By Sisira Gamanayake –
Commenting on the failure of liberal project, Nyabola states that people are now struggling with the promises of the liberal order. It seems ‘increasingly hollow and even dangerous as they consolidate wealth and power in a global oligarchic class that will go to all lengths to ensure its own survival’. She further says, ‘Building representative and inclusive societies that respond coherently to the demands of citizens is a noble goal. The idea of human rights as a framework for protecting lives is critical to the survival of the species; the alternative is survival predicated on how much money and power one has access to’ (New Internationalist 2020). These observations are applicable to what is happening in Sri Lanka or to be accurate what is not happening?
Struggle(aragalaya) or the popular uprising and protest movement in Sri Lanka emerged as a result of the frustrations of citizens in various sectors about the inefficient economic management/mismanagement and the way the political culture and establishment had been constructed over decades to serve the interests of ruling political elites from a few families rather than the broader population. The police and security establishment have been transformed to serve the interests of privileged sections of society rather than caring for the wider population or providing security for all with respect and care. Police officers in stations function as “punitive agencies” rather than ones serving the interests of citizens in the 21st century. The corrupt governance system that ran Sri Lanka since independence not only bankrupted the country with unmanageable foreign loans from both the government and private sectors but also undermined the rights of citizens to express their opposition publicly without reprisals from the police or security establishment. In the past, those who dared to express opinions publicly including journalists paid the ultimate price. The internal slavery like system prevailing in the countryside in particular due to the politicisation of government administration, the police and security establishment serving the interests of politicians rather than the people denies people the freedom to live in a society where their dignity and freedoms are respected by those in power and authority. It also does not fulfil the aspirations of younger generation in a genuine sense. An almost colonial like hierarchical system is in place in post-independent Sri Lanka to control or thwart the innovative and creative abilities of citizens for collective good.
In the weeks following the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka’s executive President by parliamentarians from the pro-Rajapaksa party Podu Jana Peramuna (PJP), we have seen arrests of aragalaya activists, trade union leaders, and youths from outlying areas who came to see the occupied President’s office and the official residence, Prime Minister’s official residence etc. Activists and trade unionists are spending more time in the country’s notorious police stations, Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D) and the courts system today than protesting in the streets. It is reported that some student leaders from student organisations have been charged with several court cases requiring them to appear before the courts on multiple occasions. More than 3000 aragalaya activists have been arrested in since the current President came to power through legislative manoeuvrings. Wasantha Mudalige, the firebrand student leader of Inter University Students Federation was arrested while fleeing the scene on a motor bike after a protest march he led in Colombo was attacked by the police and special task force with batons, water cannon etc and chased the protesters away. At the time the emergency law was in force. After the expiry of 72 hours, the defence minister who is also the President has signed an order to detain him for another 90 days under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) about which there have been severe criticism nationally and internationally over decades because of its use by the police and security forces to mistreat detainees. The legal system in the country is jammed with scores of aragalaya leaders and activists while the government is busy expanding the detention and rehabilitation centres. Soon we will even see the dawn of a re-education program for former aragalaya activists in order to bring them into line with so-called state ideology-Kim Il-Sung style. After all, Ranil, the PM and some old hands in the ruling junta ae familiar and experienced with similar arrangements in the 70s and 80s.
The political discourse today is no more about the abolition of executive presidency, change of constitution, charging those politicians in government who are accused of corruption, developing better economic policies or good governance. Suddenly, by the very actions of the President and his government has been able to change the nature of political discourse away from the critical issues highlighted by aragalaya activists and their supporters. They also restricted the time available for aragalaya activists and trade unionists to wage further protest action. The Police and other law enforcement personnel have been given powers to actively seek out protest leaders and activists and arrest them with a view to producing before the courts. However most get bail as the evidence against them seems to be weak. But the process itself creates alarm, doubt, anxiety, hesitation, caution and disappointment among aragalaya leaders and activists. This is a political drama or conspiracy of the highest order constructed by the deep state to thwart the momentum created by argalaya leaders and activists to throw a flash light on many shortcomings of the existing system (of governance) and come up with alternative proposals for reform.
Why did this change of discourse and political direction happen? What does all this mean for aragalaya, trade unions and others involved in the protests against the current government? How should they react in a way that they don’t draw further suppression by the government, the police, CID and security forces?
Why did this change in discourse and Political direction happen?
