Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Bright smiles of determined young Sri Lankans contrast starkly with the tear gas and water cannons used by the police this Friday to smash tents and scatter protestors outside the newly established ‘HoruGoGama’ (‘thieves, get out’) on the road to Parliament. On the one side, there is youth, optimism and hope. On the other side, there is the threatening paraphernalia of the State.
Politicians scoring brownie points
As the Speaker fluttered and flapped his hands in response to remonstrations of the Opposition that university students and other protestors, including the elderly, had been teargassed on Friday as they were hooting Members of Parliament sweeping by in their calvacades, his incredulity went so far as to ask as to where these events had occurred. Was he perchance, under the impression that the protests were happening on Mars rather than right outside the House?
The promise that he would ask for a report from the Inspector General of Police (IGP) on the matter, was scarcely reassuring. This is not a Speaker who inspires public confidence, to put it politely as it were.
The Government was similarly non-responsive, with senior party leaders waving copies of the Order Paper and screeching to high heaven in a concerted attempt to block the no-confidence motion against the President and the Government, presented by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Opposition.
The House exploded with accusations and counter-accusations across the divide as politicians delighted in scoring brownie points from the misery of the people. Outside, protestors lay siege to the chamber, ‘HoruGoGama’ being the latest in the series of ‘protest villages’, this time around aimed at occupants of the legislature.
This is State myopia of the highest extent, as bad as the extraordinary blunders on the part of the Rajapaksa political leadership that precipitated this immediate crisis in the first instance. Even at the very nadir, when nothing remains of this country’s self-respect, when state functions are crippled in essential respects and when food, medicine and fuel are begged from other countries on a ‘hand to mouth’ basis, this is what the Parliament is up to.
Where is the considered deliberation of a financial and governance crisis, the enormity of which has not been seen since independence from colonial rule, due to the profligacy of rulers?
Sri Lanka’s version of Guy Fawkes
True, not much can be expected from this legislature, as depleted and miserable as its authority is and the many scoundrels who inhabit its spaces. Very soon, the difference between the Government and the Opposition will be erased if it has not been already, in the eyes of the protestors.
By that, I do not mean the ridiculous spectacle of a Deputy Speaker resigning from his post, being proposed again by a so-called ‘independent group’ of parliamentarians sitting in the ‘Opposition’ after seemingly breaking ranks with the Government, with which proposal, the Government quickly concurred.
These are infantile games that a child can see through. This worthy sent in his (second) resignation a day later as satirical cartoonists had a field day. But what is at stake here is far more serious than these high and entirely unnecessary jinks. Very soon, the entire citizenry will lay siege to the House in a Sri Lankan latter day version of Guy Fawkes, some parliamentarians warned.
There is more than a modicum of truth to that prediction. The groundswell of public anger has reached perilous levels. public ire is high against the Government and the Opposition alike. This is a dangerous road to tread.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and assorted Ministers are living a ‘bunker life’, unable to travel about without formidable security protections, unable to meet constituents who would sooner bash them over the heads than not, unable to go into their offices.
That unhappy fortune may visit all parliamentarians. Barricading the Parliament this week was the first step. It did not keep the protestors out. SJB parliamentarians were rudely accosted as they left the House and had to fend off yells of ‘deal making.’
No party or politicians is safe from public anger
If the Government and its willing conspirators sitting as ‘independents’ or otherwise, think that, by dint of sheer numbers, it can trick its way to survival, it has ‘another think coming’ as is said in common parlance. ‘We are the many, you are the few’ Sri Lanka’s youth chant to the politicians. And they are right.
Meanwhile, there are unexpected comedies at play to lighten the sombre mood. Leader of the UNP, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was resoundingly defeated by the electorate and crept back to Parliament on the single national list ticket of his party to the hurrahs of the Rajapaksa-led Government, appeared to shrink and shrivel at the possibility of protestors demonstrating outside his residence.
Should he not be made of sterner stuff than to grumble that he is ‘under threat’? Amusingly, the Government promptly called for increased security to be allocated as a result. Indeed, more and more offices and residences of politicians are being surrounded by angry crowds, some lay wreaths outside the gates, others mock and jeer at its cowering occupants. No party or politician is safe, let it be said.
A few days ago, a grand media spectacle on bribery and corruption by politicians and complicit public service officialdom took place with broadly beaming members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) now competing for a place in the political sun.
But was not the JVP supportive of the ‘yahapalanaya’ Sirisena-Wickremesinghe led Government’ which rode into power on much of these same allegations against the Rajapaksas in 2015?
Are they not, in consequence thereof, responsible in some measure for the miserable shambles of the investigative and legal process during 2015-2019?
Despite commendable efforts by dedicated criminal investigation officers, many of whom were later demoted while others languished in jail, that effort was undermined. Add to that, the foolishness of judges allowing themselves to be taped a la Ranjan Ramanayake, pleading for promotions and a handpicked corruption investigator/prosecutor putting herself in a similarly compromising position.
The joining of workers’ solidarity with people power
After that display of chicanery, does the JVP take the Sri Lankan public for fools by parading (largely) these very same cases, all over again? This is precisely what has made the youth look at all political parties with deep suspicion. Who can blame them?
They are indefatigable, bolstered by their own energy, the belief in the ‘rightness’ of their struggle and the support that they get from the communities. Their numbers are not limited to young ‘rebels’ as some may like to think. Rather, the Force spans the very young to the very old,Its movement is organic, sustaining itself in a myriad ways, from the lawyers who flock to the defence of those arrested to people passing by, who honk in support and give the thumbs up and the hundreds who bring food to sustain the fight.
Friday’s mass hartal, led by the transport, teaching, electricity, education and health trade unions who came out in strength with the nation shutting down, gave a different dimension to the struggle. This was a powerful combination of worker’s solidarity and people power, effectively the worst nightmare of authoritarians.
So the country’s immediate fate remains entirely in the hands of the country’s parliamentary representatives. Where does the choice lie?
In the constitutional process, to wisely employ the collective strength of the House with the first objective being the alleviation of the woes of a furious and scared populace who are unable to cope with daily existence? Or to bluster, ‘make deals’ and protect personal/party interests? opt for the second invites disaster and along with that, the nightmarish spectre of extra-constitutional revolution, frightening in its essence. There is an imminent urgency to these questions.
The answer thereof may well dictate the very existential state of this beleaguered nation.