By Ameer Ali –
Good Riddance of Bad Rubbish! Fugitive Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) has at last come to his senses and formally resigned as Sri Lanka’s most hated president. He could not have chosen a more inauspicious month to abdicate than July, because it was on 24th July 1983, the first Executive President of this country, JR Jayewardene, lost his sanity and blessed an anti-Tamil pogrom, which lasted for seven days, causing deaths, destruction and bloodshed, and earned a sobriquet, Black July. Today, Black July is commemorated every year at least by the Tamil community at home and abroad. It was that pogrom, which snowballed over the years and culminated in a civil war, described as “Gota’s War”, by one of GR’s paean writers, and the cost of that war was so colossal that it was the primary cause for the country’s current financial bankruptcy, worsened by the systematic loot of Rajapaksas. It took thirteen years for the teen agers during that war to realize the dangers of the ideological paradigm that had driven this nation to become an international pariah. Today’s aragalaya is the result of that realization.
Pretending to be the protector of Buddhist Sasana, an arrogant GR failed to read the pulse of the nation when aragalaya youth put up the slogan, “Gota Go Home”, which spread like wild fire, and condemned himself to be thrown into the dustbin of history, “unwept, unhonoured and unsung”. Had he chosen an earlier date he could have departed with some self-respect. But today his arrogance had brought nothing but humiliation and after several attempts he is reported to have landed in Singapore, looking for a permanent domicile. Would he be admitted back into the US, which citizenship he claimed to have renounced, thanks to his Muslim attorney and the oversight of the election commissioner, before becoming eligible to contest Sri Lanka’s presidency? At last, the nation is celebrating his resignation. (Incidentally, Sri Lankans have not lost their sense of humour even in the midst of suffering, as one of them said that they are expecting the next shipment of petroleum to arrive from a company owned by Rajapaksas).
However, the immediate aftermath of GR’s departure does not seem to augur well for the expected dawn of a new era, to which the aragalaya youth had dedicated themselves with heavy sacrifices. It appears that GR’s parting gift to a devastated country is to facilitate the unelected Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) to capture the presidency and rule for the rest of its current term. But the youth are not going to allow a man who shamelessly offered himself to become a stopgap Prime Minister in order to protect the interests of Rajapaksas, to continue protecting their interests by being a President. They are also aware that RW would be the last man to work with them to bring about the systemic or paradigmatic change, which they believe is the ultimate solution to the dawn of a new era. The six demands submitted by them to an interim government, if implemented, would pave the way towards that dawn. RW would have none of it and if appointed as President he is determined to uphold the current constitution and thinks rather optimistically that once the economic and financial difficulties are overcome with IMF’s and other agencies’ assistance normality would return. He is obviously expecting the SLPP mob inside the parliament to rally behind him. Aragalaya’s next phase has begun and it is going to be a tougher battle than the first.
For the moment, however, things are moving along a confrontational direction with RW acting as president clamping down curfews and ordering the arrest of so-called unruly individuals, which is a euphemism to target the aragalaya youth. He has already called them fascists. RW may also have a personal grudge against the protestors, because he seems to think that those youth were the ones responsible for the arson attack on his private residence. There is a reasonable chance that if he were to become the interim president, he would become Sri Lanka’s el-Sisi? Like JR inaugurating the 1983 Black July, RW may inaugurate its 2022 version, not against the Tamils but against the youth of this country.
In this context, one is again tempted to look back what happened in Tahrir Square where also a leaderless youth demanding the ouster of a tyrant president and demanding democracy with freedom and dignity was finally betrayed by the old guards. The interim government of the Islamic Brotherhood was never expected to last. After a short period of waiting and preparation, ancient regime came back with vengeance, massacring around 800 protestors, declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and throwing President Mohamed Morsi into prison where he was left to die. Because of the centrality of Egypt in the Arab world external powers were keen to protect the old order.
When the Egyptian parallel was drawn a few months ago when aragalaya began, few observers refused to accept it and dismissed the idea of comparing Galle Face Green and aragalaya with Tahrir square and its protestors. But given the geostrategic location of the island and the competing interests of rivalling powers, the progress of aragalaya would be closely monitored. Even IMF would prefer the old order to persist. Among the political parties that are currently represented in the parliament, except JVP and its NPP affiliate, hardly any other shows sincere willingness for a paradigmatic shift. Because, they stand to gain under the old order. Their support for and sympathy with aragalaya is therefore mostly opportunistic, and when time and circumstance turn propitious, they would be ready to pull the rug. Already, the leader of the 43-Brigade, an ethnonationalist, has asked aragalaya leaders to contest elections under the existing system. That would be suicidal for the youngsters who want a new order. Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, a former supporter of SLPP, is demanding the protestors to vacate the presidential place. Their continuous occupation has become an irritant to the ones who are aspiring to occupy it next. If RW were to become president it would be a matter of time before he calls the tri-forces to clean up Galle Face and finish off the aragalaya, all in the name of maintaining law and order. Whether the forces would obey his command is another matter. This is why the situation is too tempting to draw the Cairo parallel once again,
History may not repeat itself. However, as the renowned novelist Mark Twain modified it, “history does not repeat itself, it rhymes”. How it is going to rhyme in Sri Lanka would determine whether this year’s July would be Black July II or Bright July for a new dawn. Aragalaya’s next phase had begun and it is going to be a tough one.
* Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia