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Witnessing Sri Lanka's protests firsthand

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Sri Lanka, protesters who spent the weekend occupying the president's palace have now entered and torched the prime minister's mansion. People have been chanting this slogan for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Gota (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Go home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Gota.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Go home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Gota.

SHAPIRO: They're telling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go home - back to California, where he lived as a dual American citizen. The president says he'll officially resign tomorrow.

Marlon Ariyasinghe has covered the protests since they began. He's an editor at Himel Southasian magazine, based in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. Welcome.

MARLON ARIYASINGHE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: The images from these protests at the presidential palace have just been incredible. Over the weekend, we've seen Sri Lankans wrestling on the president's bed, cooking meals in his kitchen, playing songs on his piano and swimming in the pool. Is there one scene from the last few days that you will never forget?

ARIYASINGHE: Well, all those scenes combined, I think, has been really surreal. I haven't seen this much of people congregated in one place and showing their dissent and united in that - you know, in this common goal of showing dissent against the current government and the president and the PM. That is something that I have never seen before, and I probably will never forget it.

SHAPIRO: Do you know where the president actually is right now? There were reports that he tried to fly out of Sri Lanka last night.

ARIYASINGHE: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's like "Where's Waldo?" and we are trying to look for where - I mean, we've been getting a lot of rumors of where he is, but there are no confirmed reports of where the president is. But we do know, today morning, his brother and the president, they tried to flee the country, and they were stopped at the immigration by the officers who refused to process their documents. And, of course, there were other passengers who also refused to admit them into the flight. So that was the report that we have got from the - you know, in the morning.

SHAPIRO: Do people believe him - that he will resign tomorrow, as he has pledged to do?

ARIYASINGHE: I think this is why the protesters are still occupying these premises, and they have stated very clearly that they will not leave until these resignations happen - until the PM and the president step down. And I think it's because of this distrust that they are still occupying these spaces and waiting for the resignations to be made official.

SHAPIRO: Let's go back to those scenes of protesters. When you talk to people in the crowd and ask why they've come out, what's the most common answer?

ARIYASINGHE: When you talk to protesters - and I would say these are Sri Lankans rather than protesters. These are Sri Lankans who came from all over the island. And we are currently undergoing a severe fuel shortage, so the public transport is completely crippled. The trains that were supposed to run - they had refused to operate the trains. So the protesters, they went and expressed their displeasure to the stationmasters and got the stationmaster to operate the train, so it was remarkable to see that.

SHAPIRO: And when you say, why are you making that journey - why expend all this effort to be there - what do they tell you?

ARIYASINGHE: Yeah. I think everyone felt that this was a very significant moment in the history of Sri Lanka, and that's why these people have come from around the island to be at the main protest site to express their dissent in a unified voice.

SHAPIRO: How likely is a new government to be able to address their concerns?

ARIYASINGHE: I think Sri Lankans are pondering over this. I think Sri Lankans understand that the next six months are going to be very, very difficult, and we need to be very resilient in order to get through these six months until an IMF deal is agreed and is negotiated. But I think they also want some form of - or some semblance of political stability, and this is what has been missing for the last two years.

SHAPIRO: That's Marlon Ariyasinghe, editor at Himel Southasian magazine. Thank you very much.

ARIYASINGHE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And an update to this story - the Associated Press reports that the president has since fled the country. The plane was bound for the capital city of the Maldives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashish Valentine
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.