take up residence. Many  do not go back but pitch tent there, said an observer.  One businessman, who sells wedding invitations and cake boxes, has been camping at Galle Face since April 9 when he first came to Galle Face.

More and more  people  were sleeping over in tents  and soon, the infrastructure was groaning.  The number of stalls increased. One stall overflowed with everything from water to biscuits to cooked food. Dinner comprised of at least five different varieties, that day. They even ran out of paper plates and cups.  It had no shortage of helpers.

The isso vadey” vendors of Galle Face who are usually near the sea moved to the sides of the main road along with the sara vita”, ice cream, achcharu” and pineapples. A cigarette went for Rs 100.

Critics observed that The  Galle Face protest would not have lasted for more than a few days  if not for the support given by private sector firms, observed an Island editorial. The facilities, including food and water, are predominantly donations. The food provision was very generous, there were  all kinds of biscuits, paper serviettes, tea and buns, even expensive, elusive powdered milk, observed the media.  

The GotaGogama provided other facilities for its  tent settlers and visitors. GotaGogama had a library, barber saloon, medical center phone charging booth,  kitchen, centralized logistics and  an IT centre. Also a legal advisory office,a cinema,  a school, an art gallery. The tent library is always full of readers hunched over books in deep concentration amidst the noise.

GotaGogama had the ambulances and medical tents, the artist corners, library, the legal aid tent, phone charging stations, recycling point for plastic bottles, multiple music tents and puppet shows, drawing materials for children, portable toilets and food for everyone, reported Sunday Times. Over the past week, a free childcare” center, free counseling center and more legal advice centers were set up  Sunday Times  added. The pharmacy” at Galle Face stocked a large array of donated over-the-counter medication from Panadol and Asamodagam to antibiotics, balm and Strepsils.

Musical shows, and other performances have given the Aragalaya a carnival atmosphere which helps to retain continued interest. Memorials, music, poetry and performance art pieces keep adding on to the landscape observed the media. It is like a beach carnival with free entry and exit at will said Sena Thoradeniya.

The proliferation of national flags added to the colour.  the chanting, the slogans, the singing and endless tooting, some of it rhythmic and coordinated, gave Galle Face a carnival atmosphere without ever diminishing the political reason for this unprecedented mass gathering.

The protest movement, and the self-led groups within GotaGogama, have been disciplined and careful in their approach. There was never even the faintest threat that the protest would turn violent, said an admirer. The mood was unflinchingly upbeat. The protests are peaceful and carnival-like said the BBC.

There was plenty of politics and political strategy  at GotaGogama. There was an international media centre” for press conferences and media-related work.

 Black flags with anti-Government and anti-Rajapaksa slogans flew from light poles. There are murals against ecological harm caused by the Government and portraits of murder victims. Painters are creating politically vibrant caricatures on-site, reported the media.

There was a 22-minute video,  which draws parallels between Guatemalan rulers and Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka. The narrator with the aid of a visual portrays the present struggle as the tip of the iceberg.

There was also free political education. Young activists conduct teach-outs to spread political awareness,. At the People’s Forum”, there are thought-provoking statements hung on the sides. People read them and write down their views on a book at the desk. Tent-holders say these ideas will be compiled and published, reported Sunday Times.

A People’s University” for intellectual discussions is humming with the sound of conversation. A giant screen at the site play clips from Parliament and so on. There are always viewers.

People have a lot of questions, especially about the constitutional solutions available to them,” noted a University student who was at the law advice tent” Started by a group of friends from the University of Colombo Law Faculty, it has been addressing questions about how the President could be removed, the possibility of reclaiming stolen national assets, the right to protest, the no-confidence motion, the travel bans and the recourse available when the President does step down.All the solutions we give are ones that are available within the Constitution of Sri Lanka,” they said.

However, critics observed that while GotaGogama was  blocking the entrance to the Presidential Secretariat   facing Galle Face, Presidential Secretary Gamini Senarath continued to use his Presidential Secretariat office and went there through a rear entrance. Protestors were occupying the main one. Both appear content with the arrangement , said the media.

Political education was conducted elsewhere too. There was a need to have teach-outs at the peripheries of people’s protests, said the organizers. While there was enthusiasm and energy, I think if we also don’t have very specific demands, after a certain point you go back home and wonder what exactly it is you’re asking for.

The first teach-out was held at Independence Square  on April 6. Around 100-200 people gathered to hear from the two speakers. This very first ‘Teach-out at the protest’ was organized in order to ‘create strategies to maintain momentum as well as build a collective political consciousness about this moment’. In order to be inclusive, the sessions were conducted in English, Sinhala and with Tamil translation

They  had six teach-outs through April covering topics from history, politics and economics to ethnicity, violence, corruption, law. the reason that Sri Lanka is in this situation is because of a lack of both education and political engagement amongst citizens so we opted for short-term benefits rather than long term solutions, said the organizers.

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