Kishali Pinto -Jayawardene
Exactly twelve months ago to the coming Tuesday, state goons led by key Rajapaksa Ministers attacked peaceful protestors at Galle Face Green leading to the incendiary flaming up of what was perhaps, the single most potent peoples’ uprising in Sri Lanka since independence.
May Day musings on Rajapaksa wrongs
As Rajapaksa mansions and museums were set alight by once adoring followers in the deep South, the cry of ‘system change’ was in the air. Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family sought refuge in an Eastern naval base long rumored to be where bitter critics of the regime had ‘disappeared’ when ‘Rajapaksa magic’ held the Sinhala heartland in thrall.
May 9th 2022, one year ago set the trend for the coming events of the succeeding months when former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would hurriedly leave his presidential house. This was later to be invaded by the madding crowds who would dance on his bed and riffle through his belongings, making global headlines. Mounds of cash were found by the delighted invaders to be handed over to the police and still held in the grip of a court case on its orgins.
This Monday, stirring songs were sung at the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP)’s May Day rally where Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa said that, ‘we know where we went wrong.’ But did he?
Will he, his family or the Rajapaksa ‘patronage networks’ that have entrenched themselves deep into the bowels of Sri Lanka’s legal and political systems much like a poisonous growth, ever ‘learn’?
Will its Ministers ‘learn’, now sitting under the protective umbrella of the Ranil Wickremesinghe Presidency?
The myth of ‘stability’ of the Wickremesinghe Presidency
Some of these worthies are yet to be held accountable for the violence unleashed on May 9th 2022. Will they ever acknowledge that Sri Lanka toppled into the abyss as a result of their cumulative greed, ignorance and racism?
On May Day this Monday, with the former President, his younger brother conspicuously absent, Mr Rajapaksa warned with only a touch of his former fire, that power cannot be gained through ‘undemocratic means.’
This was taking clear aim at the ‘red comrades’ of the National Peoples Power party (NPP) and its frontline leadership of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which, in Sri Lanka’s ‘post-aragalaya’ phrase, has attracted far more than the usual numbers of voters disillusioned by the politics of the major parties. Today, the country is shakily on the road to economic recovery or so we are told by the Wickremesinghe Presidency.
In tandem, the term ‘aragalaya’ has become somewhat of a controversial word, people tend to look askance at one when it is pronounced. Captains of industry and well-heeled Colombo folk who flocked to the Galle Face Green when the ‘aragalaya’ was in its heyday last year, now shake their heads and mutter sadly, ‘but it all turned so violent.’ But this is to miss the point.
Bitter ‘cause and effect’ of our actions
To believe that a youth fed for decades on the poisoned propaganda of violence, whether to quell the ‘Tamil terrorists’ or the ‘Sinhala insurrectionists’ will respond naturally to the call of non-violence in the face of extreme state violence directed at them, is a pipe dream.
That ‘aragalaya’ lawyers would rubbish the Constitution with impunity, was predictable, a direct result of the Constitution being rendered to a dead letter by political machinations for decades.
To expect that wild eyed factional leaders of the ‘aragalaya’ would not storm into state television houses and threaten its staff to broadcast ‘only our’ programmes is as much illusionary as to think that the Rajapaksas would have ‘learnt’ where they went wrong.
Both of these actions are perpetual ‘cause and effect’ framing the sad trajectory of this troubled land and forming a classic truth as the country marks Vesak Day.
One year later, those who perpetrated the violence against peaceful protestors on Galle Face Green have ‘not learnt’ as much as those who engaged in ‘counter-violence’ and justified that by saying that the ‘aragalaya’ had ‘many faces.’
That arrogance and entitlement of never admitting mistakes, of refusing to engage in course correction, to envision things differently and to disengage from the ego of ‘I, ours, mine’ is common to one as much as to the other.
A ‘system change’ that is ‘more of the system’
In short, this is why the powerfully unifying and peaceful thrust of the ‘aragalaya’ in its early and formative months ebbed away, to be replaced by a force that was controlled easily by the JVP/NPP and its avatars. Hence, the opening up of the ‘aragalaya-ists’ to the ‘fascist label that Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe so deftly pinned on them. All of these shifts, in the power games of the political players on the national stage, are not wins for the country.
They have not enabled ‘system change’ one year later. And to be clear, those who may cross over to the ‘red side’ believing that this is the only hope for redemption despite the stark absence of clearly thought through policy and legal frameworks on almost all levels of governance are as much mistaken as the Wickremesinghe faithful’s belief that this Presidency is the last bastion of ‘stability, moderation and temperance’ holding the gates strong against the unwashed barbarians.
It is not ‘stability’ when the President presides over a Government ‘as corrupt as usual’ while parading new laws on anti-corruption and the recovery of stolen assets as panacea. These are good for children’s fairy tales, none other.
A few days ago, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Justice informed Parliament blandly of a gargantuan bribe of USD 250 million paid to an individual in order to block the effective claiming of damages for unprecedented harm caused to the marine environment by the X-Press Pearl disaster.
‘Homegrown crooks’ running rampant
The Minister then refused to take responsibility for that statement, speaking to the stark absence of ministerial accountability, no more and no less. The Minister’s statement was that he was saying this ‘on information received and cannot take responsibility…the police should conduct investigations in this regard.’ Since then, it appears that the ministerial disclosure of the name and the account number were so much hot air blowing in the wind.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has stated that its inquiries for this mysterious customer who had received the bribe to a London bank account had yielded no results. Some cynics have rightly speculated that this was all a momentary distraction, to divert attention from the singular failure of the local marine and legal departments to prosecute the case successfully without pussyfooting till (literally) the last minute as it were.
Whether money exchanged hands or not in this process, we will probably never know. It will go the way of all depressing investigations into multiple gross corruption allegations in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it should worry us that this is the same ministerial hand energetically pushing out a raft of supposedly ‘new’ anti-bribery and corruption laws. Or perhaps it should not.
Going beyond law reform
In that same breath, a whistleblower former head of the Consumer Affairs Authority who fled overseas after speaking of multiple corrupt rackets resulting in poisonous food products being released to the domestic market, has been releasing documentary evidence of his allegations. There is little indication that political (ministerial) heads will roll however.
To ‘change’ all of this, a newer form of critical thinking must emerge, beyond the political sloganeering, which strategically confronts state authoritarianism.
Certainly liberal reformers who earlier argued that the focal point of change was enlightened law reform, must concede that this, by itself and for itself, is insufficient. Necessarily, our thinking has to delve much deeper into fundamental problems with the State’s political, legal and governance order.
If these be the singular lessons that the triumphs as well as the failures of the ‘aragalaya’ teaches us, so be it.