By Siri Gamage –
On 20th July 2022 most Sri Lankans watched the events in Sri Lanka’s parliament with keen interest to see which candidate for the President was to be elected by parliamentarians to serve the balance of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s remaining term? In one sense it was a momentous day because people who are tired of old politics and protesting have been demanding a ‘system change’ to get over their short-term difficulties resulting from the shortages of food, fuel, medicine etc on one hand and the structural plus cultural problems in the politico-governance system on the other. They wanted to see a parliament and a President who are responsive to their needs and aspirations rather than a debating and discussion house focused on trivial issues or mudslinging at each other. The event was significant because under normal circumstances the executive President in the country is elected directly by people in a Presidential election. In this context, this election of a new President by parliamentarians was a unique event. Many tend to question whether the President thus elected and indeed the current parliament have the trust and confidence of the people from the last election when 69 million people voted for the former President Gotabaya. During the recent protests by those aligned with aragalaya have been arguing that the current system of governance -both political and economic- do not serve the interests of people at large. They have to be meaningful to the people outside those who hold levers of power.
Outcome of the ballot in parliament on that day will not satisfy many who look at the present condition and its causes from their own personal or political positions, particularly on the basis of negative ground experience. It will not satisfy those who are demanding an all-party government, including a consensus President and Prime Minister agreed by the parties represented in the parliament, to steady the ship. This may include the religious hierarchy, professional and civil society organisations, and of course aragalaya activists. Aragalaya activists want the government in place to implement their action plan. As Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected by a majority of parliamentarians, mostly from Podu Jana Peramuna, aragalaya activists are vowing to continue their struggle for a system change. National People’s Movement led by the JVP and others such as the Front Line Socialist party also follow a similar stance. Whether the current system of governance is to be preserved or protected is part of the current political and social discourse in Sri Lanka. It came to focus as a result of aragalaya activities centred around Gall face GotaGoHome makeshift village. When we talk about the system of governance it includes many layers and players. One layer or element that is being criticised widely is the centralised system of governance led by an executive president while the parliament has been made into a lame duck institution in the process of governance. People have criticisms about the public service and the absence of effective policy making to make a difference in people’s lives as well. This subject requires a lengthy examination and articulation at another time.
The distinction I like to emphasise here is between a President and a government that is patriotic and nationalist compared to partisan and narrow-minded one. Sri Lanka is in a dire situation economically and the decision-making or governance process at the national level has to be made efficient, cautious, consultative, wise and forward looking. This requires a cabinet and a Prime Minister who are able to examine issues at hand with the support of experts in various fields while being sensitive to the pulse of the nation. Collective wisdom should be the key rather than the exercise of individual authority over nationally significant decisions as traditional leaders used to do. A high degree of professionalism is necessary not only in policy formulation but also in securing the necessary support within the government before implementing them. A government that includes diverse parties and groups can provide challenges in this regard. However, with enough diplomacy they can be resolved internally.
Patriotism is an essential ideology and practice necessary at this juncture because if partisan politics is made the priority, Sri Lanka can face critical circumstances when it has to make compromises on its national sovereignty and/or independence. Partly such challenges can emerge from the economic crisis. Partly they can also emerge from geo-political circumstances in the region. As the country has been borrowing from regional powers heavily on a short-term basis and it will have to borrow more from the IMF and other international lenders in coming years, unless collective intelligence is not applied by a unitary cabinet and a President, the country can become highly dependent on external powers including the global market to the extent that it can lose its own identity, culture, uniqueness and the very existence. In the face of such a danger, it is imperative that parties and groups in the political sphere put down their weapons they usually employ in normal circumstances and work together to bring the situation under some control until the next election when people will have the opportunity to elect a government of their choice.
