Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
There is a trace of helplessness and more than a touch of cruel ridicule to dramatic protest scenes being played out this week in front of Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
The State has become a satire
The loud chanting of ‘pirith’ by Buddhist monks on megaphones to drown the sound of the youth clamouring for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to leave, makes the Rajapaksa apparatus of the State, now tottering in its defences, more the stuff of a Sunil Perera satirical parody than a Terminator, as it were. Did it have to come to this?
That a Prime Minister, who as an activist, launched the Jana Ghosha (‘Peoples’ Roar’) movement of opposition parliamentarians, has to resort to megaphone religious chants to make daily existence more palatable for himself and his entourage?
In any event, the genius in the Prime Minister’s staff who thought of this less than intelligent strategy to drown out the protests, missed a key point. Buddhist practices reflected in the recital of verses are typically to ward off evil influences and afflictions. So, are peaceful demonstrations equated, in the thinking of this Government, to ‘evil influences’?
From whom does the Prime Minister need protection precisely? From Sri Lanka’s citizenry, not only at Temple Trees but at the ‘Gota Go Gama’ at Galle Face Green outside the Presidential Secretariat, the seat of his younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the several other such ‘Gamas’ that have sprung up across the land?
If so, where is the mandate to govern, one must ask? This question must be asked repeatedly, it appears, as the Government is deaf to unpalatable truths. Indeed, the mix of condescension and extreme annoyance with which the Prime Minister treats the protesting youth, the manner of relegating them to ‘those who had always been against us’ and the belief that ‘our electorate is still with us’ shows the thinking of leaders who are far, some may say even clinically, removed from reality. As the country shut down a few days ago with all sectors of society coming out in protest, the Prime Minister must surely rethink his assessment of a ‘few of them against the many of us.’
Consequences of stifling peaceful protests
And he must also remember a time when noise protests were his favourite political tool of choice, as affirmed by the Supreme Court. That judgement of the Court (Amaratunga v Sirimal and Others, 1993, the Jana Ghosha case), upheld the right of Sri Lanka Freedom Party parliamentarians, including Mr Rajapaksa, to use noise as a tool of peaceful protest against the United National Party Government. The danger in ‘stifling the peaceful expression of legitimate dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence some other day’ said the Court.
This warning (by the late Justice MDH Fernando with Dheeraratne and Ramanathan JJ agreeing) became the judicial touchstone of the right to protest. That caution must be heeded by the Prime Minister, once the direct beneficiary of protections ensured by a Court bold enough to uphold the Constitution at the time. Never mind the fact that the Justice who handed down that opinion at the time was compelled to prematurely retire years later under the Kumaratunga Presidency, due to the rank cowardice and/or political party lines of leaders of the Bar in failing to uphold the independence of the apex court of the land. In an aside, it is also laughable that some who were party to the unholy degradation of the Bench are now pontificating on the need to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
Let it be said very clearly that this cannot be done though amendments, 19th Amendment (even with its flaws addressed) or even the 17th Amendment. The independence of institutions, the judiciary included, can only be secured through the independence of the men and women who serve in those institutions.
History has recorded the failures of the Sri Lankan Bar in allowing the judicial institution to corrupt under its watch. That too, is responsible for today’s crisis of governance. If the Court had remained resolute in its constitutional duties, the abject failure of the separation of powers in the constitutional scheme would have been corrected not through ad hoc judgments (as in 2018) but as a matter of consistent constitutional principle.
Need to judiciously handle protests
But to return to the protests, it seems that the youth at the Galle Face in front of the Presidential Secretariat are being handled far more judiciously than at Temple Trees where at least on two occasions, tipping points of violence came dangerously close. At one point, sweating and swearing police officers were tearing down protest posters pasted on the buses that the police had seen fit to park on the pavement to obstruct the protestors. At another point, a protestor was injured. These are not matters to be lightly regarded. The arrest and remand of former Kegalle SSP KB Keerthirathne in connection to the Rambukkana shooting is a lesson on point.
Police officers must remember that they will not be safeguarded if they carry out illegal orders against peaceful protestors. In fact, as ‘pirith’ chants continue in front of Temple Trees to ward off ‘afflictions’, the youth may well set up a counter chant of ‘pirith’ to buttress their cry that the leaders themselves are the afflictions that have left the nation with cancers that have perforated and are bleeding the people dry.
For the Government and the Presidency has to bear responsibility for the decimation of the nation and for its shameful regression, socially, financially and legally, with worse to come. The President may have apologized for his calamitous decision to abruptly halt chemical fertiliser to farmers.
Are these mistakes that the Head of State can be forgiven, as one of the young protest representatives asked on national television recently? This policy decision may be a direct causative factor for a forthcoming famine, agricultural experts have warned. Indeed it is not this policy decision alone but the practice of this Presidency and the Government, which took decisions based on a select cabal of persons who lacked expertise in any field, whether it be agricultural or monetary policy. Can these be mistakes that are capable of being forgiven? Sri Lanka’s youth think not.
The democratic struggle is for the long haul
For those who look with pessimism at the peaceful protests and predict that no change will take place in the status quo, the message is to be more hopeful. Perhaps the deeply coercive nature of the Sri Lankan State which is familiar to us all, will soon assert itself. Perhaps also, the nature of the protests are shot through with unhealthy ethno-centric nationalism in some instances and are chaotic in other instances. But when are protests ever ideal?
And if the protests drag on inconclusively for too long as Parliament dithers with politicians playing games and exchanging cash, a vacuum of legislative and executive power may be created.
The consequences of communal and racist policies on the part of the political leadership across the divide is clear. The Peoples Roar of 2022 must hold the political establishment to account, before, during and after elections once any are held.
We must never repeat what happened in 2015, where ‘regime change’ resulted in a fresh lot of thieves protecting the earlier lot of thieves while the citizenry stayed quiet. As we stare down at the abyss and Sri Lanka slips into ‘beggar status’, we can ponder on our painful past. The responsibility to prevent a repeat of the past is in our hands.
This struggle for the democratic heart of the nation is for the long haul.