By Mohamed Harees –
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” ~ [Remarks in the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962]”― John F. Kennedy
Much water has flown under the ‘Post Aragalaya’ bridge! Today, Ranil-Rajapaksa, as referred by his rivals, RW has assumed the highest office in the Island. While on the run, Gotabaya appointed (then) PM RW as Acting President, which enraged the protestors. An ostensible political rival, he had saved the Rajapaksa family from prosecution when they were out of power between 2015 and 2019. Just like his prime ministership in the Yahapalana government, he continues to defend the Rajapakse legacy even after his win in July Presidential election, built on the back of the Rajapaksa family party’s parliamentary numbers. RW needs public support which he and his government doesn’t really have right now. As Keenan told CNBC-TV.com recently. ”If you begin with a president who is not liked a lot, not trusted (and) seen as allied with the bad people who just ruined the economy, it will much harder for the people to accept reforms he would bring in the economy”.
Sri Lanka and its people are still in the eye of the storm. A corrupt inept political elite, especially the Rajapaksa family dynasty crippled its economy, leaving the country on the edge of bankruptcy and despair. The worsening economic crisis in the country spared no one. As the World Food Programme, the food assistance branch of the United Nations said, “Over five million people (in Sri Lanka) are reportedly skipping meals to get by”. Some economic experts say it will take until 2030 for Sri Lanka to achieve sustainable economic recovery. They say that the government needs to restructure its debt, boost exports, and establish a social protection scheme. Socially too, the wounded nation is yet to heal the scars of its long drawn civil war and multiple riots that have resulted in the loss of innocent lives. Racial hatred became the order of the day. The millions who hit the streets nationwide called for wide political and social reforms and wanted the whole rotten 225 lot out to create a cleaner and more equitable Sri Lanka. However, out of this reawakening came another Rajapaksa , which frustrated the aspirations of the people who turned on them to the drumbeats of the Rajapaksa camp.
Yes! the scores of ordinary masses who came out in protest called for a credible political leadership and a national recovery plan. The protesting public in the nationwide Aragalaya demanded only a government that can command the support of the people to pull the country out of the abyss. Unfortunately, RW upon his victory showed his obstinacy, which became a catalyst for a renewed round of confrontation by allowing an open onslaught at the Aragalaya site. Instead of uniting the nation on a common national agenda, RW referring to the protesters in general as terrorists and extremists and ordering arrests of those who were prominent in the Aragalaya, led to a polarisation, resulting in even greater instability. It is hard to see how his heavy-handed attempts to suppress the people’s movement will lead to a constructive way forward. His continued political machinations were said to have profound and potentially disastrous effects on a nation seeking salvation from the brink of bankruptcy.
As two political economists Devaka Gunawardena and Ahilan Kadirgamar say in an article in the ‘Wire’, “It is very likely that Wickremesinghe’s current power grab will continue to incite such forces, leading to further polarisation on both a national and regional level. Instead of demanding progressive reform, as the current protest movement calls for, these demagogic and xenophobic forces could eventually displace the peaceful and plural movement for change. They may even capture the praetorian state that Wickremesinghe is now constructing and apply it to even more distasteful ends, given the history of ethnic polarisation and violence in the country… His appointment represents a form of presidential revanchism in response to the massive people’s movement that ousted Gotabaya.”
They end their well-articulated article stating “..The path to recovery in Sri Lanka depends on taking the demands of the movement seriously. These include the need for a politically acceptable interim President who is circumscribed in the powers he exercises, and who is oriented toward the goal of abolishing the Executive Presidency. Furthermore, popular oversight of the existing Parliament, given the collapse of its mandate, must be institutionalised. Only a fulfilment of the goals of the people’s movement offers hope for an end to the legacy of the Rajapaksas..”
Despite RW having decades of political experience, sadly he carries lot of baggage too. The protesters see RW as a defender of the corrupt Rajapakse legacy and part of a corrupt system that they want to change”. Experts believe that any attempt to quell the protest, if it seems too harsh, may turn out to be a political mistake. “The challenge is going to be how to tackle people and citizen’s movement and how they hold protests keeping in view the situation”. He needs public support and confidence, without which it’s very difficult to restore the economy and keep the economic activities going”. RW and his hastily put together cabinet has lost credibility. Everyone is looking for it. Many complain of its absence. It is credibility, the cornerstone of political life and of the democratic system which is as much praised as neglected. Credibility is one of those indispensable political qualities that barely rates a mention when it is there. Yet when it is missing, nothing else matters as much.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recently strongly condemned the repeated declaration of a state of emergency since April 2, 2022, to quell civil protests amid the stifling economic crisis in the country. The statement said, that “the frequent ’emergencies’ hinder people from voicing their grievances amidst the economic collapse in the country. We have raised our concerns to the Government on a number of occasions over the misuse of emergency measures, but to no avail. We condemn the recent and continued abuse of such measures to infringe on the legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression”.
