COLOMBO: As mass anti-government demonstrations continue across Sri Lanka, young people have set up a library at the main protest site, in hopes of spurring defiance through reading.
For over a month now, citizens have been taking to the streets across Sri Lanka with a simple message, “Gota go home,” in reference to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
He swept to office on a nationalist platform in 2019, but his support has plummeted in recent months amid skyrocketing inflation, stalled imports of fuel, shortages of medicines, food, and hours of power cuts every day as Sri Lanka faces defaulting on its debts.
In front of the president’s office in the capital, Colombo, thousands of demonstrators have been camping for over a month demanding that he resign. Makeshift tents at the site offer different kinds of support to the protesters — from food and water to entertainment.
The library has been set up in one of them, marked with a signboard that reads: “Books are the greatest weapon in the People’s Revolution.”
Ashan Vimukthi, one of the library’s first volunteers, said it started from a social media post last month, in which he and his friends shared the idea of bringing books to the protest.
“What we felt was that mainstream media and politicians had taken control of people’s minds and were influencing their thoughts. Our goal is to free people from those influences,” he told Arab News. “If we can get people to start thinking on their own, that would be one of our greatest victories.”
What began as a small initiative has now expanded to a large one. The small tent has grown bigger, and wooden pallets have been put on the floor for people to sit on. Volunteers stack books according to their genre, and make sure the place is well-run.
The library has already collected over 30,000 books from donations. Many of them have been distributed by the volunteers among libraries in rural areas and to other protest sites across the country.
Support comes not only in the form of books.
“We even had a guy come and make bookshelves for us,” Vimukthi said. “We had posted on social media about how some of the books had got wet in the rain, and a man spend his own money on pallets, brought them here, and quickly built us a few bookshelves and left.”
Books can be borrowed without registration. Returning a borrowed volume to the library is not strictly necessary, but borrowers are requested to replace it with another book.
“It has a lovely system,” another volunteer, Methsara Benaragama, told Arab News at the protest site. “The intention is not to maintain a typical library. This one has no hard and fast rules.”
Benaragama wants the books to also become a reminder of the “peaceful revolution” as the protesters refer to their movement.
“It started on April 11 as an initiative of a group of young people,” he said. “We write the hashtag #GoHomeGota on each book cover and add a seal later, so that these books will always be the books of the revolution.”
Sri Lanka is facing the most painful economic downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
On Wednesday, the main opposition party issued a no-confidence motion against the prime minister, aiming at ousting the government over failing in its constitutional duty to provide decent living standards.
Many in the island nation of 22 million can hardly afford three meals a day as the prices of food items such as rice and oil have risen by up to 200 percent over the past month.
While the main theme of anti-government protests across Sri Lanka remains “Gota go home,” the call is not just for change in the country’s top office.
“What we want is a system change,” Wanindu, a protester demonstrating in front of the president’s office, told Arab News. “We want all corrupt politicians out.”