May 11, 2022 - 11:30am

Colombo, Sri Lanka

On Monday afternoon, as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa prepared to step down as Premier, hundreds of his supporters began to gather outside his official residence, Temple Trees, to urge him not to resign.

His supporters gathered amidst the worst economic crisis to hit this country since independence. As I reported last month for UnHerd, massive rises in the cost of living were pushing Sri Lanka to the brink of severe violence. Now it is erupting, with security forces in Sri Lanka under orders to shoot protesters on sight. How did it come to this?

Rajapaksa’s supporters consisted of mostly municipal workers, labourers and other members of the working class, who had been brought to the site in a caravan of state-owned buses or simply had marched there on foot.

At the same time, peaceful anti-Rajapaksa protests were taking place on the opposite side of the road at a protest camp known colloquially as MynaGoGama. It’s sister site, GotaGoGama was a ten-minute walk away. Both sites have been calling for the President and Prime Minister to resign for over a month.

What happened next between the two groups of protestors would trigger a series of violent attacks across the country —  violence of a magnitude that Sri Lanka has not experienced since the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019.

Rajapaksa supporters, armed with long sticks, iron rods and other makeshift weapons charged at the protestors on the other side, dismantling tents and tearing posters down. The police formed a human barricade across the Galle Road ahead of time as Rajapaksa’s supporters began to advance towards them. They fired tear gas and water cannons into the crowd to make it disperse, to no avail. A curfew was imposed on Colombo, and later the entire country.

In retaliation, the anti-government protesters torched several SLTB (Sri Lankan Transport Board) buses outside Temple Trees and attempted to fight their way into the Residence, but were held back by the military barricades and the shots fired from inside. Efforts were also made to block pro-government supporters from being treated for their wounds at the National Hospital. Simultaneously, the Prime Minister announced his resignation in an official statement on Twitter.

By 2pm, anti-government protestors had managed to capture several government loyalists and MPs. They either tied them up or beat them, before forcing them into the Beira Lake — a highly polluted body of water enveloped in the strong stench of hydrogen sulphide.

In Nittambuwa, a few miles to the north-east of Colombo, a government legislator, Amarakeerthi Athukorala, had reportedly opened fire on protesters who tried to block his vehicle from moving, shooting one man dead and critically injuring another. After the mob managed to topple the car, Athukorala fled to a nearby building and, according to the police who found his body, killed himself.

The homes of several MPs and government officials were burnt down and attacked by protestors, including the Rajapaksa’s ancestral home — several have been fatally injured in these attacks. Hotels and several Buddhist temples were also incinerated around the country, SLTB buses are being toppled over and vandalised — with the drivers being thrown into garbage carts.

On roads across Sri Lanka, vehicle checks are being carried out; motorists are being flagged down and examined to see if they are carrying anyone affiliated with the Rajapaksa administration. Not stopping brings grave consequences. For the anti-government protestors, this is no longer about food or petrol. This is about getting revenge on the SLPP (the current ruling party) for the attack at the Galle Face…. So far 8 people have died and 231 have been left injured.

The protestors say the attack on them was planned and claim that the Rajapaksa supporters were merely hired  “thugs” and “goons”, lured by the incentive of a few thousand rupees, a parcel of rice and some arrack, though there is very little evidence to support these claims.

Today, the tents are back up at MynaGoGama, but the Prime Minister and his family are gone. They have taken refuge in a naval base in Trincomalee.

In his resignation letter, Rajapaksa stated that “multiple stakeholders have indicated that the best solution to the current economic crisis is the formation of an interim all-party government” — anything to ensure that his younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (the current president) has a secure term until the next election year.

On the streets, meanwhile, the violence continues. It will take more than speeches to end it.

Thasanya Jayasumana is a writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka.