How a gang of militants helped bring down the Sri Lankan government

The group, which included a Catholic priest, a digital strategist, and a famous playwright, succeeded beyond their wildest hopes.

Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Colombo. After initial clashes with police, protesters occupied key government buildings and residences, forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his prime minister to vow to step down.

“I’m still trying to address it,” said Shamira Dadwaj, a digital strategist at a major advertising firm, who was part of the team that helped organize the uprising.

“It was 50% premeditation, 30% willpower and 20% luck.”

In interviews, veterans at these small meetings described how they agreed on a multi-pronged campaign to breathe new life into the movement widely known as “Aragalaya,” or “struggle” in Sinhala.

The movement began in March, when thousands of people took to the streets to express their anger at prolonged power cuts and soaring prices, and to demand the departure of the Rajapaksa family who have dominated politics in the country for the past 20 years.

On May 9, Rajapaksa Mahinda’s older brother – President from 2005 to 2015 and then Prime Minister – resigned. On June 9, younger brother Basil resigned from his position as a legislator.

So Aragalaya activists targeted July 9 as the day they hoped to overthrow the president himself.

According to the three participants, a plan has been drawn up to combine online agitation, meetings with political parties, unions and student groups, and door to door to bring enough people back to the streets for the last payment.

Public frustration with persistent shortages, which has crippled the economy, and the president’s stubborn refusal to step down, has been simmering for weeks.

Huge crowds gathered on trains, buses, trucks and bikes, or simply on foot, in Colombo on Saturday, outstripping the security forces deployed to protect government buildings and upending Sri Lankan politics.

“Gotha go home!” chanted the crowd in Colombo’s Fort district, reeling from the country’s worst economic crisis since its independence.

They quickly stormed the president’s colonial-era home before storming part of the presidential office and entering the prime minister’s official residence, 2.5 kilometers (1.6 mi)) away.

Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were moved to undisclosed safe locations and within hours separately announced that they would step down to allow a multi-party caretaker government to take power.

If he steps down on Wednesday as promised, Rajapaksa, once a respected and feared war hero, will become the first Sri Lankan president in office to step down.

“I think this is the unprecedented gathering in this country. period,” playwright Rwanthe de Chiquera, who is part of the hard core of Aragalaya activists, told Reuters.

Representatives of the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the protests and the reasons for her stepping down. Their whereabouts were not disclosed.

everything is ready

Digital strategist Mr. Dedduwage said, Sri Lanka has around 5 million households and 8 million active Facebook accounts, making online communication a very effective way to reach protesters.

“Which means that through Facebook we can reach practically every corner of the country at no cost,” Dduwaj told Reuters, sitting in a tent in Colombo’s main protest site, Jota Go Village, laughing at the president.

In early July, one of the people receiving the group’s social media messages, Satya Sharith Amaratong, was a marketing professional living in Moratuwa, about 20 miles from Colombo, who had taken part in previous anti-government protests.

The 35-year-old took a sticker he received via WhatsApp on July 2, reading “Colombo Country, July 9” in Sinhala, and uploaded it to his personal Facebook page.

That night he began planning a campaign that would eventually see tens of thousands of people join him in a march to Colombo.

Other members of Aragalaya reached out directly to opposition political parties, unions and student associations, including the powerful University Student Union (IUSF), to mobilize support, according to Dedduwage.

One of Sri Lanka’s largest student groups, the IUSF is notorious for its political agitation and has clashed with security forces during recent protests, dismantling police barricades amid tear gas and water cannons.

The Aragalaya group also asked volunteers to visit thousands of homes in parts of Colombo, including middle-class government apartment complexes, some of which are within walking distance of the main protest site.

To bring in people from outside the city, activists appealed to more than 30 “Gota Go Village” sites that have sprung up in cities across the country.

Late on July 8, police imposed a curfew in several areas around Colombo, which activists say was intended to prevent a planned protest. Police said the move was aimed at maintaining public order. Some members of the core group quickly moved to safe houses for fear of arrest.

Jeevanth Peiris, a Catholic priest from the activist group, feared that only a few thousand would turn up the next day due to restrictions. Fuel shortages reduced transportation possibilities for weeks.

“Frankly, we were only expecting 10,000 people with all these restrictions and all this intimidation,” he told Reuters, wearing a white abaya. “We thought 5,000 10,000.”

People don’t want to give up

Early on July 9, an Amaratung marketer said he walked from Moratuwa with about 2,000 other protesters, the size of the group he had been expecting after a week of sharing messages on Facebook and WhatsApp.

It wasn’t until he left his hometown that Amaratong said he realized how many people wanted to go to Colombo. Many of them were angered by the curfew, which was lifted by the police in the early hours of Saturday morning.

In several Facebook Lives posted by Amaratunge on Saturday, several hundred people can be seen walking on the main road to Colombo, some of them carrying the national flag.

According to Amaratung’s estimates, tens of thousands of people eventually joined the march in which he participated, arriving at the Colombo Fort area. According to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the crowd reached at least 200,000 people.

Members of the Aragalaya core group said that this number participated several times, with successive waves of people arriving in Colombo and marching to the main protest site.

Duwag said organizers roughly estimated it would take about 10,000 people to get past the individuals guarding each of the four entry points into the president’s home.

In the early afternoon, after dismantling police barricades and grabbing water cannons, protesters dismantled the high gates guarding the president’s home and overcame a large deployment of security forces.

During the night, the official residences in Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe were occupied by protesters, tearing down the fences outside the Presidential Secretariat and occupying part of it. Wickremesinghe’s personal residence was attacked and part of it was set on fire.

Within hours, the leaders were ready to go.

“There were a lot of old people, teenagers, young people and women,” recalls Rev. Peres, who says he was involved in clashes with the police.

“People didn’t want to give up, they didn’t want to step down.”

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