Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Without warning, heavily armed military and police in riot gear descended on the Galle Face protest site, chasing away the activists, dismantling tents and attacking media personnel. Several of the protesters were badly injured. The state led violence brought instant local and international condemnation as videos of the brutality were widely shared on social media. The attacks were ordered despite the fact that the protesters had agreed to vacate the Presidential Secretariat building in the afternoon.

Several people have been arrested including at least one lawyer and some journalists. The violence against the peaceful protesters was seen as the fulfilment of new president Ranil Wickremesinghe’s promise to “restore law and order” and bring “normalcy” back to the country while labelling the protesters as “fascists.”

“A total violation of the fundamental rights of the people by the actions of the Executive. The HRCSL advises the State to identify the perpetrators and take appropriate action and ensure such actions by the Military or any action within the control of the State to violate the fundamental rights of the people will never occur in the future,” said Rohini Marasinghe, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission.

“The BASL demands for an immediate halt to the unjustified and disproportionate actions of the Armed Forces targeting civilians,” the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) said in a statement. It charged that lawyers who tried to enter the area were prevented from doing so by security forces and assaulted.

“The use of the Armed Forces to supress civilian protests on the very first day in office of the new President is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic and political stability,” BASL warned.

“CPA condemns the use of force to disband the Aragalaya. Peaceful protest is fundamental to democracy. That this was one of the first acts of this government is deplorable and seriously damages public trust and confidence in this government’s commitment to democratic governance,” tweeted Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

“This is unacceptable. The authorities must stand down immediately! The right to protest must be protected. Sri Lankan authorities must immediately cease these acts of violence and release those arrested unlawfully in this manner,” tweeted Amnesty International, adding that, “Authorities must also protect the freedom of the press. Journalists must not be barred from ‘Gotagogama’. Blocking journalists from doing their jobs directly violates freedom of the press.”

“Gravely concerned by use of force to disperse protestors. Journalists and human rights defenders have a right to monitor demonstrations and their functions should not be impeded,” tweeted UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy.

Vraie Cally Balthazaar, an activist and researcher, has been part of the aragalaya since it started. From Galle Face she tweeted “To all those congratulating @RW_UNP, know that his actions were predictable – he has always resorted to violence. Ranil has never been on the side of the people. Our hut was completely demolished. Bags and belongings gone. Those at the aragalaya arrested. Beaten. Battered. The threats of violence on individuals now growing. The struggle continues.”

Vraie answers questions from Groundviews about allegations of violence, Ranil Wickremesinghe as president and the continuation of the struggle.

What has the aragalaya achieved?

The aragalaya has had many wins. The leaders have learnt that they are accountable to the people of the country and that they are not here to just serve their own personal interests. We have seen many resignations such as Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa. The aragalaya created a sense of consciousness and the building of a citizen where the citizen is far more aware of what is happening in the country and of the relationship between the people, politicians and power. The collective consciousness is something the aragalaya has achieved. The fact that Ranil has been sworn in as president doesn’t take away from previous wins but we need to continue to move forward and work out what to do next.

Will the movement continue?

The movement will certainly continue. The call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go home was made on the basis that Gotabaya was not an empathetic leader or a leader who understood the needs of the people. He could not relate to the needs of the people and made choices on multiple occasions that really hurt the economy. In the same way, we do not believe Ranil Wickremesinghe represents the needs of the people. Furthermore he is an extension of the Rajapaksas. He was brought in by Gotabaya Rajapaksa purely to safeguard the Rajapaksa clan, including Gotabaya himself, and it wasn’t done in the interests of the people so our call for Ranil to go home will continue. We don’t believe Ranil has the people’s mandate since he is in parliament through a national list seat when his party had lost the confidence of the people. The 134 representatives in parliament who voted for him did so based on their own greed and self-serving nature that has nothing to do with what the people want. Ranil has no intention of dissolving the parliament and getting a fresh mandate, which is absolutely necessary for the people as well as other countries to build the confidence that is required for us to move on. The struggle will continue.

What do you say to allegations that the peaceful protests have turned violent?

Those who are quick to point out that the protesters are violent do not take into account the years and years of state led violence that caused civilians to take to the streets. Those who label protesters as being confrontational must realise that they are fighting against a regime that is oppressive, that there has been violence against minorities, people of specific communities and poor communities. They don’t take into account that state led violence is what brings us here to begin with. The fact they are cutting off daily wage earners from their work, cutting off fertiliser from the farmers and cutting off basic things such as fuel and gas while people die in queues, is state violence. We are not taking into account state led violence but we are saying people are violent because protesters will move a barricade or they will be angry. There is a palpable sense of anger and the anger stems from the fact that violence has been perpetrated by the state for many, many years. The protests are the way in which people are negotiating with the state because the state has always found ways to oppress people. The protests give people the one opportunity to come out and to speak out. For the longest time, the protests were entirely nonviolent but that changed on May 9 when Mahinda and Namal Rajapaksa and Johnston Fernando called for violence at Galle Face and allowed it to happen. Law enforcement officers encouraged it and that’s what changed the nonviolent component. Since then there have been violent encounters but to label the protesters as being violent and the state being nonviolent is very problematic. The only solution now is to call for a fresh mandate to resolve the problems we face at this time.