Sri Lanka is on the brink of either a historic political revolution where45 years of autocratic rule will end or a catastrophic break down of law and order that could have grave consequences.
The nation is angry. It has stomached months of deprivation of the very basics of life, food, fuel,electricity, and medicine. Even as doctors appeal for medical supplies, the head of the government information department releases a statement to the contrary. That is the hallmark of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, contradictions.
At least seven people, mostly older men have died while standing in the queues to purchase cooking gas or fuel.
The people now roundly blame the government dominated by the Rajapaksa family for the mess. The rulers ignored warnings made by economists over a year ago that the country’s finances were on a downward path.
Last year the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) urged the government to approach the International Monetary Fund for relief. But theirsuggestionswere ignored.Government MPs including Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara ridiculed the suggestion.
Now the country is bankrupt, and unable to pay its debts has been compelled to seek IMF assistance.
One thing is clear, the Rajapaksas would never have dreamt their adoring fans would turn against them.
Yet, Gotabaya, Mahinda and the entire family were being mocked by the public, long before the street protests began.The government which believed it had a firm grip of the populace, have never been so wrong.
The government declared an Emergency and then enforced a curfew in a bid to stop the protest planned for April 3rd by civil society actors. But a defiant public cared not about possible arrests; be it gathering at Galle Face, Independence Square, at main intersections or simply outside their own homes, the people came out, demanding that President Gotabaya step down.
Never have ordinary residents defied a government order in this manner, in the history of the country.
It was the first sign that the administration had failed. Former Member of Parliament and architect of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne calls it a “huge defeat for the government.” #GotaGoHome has now coalesced a nationwide protest movement which is centered at the Galle Face Green opposite the President’s office.
The youth-led movementappears not to be affiliated to any political partybutorganized by local groups. Civil Society organisations which have been agitating that Sri Lanka improves its human rights record are supportive.
The situation has also given opposition political parties an impetus to further their agendas.
Dr Wickramaratne says the “battle cry” Gota Go Home does not merely call for the resignation of the President. Instead, he told Economynextthe protest “contains the demand that all the Rajapaksa’s resign and not be involved in governance. It also is a demand to end authoritarian government.”
Eventually the end of the crisis will have to be played out through the 225 member Parliament.The August 2020parliamentary election saw 145 members of the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna (SLPP) being elected. They won over several other MPs of minor parties to have the 20th Amendment, which gives the President extraordinary powers, passed.
Earlier this month as protests grew 42 MPs left the SLPP and sat as Independents, although one of them has already crossed back to the government ranks, lured by a Ministerial position.
The Opposition has the ball rolling in this regard.On April 13, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa signed two motions that his party will place before Parliament. One is a motion to impeach President Rajapaksa and the other is a Motion of No Confidence in the government.
While the No Confidence Motion needs only a simple majority to pass in Parliament, impeaching the President is no easy game. According to the Constitution to table an impeachment the Opposition will require half or one-third of the MPs signing it, plus the agreement of the Speaker of the House.
Two thirds of the MPs must support the impeachment for it to be sent to the Supreme Court for inquiry.
Even if the top court finds the President guilty, the Chief Executive can be removed only if that decision is supported by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
This is so even if the SC finds the President mentally incapacitated. As it stands today, the No Confidence Motion may carry, but an impeachment may not carry through unless there are more defections from the ruling party.
Dr Wickramaratne says that there are “mixed signals emanating from the dissident group….and there is a likelihood of more defections.” The main opposition SJB has been having conversations with the dissidents They are from both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and other smaller groups. Dr Wickramaratne believes that more defections will take place only when the dissidents are sure that the No Confidence will pass. “If the No Confidence Motion is defeated then it will be a boost for the Rajapaksas,” he added.
Ironically, the only President to face an impeachment in Sri Lanka’s history was Ranasinghe Premadasa, the father of the current Leader of the Opposition. That impeachment motion brought in 1991, was controversially disallowed by the then Speaker M H Mohamed on technical grounds.
The country’s governance is locked in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by the current Parliament after the SLPP won the Presidential Polls two years ago. It gives President Rajapaksa unprecedented powers, the reasonwhy the protestors hold him solely responsible for the sorry state of the nation’s affairs.
