The majority Sinhalese must acknowledge their helpless and hopeless beggaring by the very rulers who proclaimed their supremacy, the basis on which they rode triumphantly to power in 2019 and 2020


Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

In the shambles left of the Rajapaksa Government this week in Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s last-ditch conjuring of many-times Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to fill the vacuum left by the resignation of his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was hardly unexpected.

The bitter aftermath of Monday’s attacks

That was the most predictable move left to the nation’s so-called ‘first family’ now reduced to cowering under the protection of the security State that had been nurtured for this very purpose, perchance. As the Rajapaksa mansions, museums and seats of power were set alight, their supporters thrashed on the streets in Colombo, once adoring fans in the strongholds of the South danced wildly in the light of the flames. It was only one among many cruel ironies that former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family had to seek refuge in a naval base in the East, the alleged site of enforced disappearances of critics of his regime.

That said, there are lessons to be learnt, not only for the Rajapaksas, as the nation reflects in the bitter aftermath of the attacks by state goons on peaceful protestors at Galle Face Green this Monday. Some blame the dithering of Opposition parties for the President’s plucking of former Premier Wickremesinghe out of the political thin air to lead the Government. Initially, the main opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) had commendably declined accepting the Government under President Rajapaksa on the basis that his departure from the Office of the Presidency was the core demand of Sri Lanka’s protestors, young and old.

But after a tired and deflated looking President addressed the nation on Wednesday, promising inter alia to restore the 19th Amendment and to appoint a Prime Minister who will command the ‘confidence of the people,’ the SJB procrastination to reverse its stand proved to be costly. By the time that its leader wrote to the President, relying on that very address to say that it will accept his invitation to form a Government subject to conditions, it was a tad too late. A new Prime Minister was already being sworn in, vide a lightning quick Presidential move, probably under crafty advisement by that same (soon-to-be) Prime Minister.

Radical change in the ‘rules of the game’

That apart, the appointment of Premier Wickremesinghe scarcely represents a Prime Minister who will ‘secure the confidence’ of the people. Even so, who among the motley crowd of legislators can claim that privilege, one may well ask? That question has immediate relevance following the direct statement of the Central Bank Governor that he will leave his post if political stability is not forthcoming. On his part, the newly appointed Prime Minister must remind himself of the exact reasons why his leadership had spectacularly failed on so many occasions, each and every time resulting in disastrous consequences for Sri Lanka.

He too is responsible in major part for the cataclysmic cycle of attrition that has brought this country to its knees. Overweening arrogance and closeted decision-making with an elite few, including gross corruptors has been a recurrent stamp of the Wickremesinghe regimes, negating progressive constitutional advances made in other respects. Thus, it is scarcely reassuring that some of these very worthies, languishing in political Siberia, have been suddenly resurrected and named to party committees to suggest ‘solutions’ to the present crisis. As young protestors install new tents opposite the official residence of the Prime Minister labelled ‘No-Deal Gama’, he must understand that the rules of the game have been radically changed.

He is no longer dealing with a ‘tamed’ Colombo based polity easily amenable to his will through fear, favour or long-time personal affinities. Fresh angry voices on the Sri Lankan street refuse to be rendered irrelevant, refuse to be quiet and scorn cynical power games, pointing to ‘deal-making’ that protected state agents who committed extraordinary crimes against humanity, including the abduction and killing of children of minority ethnicity. That same pattern of state impunity continues, albeit directed this time against the majority Sinhalese.

When the law does not work, mob justice is meted out

The framing of assaults of unarmed peaceful protestors at the Galle Face Green by political thugs as ‘very unfortunate’ by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his defence officials is an excellent case in point. This was not ‘unfortunate.’ It was despicable and disgraceful. For the first time in post independence history, thuggery was unleashed on protestors from the very seat of state power, Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. In turn, protestors were defended by office workers, including from leading banks, hospital staff and people in the neighbourhood who rushed to the scene.

Pro-Rajapaksa attackers were beaten, some stripped of clothing, others pushed into the Beira Lake along with the vehicles that had brought them to Colombo. Meanwhile the residences of ministers torched, one parliamentarian died as enraged mobs set on him and his security entourage, after one security officer opened fire critically wounding protestors in Nittambuwa. Elsewhere, a senior police officer lambasted as being complicit in state violence, was attacked. It was unparalleled fury, pent up public rage in full display.

Simply put, this is what happens when the State is the unabashed perpetrator of violence. No amount of pompous pontification by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence can excuse that. Even in law, there is a defence termed as grave and sudden provocation, as he must be educated. What is the evidence that law enforcement officers have questioned former Ministers Johnston Fernando, Sanath Nishantha and others who were recorded as inciting pro-Rajapaksa supporters to march towards the Galle Face Green? Where is the questioning of former Premier Rajapaksa and his son?

Critical self-questioning needed for the ‘aragalaya’

Absent that, what is the point of the police scouting around Galle Face, turning over soot and ashes? That said, this is not to condone the anti-Rajapaksa violence that occurred. Both state and counter state violence brought back frightening memories of riots in Sri Lanka, communal, religious or otherwise. These were the same scenes played out before, defenceless people cowering before brutishness. It makes no difference if that brutishness emanates from pro-Rajapaksa or anti-Rajapaksa forces.

As such, the Galle Face Green ‘aragalaya’ (struggle) enters a ‘hard phrase’ of solidarity, with critical self-questioning needed. Infiltration of agents of political parties into the protest movements must be resisted. The point here is not about the struggle being ‘apolitical.’ It can scarcely be that. The very nature of resistance is political in its essence. What must be guarded against however is party-political influences, including that of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna led National Peoples Power (NPP) coalition, destabilising, delegitimising and subverting the transformative nature of the struggle.

Above all, it is important for the reform movement to recognise that Sri Lanka’s travails go far beyond empty stomachs though cartoonists may satirically lampoon on those lines. As long as the reins of power are held captive in the grasp of a majoritarian agenda and its Deep State agents, as long as those discontents bubble, the country is doomed to suffer the consequences of the inequity of power. This visits majority and minority communities alike, one consequence being economic and financial deprivation.

Defying the majoritarian agenda

So as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe assures that his Government will secure ‘fuel, gas and essential supplies’ for the citizenry, that is welcome. There is no point in preaching about the Rule of Law to a starving people. But that will not suffice. The constitutional balance of power must be restored and our institutions freed from political control. The majority Sinhalese must acknowledge their helpless and hopeless beggaring by the very rulers who proclaimed their supremacy, the basis on which they rode triumphantly to power in 2019 and 2020.

As a quiet North watched military armoured cars rumbling into Colombo, the unspoken message to the South was, ‘this is what we have been used to for decades, now it is your turn.’ Each action, each terrible toleration of state excesses against minority communities brushed off in the name of ‘the stability of the State’ has led us to this.

What is the State that we are trying to protect, reform, reinvent?

Courtesy:Sunday Times