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'We are ready to face any violence': Protesters in Sri Lanka brace for a crackdown

Sri Lankan protesters ousted the previous president last week, and now, they’re taking aim at the new president, calling for him to resign, too.

The World

Chanu Nimasha, a protester in Sri Lanka, is shown at camp where people are meeting to discuss how to shift their tactics and oppose a new administration. 

Carolyn Beeler/The World

On Thursday morning, while Sri Lanka’s new president, 73-year-old Ranil Wickremesinghe, was being sworn in, it was breakfast time at the protest camp that’s just a stone’s throw away from his office.

Volunteers cooked huge pans of rice and dhal, wrapping hundreds of portions in newspaper packets to hand out to protesters. 

Sarath Raja prepared the day’s meal over a woodfire. Cooking gas is nearly impossible to get. 

man in blue shirt and orange pants in tent

Sarath Raja, a protester in Sri Lanka, kneels near a fire pit at a protest camp.

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Carolyn Beeler/The World

Raja said that he joined the protest movement after quitting his job as a fruit seller. He made about $4 a day and inflation was cutting into what he could afford. 

“Inflation needs to be brought under control,” he said. “If the people in government leave, the economic situation will automatically get better.”

Protesters have been in the streets for months now as the country has faced economic turmoil and severe shortages of basic goods. They scored a major victory by bringing down the previous president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But they see his replacement, Wickremesinghe, as more of the same, and they’re vowing to force him out, too.

“Gotabaya also said he wouldn’t leave. But we chased him out,” Raja said. “So, chasing Ranil won’t be difficult. We are much stronger now.”

Protesters are meeting here to discuss how to shift their tactics, to oppose a new administration. But their key demands remain the same. They want a full housecleaning in government; immediate relief for food and fuel shortages; a new constitution; and more limited powers for the presidency.

Chanu Nimasha, an LGBTQ activist who’s lived at the protest camp since March, said that they’re preparing for a crackdown.   

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Protesters in a protest camp in Sri Lanka say they are preparing for a crackdown.   

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Carolyn Beeler/The World

“We are ready to face any violence,” she said. “Ours is not a violent struggle, so we may get beaten up. “

Nimasha spoke from inside the camp’s “equality tent,” where a rainbow flag flapped wildly in the wind blowing off the sea.  

She said that the movement is calling for a government that better represents the people.  

“Parliament should be dissolved and elections held, or Ranil should step down and allow an all-party government to be formed,” she said.

wall at protest camp

A wall at a protest camp in Sri Lanka bears messages of protest.

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Carolyn Beeler/The World

Nimasha said that she used to employ 15 people in a construction business, but work dried up months ago when inflation sent the price of cement and steel through the roof.  

She’s protesting for economic reform, but also calling for LGBTQ rights to be codified into law.

Harassment of LGBTQ people here is widespread, and Nimasha said it has to stop. 

“We joined this protest to fight for our rights,” she said.

woman with her two kids

Dayani Abeydeera and her two children are Sabrina, 7, (in her lap) and Udveka Abeydeera, 13, are shown at a protest camp in Sri Lanka.

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Carolyn Beeler/The World

The protest camp is made up of about 70 tents wedged into a grassy strip between a busy beachside road and oceanfront buildings. One tent has a library, another one, IT help. There’s a medical tent. And one cheekily named “Teargas Cinema.”

Many people here say they’re planning to stay until Wickremesinghe resigns.

But for Dayani Abeydeera and her family, the head of government is almost irrelevant.  

“It doesn’t matter who becomes president,” she said. “What we need is economic stability, jobs and education.”

protest camp

Protesters in Sri Lanka have been on the streets for months calling for changes in government, from top to bottom. They are organizing at a protest camp.

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Carolyn Beeler/The World

Abeydeera was sitting in the shade in front of her tent while her 7-year-old daughter, Sabrina, crawled in and out of her lap.   

Sabrina and her 13-year-old sister have been mostly out of school for the past three years — first due to the pandemic, and now because no one can get to school without any gas for their cars.

Abeydeera said that she wants her kids to have a better life than she did. And right now, they don’t.   

“The quality of life in Sri Lanka is much lower now,” she said. “Our children are living with many problems that we didn’t have when we were kids.”

If things don’t improve, she says the family might be forced to leave the country and rebuild their lives abroad.