Kishali Pinto -Jayawardene
Carefully choreographed images of Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe hovering solicitously over injured soldiers in the Army hospital on Friday following clashes with protestors on the road to Parliament, is telling at several levels.
Flagrant disregard of constitutional niceties
Widely televised as his first act in office, this followed the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s grossly mis-named ‘Terminator’ President, formally announced by a visibly quaking if not perspiring Speaker. That came after hours of breathless anticipation, when a mercilessly mocked and pilloried President sent in his resignation letter upon fleeing the country’s shores and arriving surreptitiously on foreign soil. That was more in the style of a craven coward rather than a man once feted as a war hero, let it be said plainly.
But to return to his chosen ‘successor,’ there is particular symbolism implicit in his (far from fortuitous) visit to inquire about the well being of bandaged soldiers, some of whom were young themselves and had been ruthlessly beaten up as much as protestors were also attacked and injured.
These clashes occurred in the backdrop of needlessly provocative signalling to the inflamed public by senior leaders of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), to surround Parliament and stop the ‘deal-making.’
That was in the backdrop of Mr Wickremesinghe airily announcing that he had been ‘chosen’ by Mr Rajapaksa to ‘act’ in his place under Article 37 (1) of the Constitution with no firm evidence to that effect, a prelude to the bizarre grab of the Presidential Chair as well as the Prime Ministerial seat in flagrant disregard of constitutional niceties.
On the other hand, as tensions flared on the street, there was little doubt that violent factions had infiltrated the protest movement either with state complicity or instigated by anti-state agents with an agenda of chaos or a mixture of both.
Sri Lanka teetering on the edge of anarchy
Instrumental in setting upon soldiers with iron rods, angry men also attacked ambulances suspecting political infiltration. Neither was it reassuring to see spluttering foot soldiers ostensibly of the ‘protest movement’ invading the premises of the state television studio, incoherently demanding that only pro-protest news be aired. Some of this was engineered calculatedly to evoke public alarm and recall fractured memories of brutalities by JVP-led leftist insurrectionists in the South, most notably in the nineteen eighties.
That said, there was no mistaking the genuine thread of deep anger underlining the mood of the protestors who occupied key State buildings including the President’s official residence, the Prime Minister’s official residence and the Presidential Secretariat, marvelling at the luxuries therein. Much of this was to be expected. No protest movement can be a sanitized perfect version, particularly when the State itself is brutal. Yet as Sri Lanka teetered unsteadily on the edge of anarchy, sanity prevailed and the country stepped back from the edge.
Amidst hysterical reporting by regional and global media, cheering protestors defiantly raised their fists on high in trooping out of ‘occupied’ buildings which they had earlier declared, can only operate as ‘museums.’The ‘assault’ on Parliament also subsided. No doubt this was also due to the majority of the protestors calling for restraint. That call came none too soon. Non-violence had formed the potent core of a protest movement which drew thousands upon thousands to Colombo and major cities islandwide against a corrupt and abusive political establishment.
An entrenched politico- military mindset
That profoundly non-violent and non-partisan behaviour of young protestors had been its most powerful strength. As that returned along with the need to reorient and regroup, it was also recognised that considerable democratic gains made so far were being destabilized by a turn to violence by some. That was heartening and vital to meet head-on, subversions of Sri Lanka’s politico-military State as it retreats and tactically reasserts itself. Even as wild celebrations erupted on the streets with Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation, these were temporary victories.
And those who view the newly minted Acting President as merely a ‘voice’ for the Rajapaksas are greatly missing the point. On the contrary, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘stand-in’ as President is very much (historically) part and parcel of that coercive structure. Unsettlingly, Mr Wickremesinghe’s initial statement upon assuming ‘acting’ powers contrary to the Constitution, pointed to that entrenched mindset even before Mr Rajapaksa had formally resigned. His call to the armed forces to do whatever was ‘necessary’ to restore law and order, was grievously ill-advised.
In fact, the press conference called by the tri-services and the Inspector General of Police soon after this statement, was far more measured. At least that was devoid of high-pitched denunciations of young protestors as ‘fascists’ which had characterized the earlier response. Later, Mr Wickremesinghe’s address to the nation soon after he was ‘properly’ sworn in acting Presidential office was a fraction better. He announced that he was banishing the honorific term ‘His Excellency’ in relation to the Office of the President.
Constitutional shadow- boxing at its best
There is tremendous satire inherent in that announcement of course. Days following the rude riffling of Mr Rajapaksa’s personal effects as protestors rampagned through the official residence of the President, mocking and pillorying him, there was scarcely any ‘honour’ left in that position. Its departed occupant had invited more curses than any other Sri Lankan politician, dead or alive. If the Acting President had also thought it fit to announce the abolition of the Executive Presidency itself contingent upon due adherence to the Constitution, that may have been better received.
Banishing the term ‘His Excellency’ and abandoning the Presidential flag are pointless redundancies. His promise to speedily restore an element of constitutional checks and balances through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was somewhat positive. But that is too little, too late. This will hardly quell the enormous surge of (justifiable) public anger that still holds Sri Lanka in its iron grip as people suffer without fuel, cooking gas and food essentials. Constitutional games invite little public interest.
Even theoretically, Mr Wickremesinghe’s ‘yahapalanaya’ brainchild of the 19th Amendment contains a politically top-heavy Constitutional Council (CC). That must be remedied if that amendment is revived. Sri Lanka’s protestors are used to these shadow boxing exercises, hence their bitterness. ‘We blame all politicians, not one family only’ read a boldly scrawled placard carried by a protestor as he filed, orderly in line with thousands of others, to tour Temple Trees, a few days ago.
Unlike in the past, where only the ‘privileged’ were invited to sample lavish buffets laid out for dana (Buddhist religious ceremonies), huge simmering pots of rice and dhal were being cooked on the Prime Minister’s lawns and offered to all and sundry. At the official residence of the President, protestors commandeered stacks of cash to hand them over to the police, a policeman played the piano with gusto, and a smiling young girl held up a sign that read, ‘these are all bought with our tax monies.’
‘We are the many, you are the few’
These proclamations are extraordinarily powerful. They hold to account the Rajapaksa House along with countless sycophants in professional and corporate high places including the media, who are now reinventing themselves as ‘Rajapaksa-critics.’ The country’s financial, legal and social bankruptcy remains on their greedy heads. As the most reviled of the Rajapaksas fled, slogans of the protestors hold true for all those holding political office or profiting off political power.
Even so, a power vacuum in Sri Lanka yawns and one holds one’s nose more or less at the alternatives that Parliament offers. Typically, the usual jockeying for political advantage predominates even at the critical eleventh hour, as Presidential stakes are mapped out and contenders throw their (generally) disreputable hats into the ring. Yet Parliament can only ignore the street at its peril. The public siege of the House was narrowly averted this week. Next time, its parliamentary incumbents might not be so fortunate.
Before long, they will again hear the roar of Sri Lankans chanting ‘we are the many, you are the few’ ringing in their luckless ears.