Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the rally yesterday - Pix by Lasantha Kumara and Reuters
By Chathuri Dissanayake
Nearly 3,000 loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday occupied the Lake House Roundabout in Fort and held a ‘sathyagraha’ after the ‘Janabalaya Colombata’ protest march organised by the Joint Opposition (JO) was wrapped up.
The Government members discredited the campaign as unsuccessful as it had failed to garner support from the wider public.
Addressing his supporters amidst loud cheering, Rajapaksa spoke of toppling the Government to bring an end to what he termed as the Government’s “separatism policies”. He also criticised the “sale of national assets” and pledged to form a new government in the future. Surrounded by loyalist parliamentarians, Rajapaksa called on the crowd to stand up against the Government, which he claimed to be “dictatorial” in its actions.
“Join us to topple this Government before long,” said a visibly tired but upbeat Rajapaksa as the crowd cheered, drowning out his voice.
“I have a huge responsibility. Democracy is slowly fading away and dictatorship is rising as elections are being postponed. We are not able to speak up in Parliament. There is no one to do the work of the Opposition, so we have come to the streets,” he added.
Taking credit for bringing democratic governance to the North and the East by holding provincial elections for the first time after 30 years, the former President claimed current President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were able to visit these regions due to his efforts to end the war and establish civil governance.
Kicking off a ‘sathyagraha’ campaign, the Buddhist monks led the crowd through a candlelit vigil. They called on the crowd to “defend the country against the dictatorship, separatism and vengeful governance” of the Government before inviting the de-facto leader of Pohottuwa, Rajapaksa, to address the crowd.
A lengthy chant was read out by a monk and repeated by the crowd, detailing the need to bring a “national election under the leadership of Dear Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa”, which was followed by chanting of pirith.
The processions started off from four different locations in the city, finally meeting at the Lake House Roundabout. Earlier, the JO claimed that the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) did not allow the group to reserve any public venues for the rally. The claim was later denied by both Mayor Rosie Senanayake and CMC Commissioner V. K. Anura.
Life in Colombo was quieter than usual as many people stayed away from the capital in anticipation of the rally. Police beefed up security deploying 5,000 personnel and stationing Special Task Force teams around the city.
Rajapaksa’s brother, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and strong loyalists Wimal Weerawansa, Bandula Gunawardena, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Nimal Lanza, and Keheliya Rambukwella were present at the sathyagraha. Namal Rajapaksa, son of former President Rajapaksa, was absent from the sathyagraha, although he was seen leading the crowd as they marched to the final destination.
As the sathyagraha got underway, the Government hastily called a press conference with the participation of State Ministers Ajith P. Perera and Ruwan Wijewardene, Deputy Ministers Nalin Bandara, J. C. Alawathuwada, and MP Ashoka Priyantha at the Government Information Department. Calling the ‘Janabalaya Colombata’ campaign a flop, State Minister Ajith Perera pointed out that crowd numbers fell far below expectations.
“We expected hundreds of thousands of people, but there weren’t many. They claimed they would surround the Financial Crimes Investigation Division and Special High Courts, and that’s why we sought court orders, but in the end, nothing happened,” he claimed.
“They expected to bring many people and topple the Government and create a huge change, but the crowd today was even less than the crowd coming into Colombo on May Day.”
Claiming that there was no proper purpose or reason for the Janabalaya rally, Perera said different JO MPs had different reasons for the rally.
“Some said it was to topple the Government, others said they were there to attack the three-member Special Courts, and some others said it was against the increasing cost of living,” Perera claimed.