In Sri Lanka, as in many other nations across the world, there is an imperative need to revisit the very idea of democracy. The legitimacy of any government is built on the people and their rights, not on loans. Political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who advanced the idea of a social contract said the purpose of the sovereign is to carry forward the ‘general will.’ In the practical sense, the consent of the people is what allows any government to work. The purpose of the social contract is to avoid the ‘state of nature’ situation and to provide stability and security for the development and freedom of everyone. The Rajapaksa government failed to provide this. High inflation and lack of access to essentials have pushed people into acute poverty. Thus, the government’s irresponsibility and unsustainable policies did not just hurt people physically and financially, it also led to an emotional drive to protest against the corrupt system; people felt they needed to save their land. The contract is a two-way transaction; if one side does not keep its promise, the consent is broken. In such cases, the state needs to be reshaped – not just the government, but the entire socio-political structure of the country.
Sri Lanka is hungry for change, but not on the lines of patch up work RW is putting together both economically and politically, with his political survival in mind. This nation needs a massive paradigm shift. The plan of action outlined by the Aragalaya movement refers to a paradigm shift approach. Stephen Covey in his #1 National Bestseller – 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, teaches us that “Almost every significant breakthrough in society, in business, in scientific endeavour, and in progress is first a break with tradition, with old ways of thinking and with old paradigms. Sri Lanka cannot continue within the prevailing social culture but need to build a new social composition to live as one inclusive society that is based on human rights and fundamental freedoms, cultural and religious diversity, truth and social justice, special needs for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and democratic participation and the rule of law. Sri Lanka cannot continue with the present corrupt and elitist political system.
The people of the country have achieved through the Aragalaya what political parties have failed to do for decades. Yes! on the positive side, Sri Lanka offers the spectacular narrative of a nation that has come together in mass protest and peacefully achieved what an electoral process could not. The existing fault lines in the way ethnicity and religion intersect got blurred, to protest in a manner not seen before. However, the worrying trend RW has been spearheading after his election as the Head of State, appears to lead to a very worrying, polarized, authoritarian, almost fascist rule, with the military/law enforcement authorities and/or various actors getting together and deciding to completely repress this people’s movement branding it terror prone/extremist.
This is a non-violent, yet a revolutionary struggle that requires revolutionary means. This is by far the most formidable protest in the history of the country over the past two centuries. It has completely shaken up state and society. By rising up onto their feet, the masses in Sri Lanka have awakened the imagination and courage of millions of people, workers and the poor fighting against the effects of an utterly corrupt, inept and a socially unjust system of governance. The only legitimate government is one originating from a fresh election mandate, and the living forces of the Aragalaya uprising itself. There has to be a change in the way politics is conducted in Sri Lanka to tackle the crisis. People are demanding more accountability and less corruption. Among their calls were also an end to the state-sanctioned oppression on the basis of religion and ethnicity, the extradition and popular trial of Rajapaksas and their stooges for corruption, the release of all political prisoners, independent investigations into the mass disappearances, the scraping of the draconian ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act,’ and to grant the human rights assured in the Constitution; most important of all being the right to freedom of expression, which is being blatantly violated.
Overall, building a credible nation over a political cesspit will be futile and where Sri Lanka goes next is not clear yet. But right now this is something that needs to be applauded; there is an awakened electorate and a cornered political leadership. Perhaps the experts predict that common suffering Sri Lankans are experiencing could be even the antidote to the island’s ethnocracy. But knowing the Nation’s sorry past, it would be foolish to just bank on that outcome for the moment.
Regardless of the setbacks and uncertainties, Sri Lankan citizens have an opportunity to build on this moment and create a new vision for their country. They can address structural inequalities and violence while demanding social and economic justice, political accountability, and a new culture of governance. Thus there is hope , though this transformation to build a new Sri Lanka on a new solid foundation will be a very painful process, and it will take some time. And it will likely worsen the country’s turmoil in the days ahead. We must wait and see whether the people’s revolution will lead to significant political and economic transformation in Sri Lanka. Yes! this task will not be easy, nor will the results be immediate. However, the changes brought about in the last few months give hope that sustained, innovative, and inclusive citizen mobilization has a chance to transform Sri Lanka.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”― Buckminster Fuller