After a prolonged protest campaign and the ouster of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, aragalaya leaders and activists were tired and decided to take a rest. Many moved away from the Galle Face protest site. There was a debate about whether to move away or not among various groups but ultimately as the numbers depleted, the final lot also moved away in the face of increasing pressure from the police who obtained court orders for the protest site to be cleared.
One can understand why many decided to move away. Primary concern among some protesters was to give the new president time to settle in and find his foot in the government, restore normalcy and initiate the plans for economic recovery as well as course correction measures in terms of the political process and governance system change. Little they realised that the new President will use the powers he acquired fulfilling one of his long-held dreams to suppress aragalaya and its ideals as well as the plans for system change presented to the leaders of government and opposition in the dying days of aragalaya.
Many are talking about why he is doing this? The main reason seems to be his anger for burning down his personal home. But a more credible reason is that the government wants to reinforce the ‘system’ – meaning the power of the government that he leads and the parties involved. The claim that law and order need to be restored is a noble ideal but the way the police, state intelligence, and special task force etc. are going about doling it seems to be highly questionable, unethical and concerning. Political imperatives seem to be dictating the whole process rather than the need to restore law and order per se because there have been very little unruly actions that can be ascribed to protesters in the recent weeks. Persecution of those involved in aragalaya seems to be at the core of the exercise.
What does all this mean?
For some unknown reasons, the former president Gotabaya did not take pro-active steps to suppress aragalaya other than to unsuccessfully employ police and security forces to protect himself and government from activists whose struggle assumed “a radical turn” in the late stages of aragalaya. Ultimately, he failed and had to flee the country. The new President, even at the expense of international disrepute, has decided to go about using the police and security forces to not only punish those involved in aragalaya but also to close the spaces available for future aragalaya activities by creating fear. At the same time pro government media are active in tarnishing aragalaya activists with various unfounded accusations.
With the turn of events, the President has secured lost ground for the ruling junta to some extent while parties in the opposition are confused as to how to respond? If the parties like JVP/NPP or FSP decide to launch further protest action, there is a possibility that the government may use the police, special police and security forces to confront them – though this did not happen in the recent Nugegoda protest march and rally organised by the JVP/NPP with a huge turnout. It is also possible that the government may impose a ban on such progressive parties on grounds of national security at a time chosen by the government. This can be a huge blow not only to the parties concerned but for the democratic tradition in the country and future prospects for a reconciled country. Another motive by the President may be to entice opposition parties and politicians to join the national/all party government that he plans to establish. ome of those in the opposition may be motivated to join such a government without being in the opposition attracted by the offers of ministerial posts and the perks that come with them.
After all the invisible hand of defence advisors like Prof. Rohan Gunarathna seems to be at work here. He was an advisor to the former President who was actively involved in various activities to do with the Kothalawala Defence Academy. He is a well-known terrorism specialist and the Director of terrorism research unit in a major Singapore university.
For the parties like JVP and FSP, the options are limited. Given by their experiences in 1971 and 1988/89, resorting to armed struggle is not an option even though a primary intention of the government may be to entice them to follow that path allowing it to suppress the parties and their activists more and even detain them for prolonged periods. At present, the political discourse and energies of the parties like JVP/NPP and FSP are spent on countering the government action for suppressing dissent and trampling on civic, political and human rights of citizens to engage in protests, peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and so on. Do they have a strategy to face future scenarios from an increasingly hostile and nervous President and a government adopting Chinese, Russian and North Korean style suppression measures?
Ideology and Practice of Repression (Mardanaya)
This is the state ideology used in the 1970s and 80s in Sri Lanka when the country was enveloped with armed uprisings from the South. Ranil’s government is adopting the same ideology and associated practices today in a radically changed environment in the aftermath of aragalaya – a national re-awakening. However, the younger generation then and now are totally different. Today it is well educated, connected and tech savvy. This is seen from the number of u-tubers who provide live reports of events from the street. The world is also watching events with keen interest. Today the younger generation is fully aware of what they have lost due to the continuation of a system that is rotten to the core. Any attempt to maintain it without radical change by Ranil – led junta is bound to fail. He is providing political cover to the Rajapaksa family who robbed the future of Sri Lanka by following mardanaya and reviving a war time mentality to address current problems and demands from the suffering people. This policy can succeed in countries like China, North Korea and Russia but not in Sri Lanka.
