Jul 11, 2022

Demonstrators in Sri Lanka storm presidential palace Transcript

Demonstrators in Sri Lanka storm presidential palace Transcript
RevBlogTranscriptsGotabaya RajapaksaDemonstrators in Sri Lanka storm presidential palace Transcript

Protesters have stormed the official residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, demanding his resignation. Read the transcript here.

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Speaker 2: (00:02)
They called Saturday D-Day, when protesters say the President and his government would be forced to step down. They blame Gotabaya Rajapaksa for an economic crisis that’s made life unbearable for many of the country’s 22 million people. After breaking through barricades, yet another unprecedented moment, the demonstrators stormed into the President’s official residence in Colombo. Inside, this is what it looked like. The President was moved by his security team to an undisclosed location earlier while protesters ransacked his bedroom and took photographs on his bed. Within moments, the Presidential pool, once reserved for the country’s top leaders, appeared more like a community pool.

Speaker 3: (01:03)
Today is the independence day for me, been born in this nation, not 1948, because today we have fought for our freedom from the tyranny, from the scoundrels, from the [inaudible 00:01:19], from the rascal, the rogues, and the greedy politicians who have run our nation below ground zero.

Speaker 2: (01:30)
The 73 year old President was elected in 2019. Analysts say it’s only a matter of time before he’s forced to step down.

Speaker 4: (01:41)
As soon as the President’s resignation is announced, the Prime Minister becomes the acting President according to the constitution. And that is for a period of 30 days, within which parliament must decide who amongst its members will be elected to serve the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

Speaker 2: (02:01)
Anger is rising at the government’s handling of a dire economic crisis, the worst in 70 years. The monthly minimum wage is about $80, and access to food, fuel, and medicine is limited, and the government has run out of foreign currency. Rajapaksa’s political allies know this is a crucial moment for his presidency.

Speaker 5: (02:26)
Because they want not only the President to go, they want the Prime Minister to go, they want the government to go. It is very ironic. You know that this is a government that came to power on the basis of nationalism, on the basis of the ethnic majority nationalism, they have been pushed out now.

Speaker 2: (02:44)
Smaller demonstrations held earlier this year had little impact. Now the frustration appears to have turned into a movement that can no longer be ignored. [inaudible 00:02:56], Al Jazeera.

Speaker 6: (02:58)
And Minelle Fernandez reports from Colombo

Minelle Fernanadez: (03:02)
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government had been put on notice that if he didn’t go that the whole of Sri Lanka would take to the streets, that would come and basically sit in until they saw his exit. As you can see behind me, the crowd, I mean, essentially in the far distance, the Presidential Secretariat, but tens of thousands of people still streaming in to Colombo in any way they can. On our drive here, we saw dozens of people on foot with backpacks, living around Colombo, even people who had been walking from out of Colombo. We’re also hearing that trains, which had been sort of halted, people stormed railway stations, and literally forced railway employees to put trains on the tracks and bring them into Colombo. And the one thing they say, that they are taking their country back.

Speaker 3: (03:55)
Today is the independence day for me, been born in this nation, not 1948, because today we have fought for our freedom from the tyranny, from the scoundrels, from the [inaudible 00:04:10], from the rascals, the rogues, and the greedy politicians who have run our nation below ground zero.

Minelle Fernanadez: (04:20)
And this is exactly what the government tried so hard to prevent, the thousands of people converging on the capital to urge the President and his government to go. They brought in a curfew, they had to remove it the next day. They essentially wanted the distribution of fuel. Whatever little stocks were available, were frozen. Essentially transport, public transport was stopped, but people were not giving up. And if you look at the far background, the Sri Lankan flag flying high, the Rajapaksa regime, the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were so sort of keen and strong to talk about nationalism. But the people here say this is the true spirit of Sri Lankans, and they want their country back.

Speaker 6: (05:09)
And Minelle Fernandez joins us live now on the phone. Hello there Minelle. So the Prime Minister says he’s willing to stand down. What else came out of that meeting of party leaders?

Minelle Fernanadez: (05:21)
So for my sources, I hear that it was quite a lot of animated discussion. One of the things that had been discussed was the Go Gota campaign and essentially calls for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President, to step down came up, but the party leaders had pointed out that given the national outcry that people would not be satisfied and they had pushed for even more essentially to be done. They had recommended that both the President and the Prime Minister both step down. Now this didn’t go down very well.

