Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Extraordinary foresight is scarcely needed to have predicted the State’s attack on Sri Lanka’s globally feted protest site at the Galle Face Green in the wee hours of Friday morning, July 22nd 2022.
Why this provocative show of strength?
As formidable contingents of baton wielding masked military and the police took ‘control’ of the site, they set about systematically dismantling protest structures, including the library and the medical tent, badly beating up unarmed lawyers, priests, journalists, dragging away and arresting young men and women peacefully walking on Galle Road towards the Galle Face. Hours later, an inflappable President Ranil Wickremesinghe presided over the swearing in of his Cabinet, chockfull of the same political rogues.
The contrast between these two happenings could not have been more stark. Why, some perplexed Sri Lankans ask, did the country’s eighth Executive President embark on this provocative show of strength, on his first day in office? This was despite the protestors assuring that they would ‘hand over’ the protest site on Friday afternoon and give the ‘new man’ some time to tackle the country’s most pressing economic ills. The answer to that question is also predictable.
Any appearance of concession, the very thought of meekly ‘accepting’ a ‘hand over’ by protestors on the basis of a ‘trial period to govern properly’ is nothing short of anathema to the new President, it seems. Originally named as ‘GotaGoGama,’ this was far more than a camp with tents. Despite being infiltrated by elements of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and its offshoot, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) to its discredit, it remained a potent ideal of people power. That ideal is what is sought to be crushed, ironically after the departure of the President who inspired it.
A pincer move to crush genuine gains of protestors
That said, the JVP and the FSP too contributed to the weakening of that ideal. Their interventions into GotaGoGama corrupted the movement, their calls to storm Parliament yielded the moral high ground to the State. This must be acknowledged even as JVP politicians piously condemn Friday’s happenings. Machinations of the JVP/FSP and on the other, gross abuse of Executive Presidential power both acted as a pincer move to undermine genuine gains of protestors. This is treading of familiar ground for Sri Lankans well acquainted with their subversive history.
Indeed, in all eventuality, the Wickremesinghe Presidency will probably teach the actual meaning of ‘strongman rule’ to the predecessor Gotabhaya Rajapaksa administration which was widely expected to be savage in its treatment of the protests but (actually) never really was. One oft repeated tale is that when angry protestors were beating down the gates of his official residence leading to the hurried escape of the former President, frustrated commanders guarding the entrances were not given permission to fire indiscriminately at the invaders.
Regardless of tall or not-so-tall tales, a far stronger defence force of State buildings later occupied by the protestors could have been evidenced at every point but was not. In some instances, explicit orders were given not to use firearms, a wise decision at that point given the mass casualties that would have occurred. For reasons best known to himself, the departed Rajapaksa ‘strongman’ was not inclined to reenact the horrors of Nandikadal’s count of civilian casualties in the heart of Colombo, in the remorseless glare of international media attention.
Bringing shades of ‘Nandikadal’to Colombo
But that was then. Now, no such timidity is evidenced as Sinhalese protestors get just a taste of the agonies of Tamil civilians during the Wanni’s war between the State and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Note also an important distinction between Friday’s attacks and the events of May 9th when Rajapaksa supporters attacked ‘GotaGoGama.’
Those were goons largely from the South led by some pro Mahinda Rajapaksa politicians. In contrast, this Friday exemplified the brute exercise of Presidential emergency force, pure and simple even though Oscar Wilde said once upon a time that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Further, the May 9th attacks were amateurish and clumsy, carried out in broad daylight almost inviting the spirited defence of the protest site. That was a monumental misreading of ground realities and the impact that the attack would have on a furious public. This time around, it was stealthy and planned with precision. Journalists were attacked not by chance and were directed not to take pictures by state agents, also not by chance. The objective was, as in the Wanni, to close off abuses from public viewing.
Lawyers crowding the barricades manned by the military and police demanded to know the fate of those arrested, to no avail. A lawyer was himself beaten, his colleagues not allowed access to the site along with medical personnel and ambulances.
Young women were kicked, their male colleagues were mercilessly beaten and tortured, some reportedly forced to crawl on gravel, even disabled soldiers were attacked. This had all the signs of state mercenaries in full power, indeed of ‘fascism’ which is what the new President had accused the protestors of.
Ominous portents were clear at the outset
Decades of such abuse of the Constitution is precisely the reason why Sri Lanka was catapulted into this miserable state of anarchy in the first instance. The long road to despair in this country was not only traceable to bad economic decisions. Repression of rights and the trampling of the Rule of Law contributed in no small measure. Using the military to stamp down on dissent has been the perennial stamp of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidential rule, Jayawardene, Kumaratunga, Rajapaksa (and now) Wickremesinghe alike.
Just last week, the deliberately projected concern of the acting President (at the time) to soldiers injured in the attacks of protestors on State buildings was an ominous portend of worse to come, as warned in these column spaces. And so it was, from thanking the troops for their efforts in safeguarding Parliament after the parliamentary vote on Wednesday to the official visit to the Akuregoda Defence Headquarters after the Rajapaksa dominated Parliament swung the way of the single National List United National Party (UNP) ‘thani aliya’ (lone elephant).
Evidently, the protestors had taken note of the chill winds blowing their way as they dismantled ‘NoDealGama’ in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and promised to withdraw from the protest site at the Galle Face Green. All that was to no effect. Friday’s attacks amounted to a first and preemptive strike of the Wickremesinghe Presidency, carried through by the military and the police in flagrant disregard of the Constitution. And those who shouted ‘huzzah’ when the results of Wednesday’s vote came in, must now rue their short-lived delight.
The President childishly toys with a combustible mix
As one agitated conversationalist contended with me then, there was no ‘alternative’ and we needed ‘stability.’ But is the ‘stability’ of brute force on unarmed young Sri Lankans even as they shouted ‘don’t hit us, we are not doing anything wrong’ conducive to restoring the confidence of international lending institutions in the Rule of Law? On his own part, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said – and perhaps quite rightly – after assuming the awesome powers of his office that he will not permit unlawful occupation of State buildings. Strategically he also made a clear distinction between ‘peaceful dissenters’ and ‘violent agitators.’
Those distinctions were thrown to the winds on Friday. The President and his men must be reminded in categorical terms of the constitutional right to protest. A studied silence prevails so far at the highest levels of the State in regard to Friday’s attacks, apart from a feeble statement by the police. That is telling. When the country’s courts have permitted protests within defined limitations, the Executive has no right to dictate otherwise. A sober step back is recommended. What we are fast losing here is the middle ground of constitutional reason, compromise and accommodation.
Taken together with an angry people and a comprehensively destroyed economy, that is a combustible mix.