The Photograph which Led to the Fall of a President
In an extraordinary turn of events, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to resign on July 13, 2022, following unprecedented protests in the country. Rajapaksa, who was elected in November 2019 with a thumping majority had been rejected for his incompetence and nepotism. On July 9, 2022, after protestors had broken into the Presidential Secretariat and the Official Residences of the President and the Prime Minister in Colombo, Rajapaksa announced his resignation.
March 31, 2022 marked a turning point in the Sri lankan political landscape. For months the South Asian country was falling into one of the worst economic crises in modern history. The government seemed to be doing everything possible to deepen the crisis instead of taking remedial measures. The opposition political parties were either lukewarm or too traditional in their responses. It was at this juncture that people started protesting in small numbers.
Small, silent protests had been held in Colombo and suburban areas for a few weeks when a similar protest was organized on March 31, 2022, at Jubilee Post, Nugegoda. It was a prominent junction about 1 km from the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The protest was attended by a small number of people. But then, more and more people started joining in. At one point they started moving towards the residence of the President and around two hours after the protest had got underway, a huge and vocal protest was being held at the top of the side road where the president’s residence is situated. Later in the night, rather early morning on April 1, the police made an attempt to disperse the protests and there were clashes. This created more anger among an already angry and frustrated populace.
But before all this happened, a writer named Chanuka Nadun Perera took a photograph from his mobile phone. Instantly, it became a symbol of the protest movement.
“I went to the protest because some friends were there. It was then that I saw this young lady and her child. I stood behind them and took this photograph. I never thought it would become this much of a sensation” Chanuka told this writer.
The photograph showed a young mother holding an infant close to her with one hand and raising a protest sign. The photograph was an instant hit on social media. Somebody created an artwork based on the photograph where the lady was shown holding a candle. Literally thousands of Sri Lankans started using it as their profile picture on Facebook. Meanwhile, a hashtag, #WeTooHaveKids also became popular.
In Chanuka’s picture only the infant can be seen but there was another photograph which showed the message she was holding: “We too have kids :(“
One does not need her message to understand the significance of her act. She was there to protest against the government which was doing practically nothing to alleviate the serious economic crisis except for begging from the international community. Already there were long queues for almost all essential goods including fuel and gas used for cooking. Milk powder was getting scarce and sometimes was completely absent from stores.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. He has three sons, out of whom the eldest was a Cabinet Minister. (Oh well, the family has many members in politics. By March 2022, another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, was the Minister of Finance. Between them, the three brothers practically ruled the country. There was an elder fourth brother in the Cabinet but he was taking a comparatively lesser role). Mahinda Rajapaksa has several grandchildren. His sons and their families were seen living in comfort (at least on social media, where they unabashedly published snippets of their cozy lives) while tens of thousands of children around the country were in hunger. Their action further angered the people of a country which was going bankrupt.
Following the March 31 protest, people became bolder in expressing their anger at the government and the president. On April 9, 2022, a large protest was organized near the Presidential Secretariat at Galle Face, Colombo. One thing led to the other and the president was forced to resign within three months, an unprecedented incident in Sri Lanka. Many photographs were taken along the way, but that photo taken on March 31 remains one of the the iconic photographs of the protests.
Update: As of mid-day Sri Lanka time, July 13, 2022, the President has yet to tend in his letter of resignation. He has left the country but has not resigned.