By Laksiri Fernando –
“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” ~ Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The current protests in Sri Lanka are multitude. The most influential has been the Galle Face protests, Aragalaya (Struggle), now exceeding two months. After a halfhearted governmental change, some of the participants must be staying at home or going for work, carefully watching the situation. However, it is superficial to say that the protests are waning out.
It is basically the Galle Face protests that could achieve (1) ousting of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, (2) Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept failures as a President, (3) for him to compromise in forming a new Cabinet, and (4) now Basil Rajapaksa to resign from his parliamentary membership.
There are some slogans or demands which are idealistic or difficult to achieve. For example, to oust all 225 members of Parliament can be considered one of those. However, it can be symbolic to mean holding of new general elections to elect a new and more people friendly 225 Members of Parliament.
Galle Face protests also have a black mark. At least some of the factions, getting involved in violent reactions against government MPs and destroying their properties. Most atrocious is the killing of MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala who however himself had involved in shooting at protesters and reportedly killing one. There were six others who were killed during the events. These events must be another reason why some of the sections now not participating in the protests.
Role of Protests
It was in 1960/1970s that I encountered protest movements first as a university student and then as a young academic. Apart from some of my involvements, I was the Editor of the fortnight newspaper Virodaya (Protest) which became banned in 1971. It had nothing to do with the JVP, and disapproved violence.
Historically, the working class took a leading role in social change and achieved trade union rights, five day working week, minimum wage for working people and even universal franchise, internationally. In Sri Lanka, 1953 Hartal (Boycott) was one example. In Russia and China, there were even revolutions.
1960s were different. Students, the young and women took a leading role. Paris, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo played a leading role in young and student protests. Among other explanations, ‘generational struggle’ was one interpretation for the new movements. Lewis Feuer (The Conflict of Generations, 1969) was one of the pioneers of these studies. However, many of the protests were open to many or any section of the society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights said the following in the Preamble.
“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,”
Do we have tyranny and oppression? First it was against the minorities (1958, 1983). Now it is extended to all sections. Rathupaswala and conspiracy against Aragalaya at Temple Trees were two examples of how tyranny works.
It is the duty of an elected government in a country like Sri Lanka to manage the economy properly and deliver the day-to-day necessities of the people. A decade ago, Sri Lanka appeared to be an economically stable and promising country. However, corruption and fraud remained. All these are human rights issues directly and indirectly.
Aragalaya is not the only protest. Before that, widespread protests took place by the peasants and farmers against the sudden chemical fertilizer ban and dictatorially ordering of farmers to use organic fertilizer without any preparation or assistance. Those were widespread throughout the country even to characterize them as a people’s uprising. Now the farmers are affected by the fuel and gas shortages, and machinations of the big rice mill owners. They are still protesting intermittently.
Spontaneous protests also have erupted when people had to line up in queues first to obtain cooking gas, then fuel (petrol and desal), and now even food. People had become impatient and attacked workers or owners of those shops which cannot be condoned by anyone. There is massive unrest among university students because of the closing down of universities and other issues. The authorities should resolve these problems with the students, allowing them to represent their views and involving them in university administration. Therefore, there is no one protest, but multitude of them in the country.
Violation of Human Rights
People are suffering from the scarcity of food, fuel, gas, medicine, and electricity for the last six months. Still there are long queues even after a cabinet change. Some of the senseless statements by the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, aggravates the speculations. What are being violated are the economic and social rights of the people by an elected government. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says the following.
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (Article 25).
Of course, there are so many countries falling behind these standards. However, in Sri Lanka’s case these conditions were largely there until those were destroyed by the government, and bureaucrats through mismanagement, fraud, and corruption.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power promising ‘vistas of prosperity.’ However, the reality is the opposite. He wants to stick to the position, ‘I can’t go as a failed president.’ This cannot be justified. He could and should go. Election to a position, as a MP or President, does not give an absolute right to anyone to remain in that position.
UDHR says, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” (Article 21). People, in the case of Aragalaya, have a right to take part in the government directly and indirectly, as the freely chosen representatives have utterly failed. Parliamentary decisions, debates and proceedings are a clear reflection of their failure.
UDHR further says, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” This is further explained saying, “this will/shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage etc.” The will of the people is the basis of the government and any government. A term of office should not be fixed especially in unstable political conditions like in Sri Lanka. This mistake was done even in the 19th Amendment.
People can make mistakes at elections. When the elected representatives degenerate or the mandate becomes controversial, people should have the right to go for new elections and change the government and members of parliament for betterment of the country. Ranil Wickremesinghe does not have a people’s mandate to become the Prime Minister.
According to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is in the people. Article 3 clearly says, “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights, and the franchise.” Of course, one can argue that Article 4 conditions this sovereignty. However, sovereignty is not a power that could be conditioned from above. It is inalienable.
Just because a parliament is elected or a president is elected, sovereignty of the people does transfer to those institutions. Even in between elections, sovereignty remains with the people. When an elected authority abuse power, people can exercise sovereignty through expressing views, opposition, protest and even rebellion as the Universal Declaration says. However, non-violence is the most effective, reasonable, and legitimate way of using that sovereignty.
Aragalaya in this sense, until it was tarnished during the counter violence in reaction to Temple Trees coup, was a proper exercise of sovereignty of the people. Sovereignty can be exercised individually and collectively. However, when it is exercised in a limited or sectional manner, the people who exercise it should also be mindful of their limitations. This moderation has come back again to Aragalaya in my opinion and observation. This is one reason why it should be supported by broader sections.
Today democracy and good governance are in shambles. Confusion at the highest level is increasing. The newest scandal is about what the Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board stated before the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) that Gotabaya Rajapaksa told him that he has influence from the Indian PM, Narendra Modi, ‘to give the wind power project in Mannar to Adani.’ The President has denied the claim, and the CEB Chairman has now apologized! (See The Island Editorial, 14 June). This is just after few days when the government passed an electricity amendment bill in which tender procedures were abandoned.
All these indicate that the present governmental changes are not going in the rights direction. Sri Lanka at present talk about local government and provincial council elections. What might be most important is to have elections for the presidency and parliament first.