To meet the demands of the growing protest movement it is necessary to reduce the power of the Presidency, and that would mean a 21st Amendment to the Constitution. Dr Wickramaratne, admits that one of the major flaws of the 19th Amendment, was that the powers of the President and Prime Minister were not clearly demarcated. That led to tensions between then President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, resulting in a dysfunctional government.
“Our original intention was to make the Prime Minister the Executive and ensure that the President as head of state acted on the advice of the PM. But one of the coalition partners, the Jathika Hela Urumaya opposed that idea, and as a result we could not go ahead,” he told Economynext.
With the popularity of the government tanking, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the most charismatic and once popular member of the family addressed the nation on April 12 but offered nothing, not even commiserations.All he said was “we feel your pain.”He, like his brother the President, did not accept responsibility for the current mess.
Instead, he told the nation that the loss of foreign currency was caused by the Covid pandemic. He chose to remind the people that he won the separatist warand toldprotestors that their actions prevent tourists visiting Sri Lanka.
In a thinly veiled warning, he reminded Sri Lankans of the late 1980swhen the insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, victims of both government and rebel forces. He said he hoped the parents of the protesting youth remembered how the bodies of young people were burnt on tires in public.
If the PM’s threat was couched in language that was not overtly threatening, his party members have been less obvious. In several instances they have attacked andthreatened protestors.
In Colombo, an SLPP backed procession of Buddhist Monks and party activists warned those they deemed were attempting to undermine the Sinhala Buddhist mandate of the government. Banners they carried called on Sri Lankans to “protect the Sinhala Buddhist government.” The procession which began at the Vihara Maha Devi Park was expected to end at the Galle Face, but simply frizzled out part way.
The SLPP is clearly not shying away from playing the race card, despite the unity displayed at the protests.
One of the organizers of the march, ultra-nationalist Dan Priyasad, a strong Rajapaksa supporter threatened the protestors. He said “we know who you are. Once this wave of protests dies, we will come for you.” Priyasad was once arrested and charged by police for attacking a UN safehouse that provided shelter to Rohingya refugees. He was also named a suspect in the attacks on Muslims in Digana where hundreds of Muslims were assaulted, their homes and businesses damaged and at least one person was killed.
Pro-government groups too claim that the protest movement aims to bringdown the Sinhala-Buddhist government, a divisive card that the Rajapaksas have played successfullyevery time. Naturally, images of Muslims breaking the Ramadan fast at Galle Face and at Independence Square, Christian clergy, including the Cardinaljoining the protest have not gone down well with either the government or their party supporters.
Dan Priyasad threatened them as well, mentioning Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith by name.
That does not bode well, as the threat of state violence hangs over the protest movement and by extension the entire country.
Up to now there have been no clashes between protestors and the police. The cops have been tolerant and have moved freely without incident.
There was one emblematic incident outside the Parliament on the last day of the sittings that sent a shiver down the spines of many. At least two motorcycles carrying masked men armed with assault rifles and wearing camouflage uniforms rode towards a group of protestors.
Such squads, shadowy and acting with impunity have been tools of repression in the past, both in the North and the South of the country.
The Army owned up to the patrol, with Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva demanding disciplinary action against the police officers who shooed away the armed motorcyclists. It is not known whether the police officers were disciplined by their bosses.
Foreign commentators watching Sri Lanka have begun referring to the Galle Face demonstration site as Sri Lanka’s Tahrir Square. That is the place where tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered to eventually oust President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Whether that will be the future for Sri Lanka is yet to be seen.
If Parliament responds genuinelyto the battle cry of the people, defeats the government on the floor of the House and then repeals the laws that give the Presidency unlimited power, then this moment in time will end well for the good of the people. One must also hope that, in such an event, those who rise to lead the country, have a firm, clear and transparent plan.
If the Rajapaksas dig in their heels and unleash their goons, or worse, use state power to repress the protests, the result will be ugly, and Sri Lanka will descend into chaos or worse. In the meantime, the resistance lives on.
The latest viral video in the country is emblematic.
It is a Sinhala version of the internationally famous anti-Fascist Anthem best known by its original Italian title BellaCiao (Goodbye my beauty.)
It is a song that embodies resistance by ordinary people against Fascism before and after World War Two, and tells the tale of a rebel fighter bidding goodbye to his sweetheart as he heads into an uncertain future.