Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As ominous lines of shrouded police trucks lined up near Colombo’s Galle Face Green on Saturday April 16th 2022 are removed amidst Sri Lankans calling for an end to catastrophic political leadership resulting in a slide to bankruptcy, this is perhaps the most critical moment of this nation in post-independence history.
The Government is taking all the wrong steps
On the one hand, we have demands of the protestors at the imaginatively named ‘Gota Go Gama’ at the Galle Face Green, mini ‘Gamas’ in Galle, Mawanella and growing in numbers elsewhere. Beautifully uncomplicated in a common call, they ask President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members to leave politics, claiming that the peoples’ mandate in 2019 and 2020 has been ‘revoked.’ Then again, they demand that the ‘people’s money’ be returned to the national coffers. Befuddled by this extraordinary upsurge of public anger, the Government is taking all the wrong steps, much in step with its previous muddles.
A hastily appointed Minister of Finance who traded in his cap as Minister of Justice overnight to accept the finance portfolio, resigned and then recanted on his resignation in a comedic show fit only for a bad Franz Kafka fantasy, tried to say that the demands lacked ‘clarity.’ This was during a scriptured interview for a private media network on Friday. Certainly a Government which is not clear on what it is doing itself, from handling of monetary policy to agriculture policies, may complain about an alleged lack of clarity on the part of its detractors.
But the demands are perfectly clear. Sri Lankans shout to the Government to ‘go’ from Matara to Medawachchiya, toot horns in support, bring food, water and most crucially, their passion to the streets. What is unclear about all of this? Surely, poor governance, racist, corrupt and communalistic rule must have consequences, at the very end at least, when a nation goes bankrupt and the people are abruptly reduced to penury. The resignations of a few, on whom all sins are conveniently placed, is not the answer.
There is no need to ‘throw the Constitution away’
Even worse was the newly minted Finance Minister’s argument that listening to the protest calls would tantamount to ‘throwing the Constitution away.’ As an aside and generally speaking, catching English interviews on Sri Lanka’s national television channels albeit in fits and starts at unwary moments, requires tremendous fortitude. Painful contortions of interviewers who often forget their own rambling questions, prompted or unprompted ‘behind the scenes’ as the case may be, is only part of that pain. Regardless, where this interview was concerned at least, the obvious must be asserted.
There is nothing ‘extra-constitutional’ about the demands of the protestors. Resignation of the President is eminently possible under and in terms of Article 38 (1)(b) of the Constitution.
Whether it is ‘fair’ or not for the Presidential mandate to be withdrawn mid term by the very Sinhala populace which cheered him on, is another question altogether. That does not belong in the legal arena. This links to popular accountability and the constitutional/social contract as it were. But to postulate this demand as something outside the constitutional framework is plainly ludicrous. What happens after a President resigns, is governed by the several sub sections of Article 40.
This may nor may not result in another ‘Rajapaksa’ being an interim President during the passing of thirty days until the Parliament elects a ‘qualified’ member to hold the post for the remainder of the presidential term. But all of that is purely speculation. What is uppermost is public accountability for this mess. Has the Government demonstrated that? I think not.
That must be what the President must speak to, first and foremost rather than observing a studied silence since his residence came under siege two weeks ago. To repeat, on the one hand we have the protestors and the other, we have a Government resorting to deception, threats and dissimulation.
How will this stalemate end?
Sri Lanka’s protestors are not rejecting democracy
Days before, a national address by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was cringeworthy. His references to citizens being able to protest and to wave the national flag only because his Government ‘won the war’ were grievously misjudged.
These are not ‘privileges’ bequeathed to the populace but are rights by virtue of the citizenship of this land, constitutionally conferred on the majority and minorities alike. Yet tired rhetoric to that effect, appeals not to denigrate the armed forces, not to ‘reject the democratic system’ formed the core of this astoundingly bad address.
Quite apart from the peculiar irrelevance of requesting the armed forces ‘not to be denigrated,’ there is an evident logical fallacy here. Sri Lanka’s angry protestors are not rejecting the democratic system. Rather, they categorically affirm the importance of democracy. What they reject is the current crop of politicians as antithetical to democracy.That is an important distinction.
Meanwhile, what we are seeing are not ‘youth protests’ as the Prime Minister condescendingly referred to. The old and the young are equally unrelenting in their struggles.
Their determination to bring about accountability by those vested with the stewardship of the country’s financial policy is morally and legally correct. Why in the name of heaven, did the Government, the dear departed Governor of the Central Bank and the Monetary Board of Sri Lanka pursue a monetary policy that frittered away the country’s dollar reserves while lying to the public about infamously caricatured ‘home grown’ solutions?
Is public ire not justifiable even though the Prime Ministerial address was conspicuously lacking in that admission?
Of what use is a proud history when there is no bread or rice?
Regardless, there is, of course, a dangerous angle to the referral to thousands who were killed in decades of bloodshed during the Northern and Southern rebellions and urging ‘the youth’ to ‘think rationally.
Predictably this was mercilessly mocked by the ‘youth’ to whom it was directed. For the lack of rationality is most evidenced on the part of rulers, not the least of which was the Prime Minister’s mea culpa (a long time in coming) that his brother, the President’s decision to ban chemical fertiliser was ‘not at the correct time.’
Above all, there are deeper questions in issue. As Nanda Malini sang at the Galle Face the other day, of what use are legal institutions when justice cannot be served? This is a poignant call that Sri Lanka’s judges must hearken to. Nearby, a baby slept wrapped in the national flag, national cricketers embarked on fasts seeking justice for the Easter Sunday victims and Buddhist monks blessed the protestors. Later in the holy week of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Catholic and Anglican priests said prayers. This is most fitting as Christians celebrate the powerful championing of the poor and challenging the profligacy of rulers and priests by Jesus Christ.
As impromptu lectures were delivered on the meaning of the Rule of Law on the Galle Face Green, crowds listened intently to the point that political demonisation of Tamils and the Muslims has been a causal factor for today’s plight. Of what worth is 2,500 years of recorded history, proud boasts of an ancient civilization with an established legal and cultural heritage when our children do not have bread or a handful of rice to eat, a speaker asked?
So as the nation unravels, this is indeed, ‘the best of times and the worst of times’ in the classic Dickensian sense. What will prevail, wisdom or foolishness, light or darkness? Whatever it may be, the Constitution has triumphantly come to the Sri Lankan streets, away from dusty corridors of the law where justice is manipulated at will. It would be foolish on the part of politicians, in the Government or in the Opposition, to ignore this fierce national solidarity across ethnic, racial and communal lines.
We have had enough of foolishness.