“A wandering fire at a terrible height –
can it be a star shining like that?
Osip Mandelstam (Poem 101)
A walking path bordered by the sea and a bit of lawn with few struggling saplings; a ‘marina’ sans yacht or boat (like that airport with no planes). Port City Marina Promenade, inaugurated in January 2022 by President Gotabaya, PM Mahinda and Chinese foreign minister, became an instant wonder. Almost 90,000 people visited it one week.
In January 2022, as masses thronged a sea-path masquerading as a marina, the economy was crumbling, gas and milk powder queues had begun, and poverty and unemployment were accelerating. Yet there was no demand for the Rajapaksas to go. According to an IHP tracking poll, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s favourability ratings were high still, higher than Sajith Premadasa’s or Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s. If the anonymous social media campaign which kicked off one of the most successful popular resistance movements of the century had begun in January instead of April, it would have flopped.
Struggles and seasons.
Gangodawila Soma Thero, who unleashed two waves of noxious majoritarian-supremacism, against Muslims and Christians, died because he was imprudent enough to visit St. Petersburg in the dead of winter without warm clothes. Sometimes, timing is everything. A few months can mean the difference between success and failure, life and death. When Gota-go-home demand premiered in late March, a majority of Lankans were experiencing the economic calamity and knew who its authors were. According to a CPA survey, 90% said their income or income of an immediate family member has been affected and almost 90% wanted President Gotabaya and his family gone.
Newton’s third law says there’s an equal and opposite reaction to every action. In politics too, though the reaction is rarely equal. When Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thugs attacked Gota-go-gama, there was an outpouring of public outrage which turned violent within hours. The murder and the arson sprouted from the ground, an execrable yet popular reaction to an unbearable economic reality. The JVP and the FSP are not known for their love for animals; only an authentic mob would have spared SB Dissanayake’s house because they found his dog’s antics cute.
After the May upheavals, the public mood took an opposite turn settling into a wait-and-see attitude. Had the call to descend on Colombo been on June 9th, it would drawn a few thousands, not a million. By July 9th the faint hope generated by the facile changes of May days was dead. The time was right.
The president’s house was occupied. The president fled. Had the protesters stopped with that, today would have been a different – and a better – day. The occupation of the Temple Trees was unnecessary; the occupation of the presidential secretariat and the prime minister’s office wrong. The burning of Ranil Wickremesinghe private residence was a horrendous crime; anyone who loves books would know what was lost in that fire. The leading figures of the Aragalaya should have codenamed that crime immediately and unequivocally. They didn’t, anymore than they condemned the reactive-violence of May days, including the brutal lynching of two men in Nittambuwa. A disturbing sign of what the Aragalaya shares with the Rajapaksas: a belief in one’s infallibility, intolerance of criticism, equation of disagreement with betrayal. Not a formula for greater democracy.
From those avoidable crimes another avoidable crime was born, the pre-dawn attack by police and armed-to-the-teeth military on unarmed Galle Face protestors. An act of brutal repression that tarnishes national image and bodes ill for the future.
In his essay collection, The King and the Ants, Zbigkniew Herbert compares Atlas to our world’s suffering masses who endure in immoveable anger up to a point, until they move. On the 9th of April, May, and July, the people moved. That was why the Rajapaksas couldn’t unleash brute force. Now, people are back to the Atlas mode, enduring. With the semi-restoration of gas supply, they see a silver lining. They’d wait and watch to determine whether that line brings dawn or not. If not, they will move again in their anger. But that time is not now. This is the wrong season for A las barricadas.
Any organised reaction to the brutal attack on Galle Face protestors must bear this reality in mind. Attempts to rouse the masses will fail. Only a small group of committed protestors will heed the call. They will find themselves alone without popular support facing a military well-versed in turning guns on unarmed civilians.
Stability or Chaos?
The American ambassador called the attack on unarmed protestors unnecessary and she was spot on. The protestors had agreed to leave the next day. They should have been given time to do so. If they didn’t honour their promise, the judicial path should have been taken, via a court order. Instead the military was sent in with enough of a free-hand to re-enact a tiny bit of their wartime modus operandi. Media personnel were attacked, including a BBC journalist. Even Suwaseriya ambulances were banned from coming in. Like taking a meat cleaver where a scalpel was needed.
Now the Nandikadal Man has been reappointed as defence secretary, another bad omen. But a repeat performance is likely to cost the government and the country dear. The EU is on record warning that the 70million euro GSP facility is at stake. Since wanton displays of force breed not stability but its opposite, even a delay in the IMF deal is possible. And no, China can’t (given its own mounting financial woes) and won’t fill the gap. The most Beijing would do is to lend us enough money to service their loans. Not a dollar extra.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from the Rajapaksas’ fall, it’s the danger of unenlightened self-interest. The Rajapaksas didn’t know when to stop, even to save themselves. When July 9th burst in on President Gotabaya he was busy with plans to replace tactical ally Ranil Wickremesinghe with a reliable pawn. On June 9th, while announcing his resignation, Basil Rajapaksa publicly asked the president to appoint a SLPP member as the PM. Within days, oligarch Dhammika Perera paid his back taxes and joined the SLPP. On June 22nd he became a member of parliament. On June 24th he was given the super-ministry tailor-made for him, complete with seven key institutions, including BOI, Port City Commission, and the immigration and emigration department. On July 6th, he called a press conference and read out a prepared statement titled, Sri Lanka’s finance minister’s plan for disaster, and demanded Ranil Wickremesinghe resignation from finance ministry. On July 8th, President Gotabaya presented Mr. Perera with three more institutions, including Rakna Lanka and Selendiva.
