Neither the JVP nor the SJB must sully Sri Lanka’s peoples protests. To do so will only enable the Government to claim that this is not an apolitical struggle but ‘engineered’ by opposition saboteurs.


By

Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

From the young girl who handed out a red flower to a policeman at a barricade at Galle Face Green to the actor who walked with a cross on his back from Katuwapitiya, one of the sites of the infamous attacks by homegrown jihadists on Easter Sunday in 2019, to the protest site in Colombo, change is in the air.

Powerful affirmations of defiance

Resistance and non-violent disobedience to the dictates of a Government that has stopped listening to the people are the most important tools that peaceful protestors have in their arsenal. We have seen this from the times of the Gandhian struggles in India to the Vietnam War and the George Floyd protests in the United States. The iconic anti-Vietnam war protests used music and art as their weapons. Some of the greatest songs of that era are etched in the minds of generations thereafter, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and Phil Och’s ‘What are you fighting for?’ are two classic examples.

So as young protestors strum their guitars and sing their versions of the Italian anti-fascist protest song, ‘Bella Ciao’ outside the Presidential Secretariat, they must surely not be scoffed at. Their singular mark at Galle Face and elsewhere is coruscating anger against Sri Lanka’s political establishment, irrespective of political personalities.

I see that as a powerful affirmation of what is needed in Sri Lanka where conventional interventions of ‘civil society’ as we know it, are coloured and sullied by political bias. This bias has crippled the governance process as much as actions of politicians themselves.

This is what enabled the politicisation of the judiciary and the Office of the Chief Justice to insidiously occur with the complicity of the Bar, legal academics and self-styled ‘activists for well over two decades. The defeat of well meaning Constitutional amendments and the hollow shells of useless mechanisms such as a Constitutional Council also came about as a result. It is to the good therefore that a 21st constitutional amendment, proposed by the opposition as a private member’s bill, has the restoration of the CC to its proper form with a preponderance of non-political members.


Responsibility for Sri Lanka’s crisis extends beyond politicians

As much as the protests of the young are teaching lessons to both the Government and the Opposition, they are also reminding the generations before them of their part in bringing about this shame that has visited Sri Lanka. They are doing so, not through learned (or less than learned) treatises on the law and the Constitution but through music, song and dance. That is all to the good. In what is perhaps an extraordinary turn of events, they are also shaming the corporates who are scrambling over themselves to shriek that they stand for effective governance.

Perhaps that same enthusiasm may be displayed by these corporates, who fattened themselves on a dysfunctional Government and increased their profits during covid times, to disclose their political party donations in bringing this regime to power. Regardless, the tools used by Sri Lanka’s young in rain or sun, in Galle Face and elsewhere, are far more powerful than the T-56 firearms used by the Rambukkana police this week to quell an agitation by people in the area over the non-availability of fuel.

This resulted in the first death since tumult broke out in the country this month following the collapse of the functions of the State and the announcement of bankruptcy notwithstanding the new Central Bank Governor’s imaginatively termed ‘pre-emptive default.’ The Inspector General of Police (IGP) stated to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) that he had not ordered to shoot the protestors at Rambukkana, which order was directly at variance with Kegalle’s Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP)’s admission.

A furious populace cannot be ‘tamed’ in this way.

This was to the effect that he had first ordered to fire tear gas and since the protestors were converging near the fuel tanker, had ordered his men to fire in the air and then, below the knee. It was during that firing that a resident of the area, termed a bystander by some eye-witnesses and a protestor by others, was killed. Whatever may be the case, incitement by the police to attack, widely rumored due to a Ministerial intervention, brutal assaults of residents and the use of force far beyond the minimum needed to quell the agitation, appears to be clear.

If the Government thought that the Rambukkana incident would ‘tame’ the furious populace, that was not the case. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa may scorn the protests as amounting to nothing if the protestors do not ‘come for discussions’ as he did this Saturday. But essentially, it is his scorn which will amount to nothing if the Government he leads, now desperately clinging to dwindling parliamentary numbers, does not blink first in this standoff against the Sri Lankan citizenry.

One of the Ministers who accepted appointment to a besieged Cabinet recently, blustered that the protestors do not speak for the entire electorate, that the President or the Prime Minister cannot ‘go home’ just because people protest. Perhaps he is right in that sentiment. Even so, he and his colleagues must accept that when a Government cannot ‘govern’ to the extent of providing basic essentials to the citizenry, it has no option but to ‘go home.’ That is where the social contract between those elected to power and the people, ends.

Rod pricking the Opposition into action

For the Opposition, the protests have been a rod pricking them into action. Indeed, some Opposition parties, including the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led coalition, issued statements cautioning against ‘anonymous’ protests. Do these parties not acknowledge or accept civil protests? Or perhaps, the definition of ‘protests’ in its book may only be confined to the killings in the seventies and eighties, of public servants, artistes and others who angered the party leadership or were seen as threats in terms of popular leadership.

Neither the JVP or the main opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) must sully Sri Lanka’s peoples protests. To do so will only enable the Government to claim that this is not an apolitical struggle but ‘engineered’ by opposition saboteurs.

In fact, the very importance of these protests is that they are not ‘led’ by political parties. That is the difference, perhaps slim but important all the same, between artistes, trade unionists or lawyers perchance with opposition linkages joining the protests as citizens (which right cannot be denied) and political parties giving ‘leadership’ or ‘direction’ to the same.

Those of us who have long memories will recall the part played by all mainstream political parties in undermining the 17th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution under the Kumaratunga Presidency. One of the primary constitutional amendments to unconditionally benefit the people, unlike the 19th Amendment which was shot through with fundamental flaws, the 17th Amendment’s focus was solely on governance. But when it became clear that this was making it difficult for politicians to subvert governance processes, political consensus set in, to undermine its working.


Long may peaceful civil disobedience last

As I recall, the political establishment directed its fury particularly at the National Police Commission (NPC) in its first term (not to be confused with the dismal performance of the NPC in later terms) which was challenging political control of the policing structures. For the first time, police officers indicted of torture were ordered to be interdicted in service along with other deterrent measures. But all these steps were reversed later.

If that opposition had not been evidenced, Rathupaswela and Rambukkana would not have happened, along with countless other atrocities at the hands of law enforcement officers, under a corrupt and vile political command. Thus, when Sri Lanka’s youth react with profound scepticism against all political parties, that is to be applauded not groaned at. A few days ago, villagers in Matugama declared open a public tunnel and invited a child to cut the ribbon, disdaining local politicians. This is civil disobedience, going beyond political personalities.

Long may it last!

Courtesy:Sunday Times