COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – With no end in sight to the national economic crisis that led them to take to the streets, protesters in Sri Lanka are digging in against a president they blame for crashing the economy.
On Thursday, as hundreds of student protesters continued their calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, they were met with tear gas and police water cannons. They endured this, and a monsoon rain that followed, with loudspeakers added to amplify their chants and speeches expressing their anger at the government.
“There is no other solution than for the president to leave,” said Naveendra Liyaanarachachi, 27, one of the protesters.
Sri Lanka, an island nation of 22 million people, is facing a severe economic crisis, with depleted foreign exchange reserves driving up the price of basic commodities.
On Thursday, Sri Lanka’s central bank confirmed that the country, which had borrowed tens of billions of dollars over the years to service the needs of a bloated system, had officially defaulted on its external debt.
Anger has grown across the country as families have to endure long lines for fuel, prolonged power cuts and shortages of food and medicine.
For weeks, the agitation had remained largely peaceful, with protesters creating a tent town outside the president’s administrative offices in the capital, Colombo.
They called their protest site the ‘Gota Go’ village – a play on words of the president’s nickname, Gota, and their main demand from him.
But tensions flared after supporters of the ruling Rajapaksa family marched to protesters’ camps this month, dismantled their tents and set fire to it, unleashing a wave of anger and violence across the country.
Police have begun arresting and questioning those suspected of carrying out the attack, including members of parliament belonging to the ruling party, and those suspected of participating in the widespread violence and arson that followed.
Protest leaders allege that police also used the investigation as an excuse to crack down on ties to the protesters and arrest more than 300 of their supporters.
(Here, a protester throws a tear gas canister back at the police officers who fired it.)
Mr. Rajapaksa, the president, has appointed a new prime minister, who is trying to raise money from friendly countries and alleviate the economic hardship. But the protesters say they will stay until their main demand – the resignation of the president – is met.
The protesters in the tent city rebuilt their structures soon after the attack by the Rajapaksa supporters and erected new tents in the place of the burned ones.
On any given day, especially when temperatures drop in the evening, families flock to listen to speeches or join in with the chants and music.