By Kumar David –
As events unfolded it was not surprising that Aragalaya (Sinhalese for struggle) turned out to be not one unified movement but a many-headed creature; it could not have been otherwise. Early manifestations at Galle Face if you remember were a liberal middle-class, even upper middle-class outpouring of “Go Gota Go!” anger. Political leaders and their parties were hardly seen. Now upper-class liberals are no longer visible. Since then the behaviour of different actors has evolved differently. The most radical are the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) aggressive, combative and fierce and the Frontline Socialist Party (FLSP), but here too there are internal conflicts. The most militant sections hold that the country is on the cusp of a revolution and have scant respect for constitutional norms. This has been explained to me in some detail – synopsis below: A Supreme Council (SC) which will include some Aragalaya members will be formed; SC will be higher than and supervise the Cabinet which will consist of functionaries who will ‘administer’ not make decisions. A new constitution abolishing the executive presidency will be drafted and put to a referendum. The SC in liaison with the ‘functionary Cabinet’ will conduct an election quickly. There is no clarity on what will happen if the “revolutionaries” lose the election!
[Here is an abbreviated translation of the aforementioned synopsis
Gotabaya must resign from the Executive Presidency immediately (done). 2. Ranil and the Government must resign immediately. (This includes Cabinet, Non-Cabinet, Deputy and Project Ministers, Secretaries, Directors, Consultants to Ministries, Chairmen of State Institutions and Ambassadors). 3. An interim structure which subscribes to the economic, social and political aims and aspirations of the ‘peoples struggle/Janatha Aragalaya’ must be established (the aforesaid SC?). 4. A People’s Council (same as SC?), with legal standing will be established and representatives of Janatha Aragalaya will engage with the Interim government/Cabinet via this].
Unfortunately, the documents are not very clear or well written.
Superficially it sounds a bit Leninist but is not so at all. Lenin was dealing with real dual-power. In Sri Lanka state-power is securely in the hands of the establishment and legitimacy still belongs to parliament and the courts. What is true is that the people at large are fed up with the system and with the Rajapaksa rogues but that’s not a pre-revolutionary balance of power; most MPs are a rotten bunch but they were elected in the first place by the people themselves. Kumar Gunaratnam demands that the pre-election interim government should do nothing that is not endorsed by Aragalaya; nobody, not even Aragalaya takes him seriously. He and the IUSF are courting disaster and seem NOT to have grown up beyond the JVP’s 1971 and 1989 folly.
Like millions of others I support a few points in the Synopsis or in other Aragalaya statements. I was the first person in Sri Lanka, at least recently to advocate the right of the electorate to recall elected MPs. There is near unanimity that the executive presidency must go, a new constitution must be written, prosecution of crooks must be pursued with diligence, etc. It was unavoidable, but not forgivable and foreseeable that military and protestors would both resorted to violence, sometimes leading to a loss of life on May 9 and July 9 and 13-15. The storming of the Presidents Official Residence and PM’s Office were not unexpected and arson at the PM’s home must be condemned. Taking a dip in His Excellency’s official pool is excusable in the heat of July. Boys (and girls) will be boys!
Ranil Wickremesinghe was a simpleton who failed to grasp opportunity by the fetlock. He and his cabinet of imbeciles were too dumb to see that energy availability was the key. Now he is president and holds the powers of office. RW when PM could have asserted himself to win international support for fuel, food and pharmaceuticals. It would have gone down well with the people. After shooing way Gota, the Attorney General could have looked into the looting of the public purse by the brothers and the Clan. It’s was an opportunity not to have been missed, but which RW squandered. He need not have been Gota’s abject proxy; he could have functioned more in his own right as PM. Too late now.
Or is it too late? Gota has vacated post, fled in shame, abandoned the country, it is no different if he had died in a plane crash. What is Ranil’s position now? He holds presidential power, control of the military and could democratise the state, but instead autocratic Ranil is again showing his fangs! He can limit the scope of the State of Emergency, go all out to secure fuel supplies and bust the petrol black-market. (Rodrigo Duterte violated democratic and human rights norms but his methods were immensely popular; this is not what I am advocating). Whoever clears the petrol queues will be king for life. The plan spelt out for July 20 by Parliament’s Secretary-General Dammika Dassanayake was the only legitimate way. The person who won mattered less than keeping democracy secure.
Sajith worried that if RW imported fuel, won international confidence and created stability he would have been serious challenger at a future election. The rejection of the Dulles-Sajith ticket by a large margin, 134 to 82 means some SJB parliamentarians too did not support their Sajith. Those who deserted are the professionals and more upper-class lot who saw that the ticket had no international credibility. People know that going the round of temples offering trays of lotus buds isn’t going to fill their stomachs. The SPB is likely to break up in the coming months. At this time of writing it is not known who the Prime Minister will be (Dinesh?) or whether some SJB MPs and Tamil and Muslim MPs will accept Cabinet positions. This is course will be a huge boon to Ranil in projecting the image of a National Government both domestically and internationally.
The far more important question however is whether there is acceptance among the masses that a degree of belt-tightening is unavoidable. Lanka has no choice but to exercise financial and fiscal discipline, undertake a bearable degree of belt tightening, ensure the primacy of constitutionality, root out corruption and bring the dishonest to book. Looks like a tall order but it’s do-or-die, it’s Hobson’s choice. Abject populism, which is also to root of racism has reached the end of the road.
Can Ranil respect democracy, keep states of emergency and machine guns out of sight and tolerate freedoms. I am not confident though threats pushing the country towards anarchy are subsiding. The most militant, or at least some of the most combustible sections of the IUSF and FLSP are cooling off and internal debates within both movements is hotting up. This is despite strong and justified opposition to a Ranil presidency from many people because he has no electoral mandate.
Aragalaya must retain its youthful enthusiasm, energy and commitment, but It also needs to be smart and wise. This is not Petrograd 1917, it is not 1789 Paris; we are not on the cusp of a revolution and the IUSF, FLSP and for that matter the JVP must trim their sails accordingly. Had it been 1789 the Rajapaksa bandits, or whoever could be found of the Clan would have been carted off in tumbrils and entertained at the guillotine. The UK Lib-Dem leader has asked the Commons to issue an international arrest warrant against scoundrel-Gotha; I hope the Lib-Dems gets their warrant.
I have made it a point to buttonhole people from all walks of life to the point of being rude, obtrusive and indifferent to personal embarrassment (What’s new did I hear you say?). The general mood among people is that things will improve slowly over the next six months as a bourgeois-democratic government consolidates. If it’s a democracy, in the present circumstances, that’s a huge plus. Several weeks ago, I pleaded in this column that Sri Lanka is one of few surviving democracies, however imperfect in Asia, Africa and South and Central America. This is precious enough for India, the West, the IMF, democratic Asia and China to nurture and protect. In a world of rising extremism, neo-fascism and racism I repeat that plea.