From the point of suffering masses, it is time that we all focus on assisting the vulnerable as we did during tsunami. On this front, Sri Lankan diaspora can be more proactive. Local organisations and the media can also play a critical role here. This means that the media and other opinion makers need to focus more on the social and economic welfare dimension rather than the political issues per se. Recently, the international media has been telecasting scenes from struggling families in Colombo. They show how children are being fed with very little to cook? Parental anxieties and paradoxes can be clearly seen from the faces shown. When we talk to family members at home, they explain the altered reality in the country due to the lack of fuel and inability to use their vehicles for transport or even hire a three-wheeler to go and see a doctor in an emergency. People are not living in normal times. It is an emergency situation (not the one declared by the acting president) in every sense. People need to pool their energies and wisdom to ride this rough period and find lasting solutions for the political and economic emergency. This is possible only through an interim arrangement like the one starting today. Whatever the pitfalls in the arrangement, Sri Lanka does not have another option to face the existential challenge it is facing. Working together should be the motto for the rest of this and next year.
However, in doing so more creative and productive ways to overcome the existential challenge need to be found. There are examples from the government and non-governmental sectors that can be harnessed for the betterment of the country. Recently I watched an interview with an entrepreneur who is producing apparels for export. He uses imported clothes for the purpose. His company provides a dividend to the employees from the profits. His aim is to pass on his share of the company to the people in time to come. Such an example shows a different kind of logic for organising enterprises on a basis other than the individual gain. Altruism is at play in this example. If the profit-making imperative is the only aim, as it is in the private sector today under the neoliberal economic doctrine, it can be exploitative to the nation’s end. As a country we have travelled on this path until we realise that the treasury is empty and there is no money to pay for the fuel, medicine or food.
A new government and a President have to look for different ways to build social enterprises, for example by using cooperative spirit and principles rather than pure competitive market principles and practices. This can be applied in awarding tenders or sourcing food, and other consumables. While the world economy is made up of the so-called free market where companies compete with each other to market their products and services supported by their governments, it is not impossible to find examples of socially responsible, sustainable practitioners and solutions to economic and social problems countries face. Sri Lankan leaders in the new government are well advised to search for such alternative, sustainable, community-oriented solutions to the country’s problems rather than rely more and more on the market principles and practices even though economic gurus trained in Western economic theories may advocate the latter. This is where some caution has to be exercised in seeking help from IMF even though it may be necessary in the interim.
All this requires community empowerment. As a concept and practice the political leaders in Sri Lanka did not show much interest in encouraging this in the past due to the fear of losing their voting banks. They thought community empowerment goes against their own power and their party prospects. This mentality needs to be abandoned now. Aragalaya has shown what can be achieved through community empowerment? It not only pooled members’ physical energies. Members pooled their ideas, aspirations and criticisms of the existing ways of thinking and doing to come up with an innovative way to struggle and influence the political authority in a short period of time. They put into practice ideas and agendas that we who work on the decolonisation of knowledge space discuss remotely when we examine problems of the dependent state, economy, education, social science and thinking in the global south. No doubt that the unique circumstances prevailing in the country produced a pantheon of civil activists who could take on the might of a political and economic establishment with their sheer determination and activism. However, what they have achieved so far shows the possibilities for creating different ways of thinking and doing to overcome the fundamental issues facing the nation. I hope the newly elected president and the government will embrace this new approach to governance and politics free from corruption and work together to achieve the necessary outcomes for the good of the country and its people setting aside narrow considerations -be they party political, ethnic, religious or regional! This is imperative because Sri Lanka has a difficult path to travel in the coming years in order to establish normalcy. There is no need to declare emergency by gazette notifications because emergency is already there in terms of people’s survival capacity.
It is reported that last night (21st July 2022), after the new president’s swearing in ceremony, troops moved to the Gall Face protest site and forcibly removed protesters. Videos circulating in the social media and reproduced in mainstream media show they were using heavy handed tactics to chase the protesters away. If this is an indication of the new president Wickremesinghe’s approach to solving the systemic issues at a time when the population is going through severe hardships, it will ultimately fail. What is necessary is a consensual and consultative approach for long term sustainability of the system. Given that Sri Lanka has had a bloodied past both in the south and the north, people do not need hardline approaches from their rulers. Instead the rulers need to listen to the people who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the system of governance in multiple ways. It is far better for the authorities to encourage positive initiatives rather than pushing the people, in particular youthful. Segment, toward anti systemic struggles. They are seeking a just society.it was promised by former president JRJ in late 70s and during the decades following the system has become more unjust. This is the reason why there is an aragalaya (struggle or confrontation).