Security has been beefed up in Colombo after ‘unspecified intelligence’ that the Inter-University (IUSF) Students Federation was massing students to the Capital to launch a fresh ‘Aragalaya’. Additional security forces were mobilised, and check-points were put up on the roads leading to the Capital. Army and Police were deployed around the universities, Temple Trees, the President’s House and Parliament and key government institutions.
What this’unspecific’ intelligence was not clear. But some reports say it was actually a social media post by Wasantha Mudalige, the IUSF coordinator. It says in Sinhala: “Anthare is positioned everywhere. Why only Colombo? The entire Country should be surrounded.” On the back of that, there was an order made at a Colombo University Student’s canteen for 1,500 lunch packets, which the Police interpreted as an IUSF plan to bring in students from other universities to Colombo. However, it was later revealed that the food order had been made by organisers of an event in the Arts Department, where some 500 new students were expected to attend, some with parents.
After the president was alerted of the intelligence, the president’s chief of Staff, Sagala Ratnayake, held an emergency meeting with public security minister Tiran Alles. Later, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Vikum Liyanage, Major General Suresh Sallay, and Western Province SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon were summoned to the President’s Office, where the decision was made to deploy additional security forces to aid the Police. Security was to be tightened in key protest sites and government establishments.
The government’s pre-emptive measures indicate that once bitten twice shy, it is unwilling to take chances. That, however, has also led to overreaction and disproportionate measures, which only have fed into popular disgruntlement. The recent arrest by Police of a lone woman activist while undertaking a protest walk in Aluthkade was a case in point. Several others who held peaceful demonstrations to mark the first anniversary of the attack on the Aragayala activists were also obstructed. IUSF protests are regularly tear-gassed and targeted with water cannons.
In most incidents, the police reaction is disproportionate, highhanded and arbitrary. It is also illegal and violates the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Arbitrary and unlawful arrests of protestors and producing them before the court, which generally releases them on bail is an abuse of law and designed to intimidate the dissent. Such measures, though they may be seen as a temporary fix, contribute to the build-up of public anger, which is bound to explode. These measures are no match when the ‘real people take to the streets, just like they did around this time last year.
Current protests are sparsely attended, unless a political party or IUSF bus in their members. Those are also an avenue that provides a degree of relevance to groups like Peratugamis. They are symbolic, low-threshold events, not designed to take over the government but to keep the pot boiling, expecting the masses would return someday.
Aragalaya was launched the same way. However, circumstances at the time were different. It was the free fall of the economy and concentration of power of corruption-tainted Rajapaksas, who proved to be not just corrupt and nepotistic, but also outrightly incompetent, that led the public without political party affiliations to the streets.
The groups like IUSF, Peratugamis, JVP, and other self-anointed’civil society groups are not necessarily representatives of the masses of Sri Lanka. They represent a fringe at varying degrees. They also share grievances, which are somewhat shared by the public, and ambitions, which are not necessarily in line with the public. They are not contented with the outcome of Aragalaya. They believe it was not Ranil Wickremesinghe, but one of their folks who should be running the Country now.
Second, they echo the popular refrain for a system change. But, for them, and most who are disgruntled, that does not necessarily mean structural changes in the system. For them, the system represents the people in it; the same old crowds in positions of power meant there had not been any change. Again, they believe they should be in control or wielding influence over those in power.
Third, as per system changes, the areas they understand as priorities and what the current government pursues differ. Some of the current reform measures, such as a new and empowered anti-corruption law, which would be one of the most stringent in the world, the independent Central Bank bill, reforms in the social welfare, targeting the genuinely poor who deserve it, and the proposed bill to decriminalise homosexuality, decades after much of the civilised world has done it and moved ahead and restructuring of the State-Owned Enterprises are impactful measures and indeed progressive.
However, most folks at the forefront of opposition do not think of these as the priority measures, nor have they offered their own solutions. They, however, seem to believe they can do better than the incumbent.
Fourth, they anticipate the path to economic recovery is hard and that it could cause social and economic displacement of many more, offering them a shot at another uprising sometime in the future. Hence many of these roadshow gestures keep the fire burning until it is time to ignite.
Sri Lanka is currently on the path to economic recovery. It would be hard, but it would also offer a chance to shed some of the foreign debt and get rid of loss-making SOEs, the two main areas that suck in the public finances. This provides an opportunity for long-term growth, unshackled by extensive fiscal burden. If the government simultaneously liberalise investment policies and cuts down red tape, this crisis could truly turn out to be an opportunity.
If the IUSF and other fellow travellers plot a state capture, the government has every right to curtail it. But, overreaction and high-handedness of the government’s actions would only provide validation to groups who are on the fringes.