Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the post of Prime Minister on May 9. On June 9, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa resigned as a Member of Parliament. Following a mass uprising on July 9, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the Presidential Palace, flew abroad, and resigned from there. These three “9ths” have secured a permanent place in Sri Lankan political history.
This seems to have given some opposition parties a delusion that they can topple the government if they protest on the 9th. Therefore they declared August 9 as a day of mass protest and called upon the people to gather in Colombo.
The purpose of the call was to send President Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government home. Even though the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and Frontline Socialist Party were behind the call, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s Member of Parliament, former army chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, was in the frontline calling upon people to participate in the “‘final battle”. On July 9, the day of the historic popular uprising in the capital, the protestors were seen chasing away other politicians but a section of them was seen happily welcoming Fonseka. That reception seems to have given him a delusion that he has huge support in the protest movement. Fonseka behaved as if he was the main spokesman of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement both inside and outside Parliament.
He termed the orders issued by the government to suppress the popular protest as ‘illegal’ and appealed to the army not to follow those orders. Although 13 years have passed since he retired from the post of the army chief, he appeared confident that the soldiers will heed his request. Samagi Jana Balawegaya did not fail to declare that they had nothing to do with his call.
As expected, people were not interested in participating in the final battle on August 9. Those who called for that protest could not mobilize people in large numbers. Some trade union movements and supporters of the respective parties took out protest marches in some places. No one claimed to have seen the Field Marshal at any of those demonstrations.
The people’s lack of interest in participating in that struggle does not necessarily mean that they support the current government or that they do not have enough problems to take to the streets. But people do not like to continue protracted struggles without clearly defined goals. There is a fear among people that continuous protests without clear goals may lead to chaos. It is also true that the Wickramasinghe government’s crackdown on the protestors had discouraged many organizations that had participated in and supported the ‘Aragalaya’ protest movement for the past four months.
It must be said that those who call for a ‘final war’ have distorted the basic sentiments of the popular uprising that changed the Sri Lankan political scene to a great extent. The protest movement had some basic goals: creation of a new political culture and a governance system that is accountable to the people and free from corruption. There is no doubt that the people continue to show solidarity with the basic ideals of the protest movement which calls for a system change.
At the same time, the opinion that the new President, who claims to have embarked on measures to rescue the country from the economic crisis, must be given a fair chance, is strong among a significant section of the population, especially among the upper and middle classes. The cost of living continues to skyrocket despite some measures being taken by the government to provide temporary relief to the people.
On the one hand, the government, which claims to be interested in taking measures to mitigate economic risks, has increased electricity tariffs by an unprecedented 75 percent. There is also a possibility that the charges of many services like water will be increased. And by increasing various taxes, the people are being burdened. If this trend continues, it is inevitable that beyond a certain point, people will return to the streets.
The political leadership is determined not to allow a repeat of the popular revolt of the last four months where the people would arrive at the doorstep of the regime and challenge it. The repressive measures of the Wickremesinghe government reflect this.
The ‘Aragalaya’ movement may have died down. But that will not quell the political fervor that has developed among the public against misrule. Following the fall of the Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lankan politics cannot remain the same. Certainly, politicians cannot act as before without respecting the feelings of the people who will be watching them closely.
At the same time, it is necessary to look critically at what the ‘Aragalaya’ movement has achieved so far and the approaches it has adopted. From the very beginning, the movement did not have clear-cut leadership. It was also seen that various organizations that came to the Galle face at Colombo in support of “Gota Go Gama” and turned it into a platform to declare their intentions.
After Gotabaya Rajapaksa abdicated and fled the country, there was no clarity among the protest movement as to what to do next. When the protest movement with the massive participation of people shook the political bureaucracy and attracted the attention of the world, some political forces that infiltrated it tried to ‘hijack’ the movement in a manner consistent with their political agenda. That led to violence. This in turn became an opportunity for Wickramasinghe’s government to unleash oppression.
On May 9, thugs unleashed by Mahinda Rajapaksa from Temple trees attacked peaceful protestors at Galle Face which led to an uprising among people across the country. A similar response was not seen in the early hours of July 22 when the police and army forcibly evicted the protesters.
Systemic change was the main slogan of the protest movement. Systemic change is essentially a political revolution. Regime change does not mean system change. Real systemic change is changing the political and economic structure of the polity and society. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke about system change during the November 2019 presidential election. Today, President Wickremesinghe is talking about it. But they are actually against such a change. Such a change is completely against the interests of the class they represent.
So the ruling class will forcefully suppress forces fighting for real system change. However, a system change cannot be done while keeping the current state machinery intact. Therefore, simply using a slogan without a clear awareness of what a system change is, can be misleading.
Meanwhile, politicians are reverting to their old ways as if they were waiting for the protest movement to die down. At the height of the protest movement, most of the political parties that talked about the formation of an all-party interim government, the need to create political commitment and win the trust and support of the international community, are now focused on not cooperating with such an arrangement.
It is not clear as to how sincere President Wickremesinghe is in calling on party leaders to come forward to form an all-party government full of members of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. Political parties fear that participating in such a government could be a trap. Although the President continues to hold talks with political parties, developments indicate that there is no chance of success.
Political parties formulate their strategies keeping in mind how the positions they take now will affect them in the next election. Even though the opposition parties speak in support of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement, they still support the government’s current repressive measures in their heart of hearts. The political class as a whole is not going to let people’s power decide as to how they should act.
We also heard voices in Parliament stating: “We were with the Rajapaksas before. We are still with them. We will be with them in the future. We will rise together with Rajapaksas”.