Mahatma Gandhi said that civil disobedience became a sacred duty when the state became lawless and corrupt. To the diehard protesters left at the diminished GotaGoGama, Gandhi’s words are at the heart of their people’s struggle. That the Rajapaksa regime was lawless and corrupt is not in dispute; its lawlessness and corruption brought a once emerging nation to bankruptcy for which crime no one has yet been taken to task.
On a windy, rainy day at Galle Face, the remaining tents are torn and bedraggled; many others were dismantled and taken away. St John’s Ambulance left, as did the mothers of the disappeared and the disabled soldiers. There is no more plastic recycling although the sign in empty bottles on the Port City wire mesh now reads Go Home Ranil. Having been chased away from their place on the barricades outside the presidential secretariat, two men climb onto a makeshift stage at GotaGoGama and start chanting about the sins of the new president and the “new” cabinet.
The area near S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s statue has been cleared and those protesters have moved to GotaGoGama, leaving behind a photographic memorial to murdered and disappeared journalists and other opponents of the vicious regime. Patrons at the Shangri-La hotel will no longer be disturbed by loud noises and unpleasant sights while drinking their whiskey.
In one corner at GotaGoGama, young men are hauling broken wooden pallets to a makeshift kitchen where others are stirring large pots of rice, chicken curry and beetroot for dinner. The mood is sombre but defiant.
“We are peaceful, nonviolent protesters exercising our constitutional right to be here. We won’t leave unless the court tells us to,” said Angelo Kulasuriya, who has been with the aragalaya since April.
The aragalaya has achieved many things, including meeting its goals of ousting an incompetent and arrogant president as well as a reviled prime minister. But in the minds of the those who are left at the site, the major objective of system change has yet to be met. President Rajapaksa, they say, has been replaced by an equally untrustworthy and cunning president; as one cartoon depicted him, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In the past two weeks, 44 prominent protesters have been arrested including Buddhist monks, journalists and trade unionists as well as ordinary citizens, drawing worldwide condemnation. “Authorities must respect peoples’ right to peaceful assembly in public spaces and refrain from intimidation or use of force to disperse peaceful protesters,” said Amnesty International South Asia.
Calling on the government to release protesters who had been only exercising their right to peaceful assembly, the organisation said, “If sufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing persists, promptly charge with a recognizable offence that commensurate with the nature of the crime after assessment on a case by case basis, in accordance with international due process and fair trial standards.”
“The route to follow is not emergency rule by cracking down on the protesters and their leaders but to find ways and means of engaging with them in a nonviolent manner and address the root causes that brought tens of thousands of citizens young and old to the streets countrywide. The legitimate demands of people who have seen their living standards crash in a matter of months should be addressed through dialogue with them and not by assuming emergency powers and engaging in witch hunts to silence the dissenting voices.,” said the National Peace Council in a media statement.
While the police are able to track down the man who first entered president’s house and the one who took the president’s beer mug, they are unable to make arrests in regular day time shootings or investigate the deaths of bodies washed up on Galle Face beaches.
Because the corrupt and despised 225 members of parliament still remain, because there is no rule of law, because there is no adherence to human rights, because no one is being held accountable for the corruption or well documented war crimes and because there is no political will to abolish the executive presidency, the protesters vow to remain at the site despite an order to leave by 5 pm today.
However, the people interviewed by Groundviews also said they would abide by the court ruling. Three writ petitions have been submitted to the Court of Appeal requesting it to issue an interim order to prevent the implementation of the decision taken by the police to evacuate the people and constructions at GotaGoGama.
“We are not ready to leave but we will abide by the court order,” said Uditha Jayawardena who mans the petition booth. The petition calls for the money stolen by the Rajapaksas to be returned to the country. It has gathered 500,000 signatures but the aim is for one million. Even if he is evicted from the site, the petition will be taken online until it gets the numbers, Mr. Jayawardena said.
Mr. Kulasuriya pointed out the irony of being asked to vacate an officially designated protest site and that too by a president who had come to power because of the persistence and determination of the very people he was now persecuting.
“We have rights according to the constitution to protest peacefully as we have done for the past three months. We are nonviolent. We want to change the politicians who have looted and polluted the country,” Mr. Kulasuriya asserted.
He called for public support so that large numbers of people would be present when the security forces came for the eviction.
In a large tent on the edge of GotaGoGama close to the barricades blocking off the Presidential Secretariat, sits Dr. Ajantha Perera, spokesperson for the Mothers of the Struggle. Her son came back from overseas to join the aragalaya and now she fears for his safety. Mothers of the young people living on the site formed a group to act as a barrier between the security forces and their unarmed children.
“We hope they will not attack if we are there,” Dr. Perera said, pointing out that during the last attack, tents were destroyed, along with computers, and even disabled soldiers had been viciously assaulted. “Our young people got together and stood up against what is corrupt. They stood up against what is totally wrong. We do not want anyone killing young people in this country.”
“The struggle is not just at GotaGoGama, the struggle is in the heart. The young people are doing this because they feel hopeless that they have no future,” she pointed out.
Dr. Perera and the other mothers will be there in the evening when the security forces come.