Minelle Fernanadez: (05:57)
There were some discussions, at which point we’re also hearing from the Prime Minister’s office that the Prime Minister basically offered to step down, saying he was willing to resign only when there was a national government that was put in place, so as to ensure that the stability, the sort of building blocks back to normality, if you like, is not sort of hampered by political instability. Now that’s not obviously to say how much instability all of this is causing. But again, obviously the Prime Minister having said that he is willing to go, but obviously with some strong caveats. So the party leaders must now sort of discuss among themselves in terms of the formation of a national government. And that’s where things stand at the moment.

Speaker 6: (06:48)
Now, despite what the leaders have agreed on, will that actually be enough for protestors?

Minelle Fernanadez: (06:55)
Well, one of the things the protestors have said, and we heard this sort of repeated again and again out on the streets of Colombo today, is that they’re not going to be short changed. They’re not going to be hoodwinked any longer. So as much as this campaign has been waged for over three months where they’ve been urging the President, then the Prime Minister to go home, and even when the Prime Minister at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the President’s elder brother, finally accepted the calls to resign and went, people were still saying that is not enough. So they kept pushing. They weren’t happy, obviously with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, someone who had been voted out of parliament, unable to secure his own seat. And now the people are very, very clear. They say if this does not pan out as we have asked, and if this is all a sort of an attempt to pull wool over their eyes, they’re not going to hesitate in marching on Colombo.

Minelle Fernanadez: (08:01)
Again, it almost seems that there is a certain political awakening. There is a certain awareness among the people that they have kind of put a full stop just to being sort of hoodwinked and strung along by their political leadership. So as much as you might find Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a very astute politician over many, many decades, playing word games, saying he’s willing to resign, but having sort of caveat on that about the formation of a national government before he does. So people’s tolerance levels have pretty much reached zero points. So they are obviously going to watch, they’re going to see what happened, and they’re going to actually push again if what they have been demanding does not come to fruition.

Speaker 6: (08:54)
Minelle, you’ve spent most of the day out on the streets among the protestors. What’s been the mood with demonstrators? I mean, we are seeing various scenes, some of them partying in a pool and then others on the street being fired with tear gas. Can you talk us through the makeup of the group?

Minelle Fernanadez: (09:10)
Yeah. It’s all being sort of unfolding throughout the day today. As you said, the morning was quite tense because it began with people converging on Colombo. This mind you despite a host of government attempts to prevent that gathering, from curfew to stopping the issue of fuel, to a lot of intimidation, but people came. And then there was a standoff in terms of some entrance points or access points to that President’s official residence. But basically that first volley of tear gas that then followed with a number of rounds of tear gas this morning. In fact, the Al Jazeera team came in for it as well. And believe me, it’s not a pleasant experience.

Minelle Fernanadez: (09:58)
Hundreds and hundreds of students were basically affected. This happened actually when there wasn’t a whole sort of attempt at violence. The police just pushed the line back, obviously very keen to make sure that the protestors don’t break through the barricades and enter the President’s house. Ultimately came to nothing because, as you can see those pictures in the pool, all of those protestors just enjoying the fact that they had breached the President’s sort of security and done what they said they would do, that they would take the fight right to the President and make him go. And that is exactly what happened in terms of at least physically, he had to be whisked away under escort, as he fled the oncoming protestors.

Minelle Fernanadez: (10:48)
Now, there was a lot of anger among the protestors, lots of young people, a real mix of sort of protestors coming out. And it’s quite amazing in terms of the way they found their way to Colombo, given that there was no public transport. Most people had problems with fuel. I mean, they came in vehicle carriers, in lorries, on bicycle, on foot. There was one old lady, a grandmother with her two grandchildren, who had walked over 20 kilometers. The poor lady was almost at the point of exhaustion and she sort of fainted by the side of the road and had to be revived. So there were lots of people. These aren’t just kind of rebel young people trying to cause mayhem. This was people from all walks of life, across the rainbow of Sri Lanka, that had come to put their sort of full stop on the Rajapaksa regime and the government that has basically brought Sri Lanka to its knees.