Ranil’s anti-human, anti-rights mardanaya policy and ideology should be defeated by progressive forces at any cost but not by exposing to the government agenda unnecessarily but by developing a carefully thought out plan of public resistance. Instead of the internal colonialism and slavery that the ruling elites have created, a new Lanka needs to be born. A government that is not listening to the main message from aragalaya for a system change cannot keep the lid on popular uprising and protest action by the use of police powers and the slow moving, complex legal system as well as phrases like law and order any longer as the naked truth about what has been going on is visible to most citizens and the world.
Current geopolitical situation is also not in Ranil’s favour unless the junta he leads sacrifices national assets and sovereignty for material gain to solve the economic crisis facing the country.
How should the Opposition parties and aragalaya activists Respond?
The main factor is not to be caught up in the trap that Ranil has constructed by state suppression. The author remembers how the United Front government used measures of suppression including arrest and detention of Sinhalese freedom fighters before the 1971 April insurrection. At the time, even the leaders of JVP were detained. At the moment there is no such prospect or even the conditions for such action. However, governments cannot be trusted when the political survival is in question. Rulers can adopt irrational measures to remain in power. Trumped up charges can be levelled against the leaders of progressive parties in the opposition in a manner that they can be detained for prolonged periods by using the PTA or other available legal instruments so that they have to spend more time inside a jail than on the streets.
The leaders of progressive opposition parties cannot be siting ducks. They have to be active in aragalaya for a system change. They need to rally forces fighting for this goal under the changed circumstances.
Instead of politics of envy, it is better if they spend more time explaining their alternative plans and policies to the people than criticising Rajapaksas, Ranil and his associates in the UNP and PJP. This way the attention can be focused on issues that matter rather than on mardanaya (suppression) alone.
New and Different Strategies
New and different strategies for aragalaya are required to face the new situation. They can be divided into national and international.
How far the aragalaya activists and participants tolerate the attempt by the police and CID etc to frame them under various charges and bring before the courts with the intention of further detention needs careful consideration.One can understand why they follow the directions given by the police and CID etc to the letter but whether there are alternatives to attending police stations and courts needs consideration including the organisation of a large Satyagraha campaign on specific days.
The weaknesses of the legal process that entrusts the police and CID so much power of arrest and detention needs to be highlighted especially for the attention of international legal, political and constitutional bodies.
The idea of National Council of aragalaya leaders needs active consideration. Instead of multipole and dispersed (weak) voices on the government’s suppression measures and the impact on civic, political and human rights, this can provide a single venue for voices of aragalaya that is able to send out press releases, periodic press conferences, and also function as a coordination centre. It can provide a focal point for the press, embassies, NGOs etc and Sri Lanka watchers all over. Even for the government, this can be a potential consultative mechanism.
From Aragalaya activists to Freedom Fighters
Given the manner struggles for freedom have evolved in other parts of the world, especially in former colonies, and the way the situation evolves in Sri Lanka, it may be necessary for aragalaya activists to consider transforming themselves to be freedom fighters instead of token protesters. Given the matters at stake including the potential alienation of national assets to foreign interests, further dependency on foreign capital and powers for survival, and internal slavery like system that the elitist political families want to maintain with an iron grip on the citizenry by the use of police, CID, State intelligence services, special task forces, and regular security forces, such a consideration may be necessary sooner than later. By a freedom fighter, I do not mean someone carrying a gun. But a trained and highly informed citizen who is able to not only understand the present predicament, risks as well as an anti-hegemonic agenda but also articulate the way forward in terms of political discourse, coordination of activities, unwavering commitment to the struggle, and sacrifice. One wo will not sacrifice his/her colleagues for the enemy at any cost.
Diaspora communities spread around the world should establish similar People’s Councils in each country with links to the national council.
If the situation worsens in the country, establishing a government in exile should be considered. There are historical precedents for such an arrangement e.g. East Timor. During the anti-apartheid struggle, South African Congress also had similar organisation overseas.
Once People’s Councils in each country are established, they should nominate a person for media contact. They could organise meetings with politicians in their countries, letter writing campaigns etc. Approach journalists to educate the situation in Sri Lanka is another task.
Protests in the streets are only one way to express objections to government approach, action and policies. There are many other ways that a protest or struggle can be conducted. This article explained some. Aragalaya activists, leaders and opposition parties need to re-focus the way they respond to the new approach adopted by Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, plan their future agenda carefully, develop strategy and communication/education methods before the public protests are launched. One main consideration is not to make leaders vulnerable to actions by the police, CID and security forces unnecessarily. Energies should be devoted to well-planned strategies that can make a difference in terms of changing the course that Ranil has adopted and bring about system change for a better Sri Lanka.