As DBS Jeyaraj wrote using the fable of frog and scorpion, the scorpion was about to strike the frog dead. Then came the wave, sweeping away the scorpion and saving the frog.
The people wanted Rajapaksas gone because the family was responsible for our economic calamity. The Ranil-go-home demand came not from the masses, but from protest-activists and opposition parties. That demand, however popular in the political circles, never gained traction with the people because Mr. Wickremesinghe bears no responsibility for the current economic tsunami. While his performance as President Gotabaya’s PM was far from inspiring, it was obvious to anyone not blinded by Ranil-phobia that the Rajapaksas were undermining their supposed saviour at every turn.
Now Mr. Wickremesinghe is on his own. He is on probation. If he manages to ensure continued supply of fuel and gas, he will survive. But if any more unwarranted display of force causes an international backlash, such as the loss of GSP facility, the general public will begin to see him not as an asset but a liability. As international reactions worsen economic woes, Ranil-go-home cry will gain in popularity.
The attack on Galle Face protestors worked because the people are back in the Atlas mode, holding their anger in check, waiting to see how the new president performs. But if he fails, Atlas will begin to move again. When that happens, brute force will not work. The SLPP part of the administration will side with the protestors, the Nandikadal Man will rein in the military, and Ranil Wickremesinghe will be faced with his own July 9th. That confirmed Rajapaksa acolyte, Dinesh Gunawardane, will become the interim president. The return of the Rajapaksas will begin, just months after their ignominious departure.
None of this is inevitable, not yet. President Wickremesinghe can allow emergency to lapse and ensure that force is not reused against peaceful protestors. The best response to his critics would be to keep his own public promises. Abolish the 20th Amendment, reinstate the 19th Amendment; appoint a new PM and a cabinet consisting of the most competent and least toxic parliamentarians, and begin the process of abolishing the executive presidency. In tandem, implement the new social safety net that has been “drawn up by a diverse group of activists and policy wonks (and) enjoys broad support even among members of the opposition,” according to The Economist.
Opposition, Aragalaya, and the Executive Presidency
When he took oaths as president in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena pledged to the nation that he will be the last executive president of Sri Lanka. Had that promise been kept, there would have been no presidential election in 2019 and no President Gotabaya to unleash his economic blitzkrieg on Sri Lanka.
44 years of executive presidency has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Now, 70% of Lankans want the executive presidency gone, according to a survey by Verite Research. Only 15% want its retention. This gives the opposition a genuinely popular demand to centre its actions around. Instead of asking President Wickremesinghe to go home, which he can afford to ignore as it has no popular support yet, the opposition can hold hum to his own promises. Defang the presidency with the reinstitution of the 19th Amendment; drive a stake through its heart with the 21st Amendment. If a two-thirds majority in parliament is in doubt, go for a referendum first, coupling it with the next national level election be it local government, provincial or parliamentary. Once the abolition is approved by the people, the parliamentarians will have to go along.
Clinging to Ranil-phobia is bad tactics. It has already caused enough damage – to the opposition. It enabled the obscene travesty of making Dulles Alahapperuma – a Rajapaksa acolyte for over 25 years, candidate Gotabaya’s chief media spokesman, and a minister in the regime that brought Sri Lanka to this pass – the standard bearer of the anti-Rajapaksa camp. A man who didn’t utter a whimper about tax cuts, money printing, fertiliser fiasco, or 20th Amendment became more anti-Rajapaksa than Ranil Wickremesinghe who had opposed every one of those disasters. And if Ranil Wickremesinghe was backed by Basil Rajapaksa, Dulles Alahapperuma was backed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the former president revealed. The dice was loaded as it would be in any Rajapaksa game.
Once Gotabaya fled, the opposition should have used a national list slot to bring a reputable outsider into parliament as a common presidential candidate. That person might have still lost, yet the fight would have been a genuine one not a sham.
The rehabilitation of the Rajapaksas by their onetime acolytes has already got off the ground with Omalpe Sobhita Thero praising Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s restraint towards the protestors. The Rajapaksas practiced restraint only because the swelling tide of mass opposition left them with little choice. And while at it, let us remember how Rajapaksas responded to protests in the south when they not hated. Like Rathupaswala; the military firing on peaceful villagers protesting about the polluting practices of a factory owned by a company owned by Dhammika Perera. Three people died including a school student watching from the sidelines. That was what the Rajapaksas would have done had Gota-go-home protests begun prematurely in January instead of April, before long power cuts and fuel queues impacted on lives and changed minds.
In Book One of Fasti, Ovid, introducing Janus, says, “Every doorway has two sides…” July 9th opened such a doorway which can lead either to a kind of recovery or unmitigated disaster. According to the World Food Programme, more than a quarter of Lankan people lack enough to eat and millions more do not eat enough. Even an all-party government may not be able to reverse this trend before it wipes out even single health, educational, and social achievements of the last 74 years. Without such a united effort that monumental task cannot even be undertaken. This means restraint on all sides, government, first and foremost, and the opposition.
Artist Sujith Ratnayake (who ran the art gallery in Gota-go-gama), in an illuminating commentary states that the youthful protestors clung on to presidential secretariat because they didn’t understand the difference between state and government, and thought state meant Rajapaksas or Ranil Wickremesinghe. At the same time a terrifying revelation of the political illiteracy of these young rebels and a sad reflection on their political innocence. They deserve life, not an early grave and a brief moment of remembrance in a song or a speech at some Heroes’ Commemoration.