Speaker 6: (11:45)
Certainly a dynamic situation. We really appreciate you giving us that update. Minelle Fernandez, live for us in Colombo. Thank you. Let’s take a closer look now at the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated politics in Sri Lanka for 20 years. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current President’s brother, came to power as President in 2005 and led the country for 10 years. He appointed his three brothers as government ministers. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency in 2019 and immediately appointed his brother, Mahinda, as Prime Minister. Mahinda was replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe in May. Demonstrators accused the brothers of cronyism, corruption, and economic policies that have caused the current crisis. For more on this story, let’s bring in W.A. Wijewardena, who is an independent economic analyst, and the former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. He joins us from Colombo. W.A., thanks so much for being on the program. As we’ve been reporting, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister says he’s willing to resign to make way for an all party government. Will this ease protestor concerns?

W.A. Wijewardena: (12:58)
Well, of course whatever the promises made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should be taken with the pinch of salt because he had been famous for breaking his promises in the past. So I feel that unless he resigns and goes away, the protest campaign will continue and it might end up in a blood bath, not like the peaceful protest that have taken place in Sri Lanka right now. It might end up in a blood bath. So to avoid that blood bath, my view is that he should immediately step down and allow the party leaders to elect their own government right now.

Speaker 6: (13:42)
We haven’t actually seen or heard from the President today. What is the alternative to a Rajapaksa government?

W.A. Wijewardena: (13:51)
Well, in terms of the constitution, and as agreed by the party leaders who have made the speaker, they can actually appoint the speaker of Parliament as the Interim President, but he has to win a lot of confidence in parliament, which is simply a simple majority, which is not difficult task for him to get. And then he will have to ask another MP to form a government, and that government will have to carry on for six months providing relief to the members of the public and laying down the basic requirements to eliminate the current economic crisis, and also to enable the country to have another general election after six months time, which would enable the country to elect its own government. So this is the timeline and the strategy that is being proposed by many people who have been engaged in the protest campaign now.

Speaker 6: (14:48)
The thing is though, even if the government is replaced, there’s no short term solution to fix the economic woes of Sri Lanka, is there? And Sri Lankans are really facing fuel and food shortages for some time yet.

W.A. Wijewardena: (15:01)
Well, you are perfectly correct, simply because we have an interim government of all political parties doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka would be able to resolve all the acute economic issues that we are facing today. Specifically, we don’t have any foreign exchange with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. And as a result, Sri Lanka is unable to maintain the minimum import program, which includes the importation of fuel, cooking gas, medicines, food items, input for industries, and so forth. So there’ll be a very difficult time period for Sri Lankans in the next two to three months time period. But what it means is that given the complexity and the acuteness of the current economic crisis, my guess is that all of us will have to make the supreme sacrifice. We’ll have to actually change our present modern lifestyles. We have to change, we have to become very altruistic people in the country. We have to work for nothing. So likewise, lots of demands are to be made of the people in Sri Lanka to enable the country to come out of the present crisis.

Speaker 6: (16:13)
You’re in Colombo at the moment. What’s it like personally living there? How can you carry out your daily tasks? Are you able to go to the petrol station? Are you able to get the food that you need?

W.A. Wijewardena: (16:25)
Well, of course I stood in the petrol queue for four days in order to get a first hand experience of what it feel like. Three days, it was in vain because the bowser didn’t come petrol. On the fourth day, I put my vehicle to the queue at three o’clock in the morning, but the bowser came only at nine o’clock in the night. And by the time I went home, it was around eleven o’clock. But I had lots of experience with the people who stood there in the queue and the agony and the difficulties that these people are going through, I actually experience myself. Right now I don’t use my car because I was given only 10, 20 liters of petrol, which is not sufficient for me to use my car, I have kept it as a reserve for an emergency. I either walk or use public transport whenever they are available to move from one place to another. Now these are type of life that we are living in Sri Lanka today, in Colombo.

Speaker 6: (17:22)
Well, we really appreciate your insights. Thank you very much. W.A. Wijewardena, an independent economic analyst. Thank you for your time.

W.A. Wijewardena: (17:30)
You’re welcome.

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