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Difficult decisions Sri Lankans must make today

“No time for Gota ‘cos we are the champions… of the world!”

It is a hot afternoon at Galle Face Green, the epicentre of Sri Lanka’s fledgling protest movement. Above the sea of tents at the protest village floats the voice of a woman, singing her unique take on a Queen song.

For months, these protesters have been at the forefront of the millions-strong Aragalaya movement – named after the Sinhalese word for “struggle” – calling for the resignation of reviled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lankans hold him and his elder brother, former president Mahinda, chiefly responsible for their country’s economic ruin.

Defying all expectations, the protesters have won a victory. Last week Gota, as he is popularly known, quit and fled.

But now comes the hard part: grappling with the political aftermath of Mr Rajapaksa’s departure and making some very difficult decisions.

With Mr Rajapaksa gone, protesters have turned their sights on Ranil Wickremesinghe, the unpopular former prime minister.

He is seen as someone with close ties with the Rajapaksas, a powerful dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for nearly two decades.

As the current acting president, he has little legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Mr Wickremesinghe failed in past presidential campaigns and lost his own seat in parliament in 2020. He is seen as having got the top post by sheer circumstance, after Mr Rajapaksa appointed him caretaker leader while making his hasty exit.

Last Wednesday, thousands of Sri Lankans stormed the prime minister’s office. At Galle Face Green, where the slogan “Gota Go Home” has dominated for months, the refrain is morphing to “Ranil Go Home”.

People wearing Ranil Go Home headbands
Image caption,

Many in the protest camp have started sporting “Ranil Go Home” headbands

But Mr Wickremesinghe has vowed to follow the constitutional process, and will remain in power until parliament votes in a new president on Wednesday.

Many believe he could throw his hat in the ring and possibly win with the support of the Rajapaksas’ ruling Sri Lanka People’s Front party (SLPP).

A six-time prime minister who has never completed any of his terms, tainted by corruption scandals during his time in office, Mr Wickremesinghe has a flawed track record to say the least.

But he does have experience of running the country and is thought to have the support of many MPs who want stability and continuity.

There are others laying claim to the throne, such as opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and Dullas Alahapperuma, a SLPP MP. But this may mean a split vote – which could benefit Mr Wickremesinghe.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Sri Lanka. Its central bank governor told the BBC it is uncertain they have enough foreign currency to buy fuel after the end of this month. The country urgently needs a leader to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for a much-needed bailout of its debt.

Could protesters stomach a compromise, and accept Mr Wickremesinghe for the time being to ride out the economic storm?

No, said everyone the BBC spoke to last week. So tarnished is his reputation that they prefer anyone except him.

“He came into power saying he was going to hold everyone accountable, the Rajapaksas even, but he did nothing. It’s absurd to think that people are going to trust him again,” said university student Anjalee Wanduragala.

On Saturday, protest organiser Nuzly Hameem called on parliamentarians to listen to the people and deny Mr Wickremesinghe the presidency.

“If you are going to support Ranil as president of this country, when the next election happens, you will not be supported by the people and you should remember that,” he warned.

Three young people standing in protest camp
Image caption,

Anjalee Wanduragala (left) and her friends are among many Sri Lankans who want Mr Wickremesinghe to go

Protest organisers have vowed to continue demonstrating if Mr Wickremesinghe wins power on Wednesday.

The only way he could possibly mollify them is if he is able to solve the economic crisis – or at least get an uninterrupted supply of fuel – but that will not happen overnight.

Some argue the demonstrations would only hinder and distract at a time when the country needs to come together to dig itself out of the hole.

“Aragalaya has to accept whoever comes into power next. You cannot keep protesting,” one lawmaker told organisers in a meeting last week.

But the deeper question is whether continued protest is justifiable.

The strength of the Aragalaya movement has been its leaderless, organic nature. It’s what makes it so good at spontaneous mass uprisings – but it also makes it difficult to predict or control.

In the past few months, peaceful marches have morphed into chaotic clashes with military and police. In the past week alone, protesters have stormed the official residences of the president and prime minister, taken over the presidential secretariat building, and attempted to enter parliament.

The movement is now facing backlash from some quarters.

The Bar Association pleaded with protesters to vacate the prime minister’s office last week, saying it would not support “a situation of lawlessness or anarchy”. An ambulance service complained it had been attacked during the chaos.

Some citizens say the protesters have violated the sanctity of Sri Lanka’s institutions by forcing entry to government buildings seen as symbols of state power.

A young boy hurling tear gas canister
Image caption,

Protesters were tear-gassed when they stormed the Prime Minister’s Office

In solidarity with the protesters, some businesses have given them some much needed financing. But they could rethink this if the protests are prolonged and add to the destabilisation of the economy.

Privately, the protest organisers constantly worry the movement could spin off into violence due to fringe elements, the BBC understands.

In recent months demonstrators have torched MPs’ homes, as well as Mr Wickremesinghe’s private residence and the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home.

Security forces are accused of brutality in their attempts to quell demonstrations, including shooting at protesters, badly beating them and firing massive amounts of tear gas. They have injured hundreds of protesters so far.

Organisers are now hoping to dial down the temperature as they press on.

They have vacated most of the buildings they were occupying, and are now stressing they will only focus on peaceful demonstrations.

Asked by the BBC if he thought the protest movement had gone too far, organiser Father Jeevantha Peiris said: “We only wanted a protest rally – that was organised by us. The rest of it we had no control.

“People are desperate, they are in unrest… Ranil is directly responsible for this.”

He said they would be pursuing various forms of non-violent protests such as marches and strikes, as well as occupation of government buildings. “The only thing is we will never let public property get damaged. We don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said.

Man snaps picture of a woman posing on protest village stage
Image caption,

The protest camp has attracted many curious visitors

But no matter the difficult choices that lie ahead for Sri Lankans in the coming days and weeks, they have already achieved much.

The uprising has for the first time brought together three major communities – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – for a common cause. Men, women, children, Buddhist monks, Christian priests and nuns and Muslim businessmen have all joined in.

“Our younger generations, we have taught them not to turn back. They will go forward, they will be asking for all demands,” said protest leader Visaka Jayaweera.

After so many years in thrall to the Rajapaksas, Sri Lankans have done the unthinkable, prying their country out of the family’s iron grip.

It may go down in history as a moment when ordinary people were emboldened to demand a greater say in how their country should be run.

Sri Lanka’s politicians now know what awaits them if they do not deliver.