The most barbaric act of arson and vandalism by the so called “peaceful protesters” was the burning of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal residence that housed thousands of books and rare objet d’art

By P.K.Balachandran

On July 9, it looked as if Sri Lanka was undergoing a revolution through raw peoples’ power. Massive crowds had converged on Colombo to force the incompetent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit. The Presidential palace, the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s office were stormed, vandalized, and occupied. But the most barbaric act was the burning of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal residence, that housed thousands of books and rare objet d’art.

Shockingly, a member of the opposition in parliament and a former army chief, Field Marshal Sarath Foneska, even appealed to troops not to obey orders. Unhelpful Western diplomats kept urging the government not to use force to stop the protesters while turning a blind eye to arson and vandalism indulged in by the so-called “peaceful protesters.”

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government did totter soon enough. The President fled to Singapore and resigned by email from there. Sri Lanka had had its first successful revolution, the media crowed, as previous attempts in 1962, 1971 and 1988-89 had failed. The hated Rajapaksas had been banished and the country was thought to be on the threshold of a new order with the common man in the driver’s seat.

Conventional politicians went on a “pilgrimage” to the agitators’ camp to pledge support and seek “guidance” from the motely crowd. The media, both local and international, sang hosannas for the Aragalaya (Sinhalaese word for struggle), while totally blacking out the vandalism and arson committed by the agitators.

However, for all that, the Aragalaya fizzled out within days. The “revolution” failed not because of peoples’ pressure, as it was portrayed in the local and international media, but because an insecure President had caved in without a fight. The revolution also lacked peoples’ support. The general masses were dismayed by the arson and lawlessness indulged in by the radical leadership of the movement.

The Sri Lankan masses prefer to change governments periodically but only through the ballot box. They have always opposed insurrections. The insurrections in 1962, 1971 and 1988-89 failed because of a lack of peoples’ support.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled not because of popular pressure but because he lost confidence in himself. He issued no instructions to the law and order machinery thus immobilizing it. The mobs had the run of every government building they stormed because of the collapse of the law enforcement agencies.

Peace and normalcy was restored subsequently for three reasons:

(1) the law and order machinery got its act together thanks to firm legally issued instructions from President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government machinery began to demonstrate a resolve to safeguard the constitutionally sanctioned order.

(2) The broad masses (the silent majority) opted out of the struggle preferring orderly transfer of power to disorderly, chaotic and unplanned change.

(3) There arose a yawning gap between the silent majority and the politicized elite of Sri Lanka and their mouthpieces in the media.

For most of the three-month “Go Home Gotabaya” movement, the agitators were peaceful, drawn as they were from the educated English-speaking middle classes. They were staging 24 into 7 sit-ins in front of the Presidential Secretariat. But eventually, radical political elements and the lumpen, spear-headed by the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), infiltrated the movement and took over the leadership.

It is the latter section that was responsible for the vandalism, arson, the storming of government offices and the violent confrontations with the security forces. The apolitical and non-violent demonstrators were inveigled into believing that the rough and vocal types were genuine revolutionaries.

But when Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the Presidency, the law and order situation changed radically. He declared a State of Emergency and legally empowered the security forces to use all legitimate methods to maintain law and order and safeguard the sanctity of government and private property.

Once the top showed grit and determination, the law and order machinery began to work. Scores of trouble-makers were identified and arrested. This had a salutary effect on people who would have otherwise participated in the mayhem even if only for a bit of adventure. Gradually, even the violence-applauding media mellowed a bit.

But to bring the situation under control, Wickremesinghe has had to address some critical issues. These were:

(1) the shortage of essentials like fuel and foreign exchange.

(2) the IMF’s insistence that China should first reschedule the repayment of its loans to Sri Lanka before IMF finalizes its bailout package

(3) American Ambassador Julie Chung’s interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and her repeated demand for restraint in dealing with the agitators while totally ignoring the arson and occupation of government offices by the latter.

The President is addressing the shortages, though fuel is still in short supply for lack of foreign exchange. Sri Lanka is hopeful of getting some debt relief from China to enable the IMF to announce its bailout. At long last, China has indicated to Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Dr.Palitha Kohona that it could provide US$ 4 billion in loans at a low rate of interest and a long repayment period.

The American envoy Julie Chung has been silenced by President Wickremesinghe by drawing her attention to the list of dos and don’ts published by the American Civil Liberties Union, according to which, it is illegal for agitators to occupy or destroy government or even private properties. Top political commentators are now referring to the envoy’s alleged role in fomenting violence and wonder if that was part of a larger design to destabilize and dominate Sri Lanka.