By Vishwamithra –
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” ~ Charlotte Brontë
April 3, 2020 was the day. Sporadic yet peaceful and determined protesters roamed the streets in the country. They stretched from Colombo to Kandy to Galle to Vavunia. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the President, Mahinda, the Prime Minister and Namal, the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports. Basil Rajapaksa was still the Minister of Finance. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had declared a state of emergency on Friday, April 1 (April Fool’s Day) as the Indian Ocean island-nation grappled with rising prices, scarcities of essentials and regular power cuts. On Saturday, the government enforced a countrywide curfew after protests turned out of control.
When the severity of economic crisis was being felt on the belly of all segments of the population, on Sunday, April 3, the protesters determined to defy a nationwide curfew; while the police used tear gas to disperse student protesters in the central city of Kandy, they, the students, did not budge. Ominous signals of a grander event sprang up at every corner of a peaceful Island-country whose only experience with a political uprising was as far back as 1987-1989, except, of course, the ethnic conflict with the North-based Tamil militants who battled their own war for their own piece of land called Elam.
On the broad canvas of national life, among the various and inscrutable lines, are found some abstract nuances which often escape an intellectually incurious mind. It is that intellectually incurious mind most of our population possesses. A collective mindset that has been conditioned by the fairytale sagas of the Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle) for successive generations cannot be undone in one single generational uprising. Modern society’s development and its growth precisely owing to the first industrial revolution that introduced the steam engine then the second with, the age of science and mass production, and the rise of digital technology giving birth to the third industrial revolution, the world around us fundamentally changed. The current youth generation all over the world that is adapting itself to the marvels and innovations of the digital age are fast passing by the old. Unless the old chooses to embrace these new technological advancements, history would not have any space for the contemporaneous age.
That digital revolution has charmed the young in Sri Lanka too and it’s utterly futile to stem their rapid and enchanted advancement by imposing numerous restraints and prohibitions. Nobody could imprison the Neanderthals in their caves forever.
Romanticism associated with violent revolutions and mass movements is quite hard to comprehend yet its inherent glamor and glory are essentially their integral elements. People’s, especially of the youth, magic-like attachment to politically motivated movements cannot be eliminated from any serious discussion on current affairs of any country. Sri Lanka cannot escape from that paradigm.
It is in such a broadly philosophical context that we need to pay our attention to the so-called ‘Throne Speech’ which was delivered by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in his latest press briefing outlined very valid and sharp criticisms on Ranil’s speech. AKD and his JVP along with the solitary Sarath Fonseka still remain doggedly committed to the ideals and aims of the Aragalaya on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, the general optics of their recent conduct, both inside and outside Parliament, renders neither a bright nor an optimistic promise for a short or midterm prognosis.
The leaders of the conventional political parties seem to be more fatigued than those of the Aragalaya, thereby affirming the public perception that there is no option other than a total ‘system change’. At the same time, all the traditional party leaders, in the midst of the most politically significant social uprising, seem to be clinging on to an outdated concept that enacting political transformation could be attained within the framework of the current constitution. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected in terms of the constitution and he governed in the same terms. But he was not ousted according to the constitution. The only way in which a President could have been replaced before his term of office is completed is either by way of an impeachment or physical incapacity or death of the President or resignation on his own volition.
Gotabaya was forced by the Aragalaya to flee the country and there is no chapter, article of verse in our constitution to say that the incumbent could be replaced by force of an Aragalaya. When the Aragalaya achieved one of its premier demands of ousting of Mahinda Rajapaksa from Premiership, Gotabaya invited the leaders of the opposition parties to join him to form a multi-party government. But Gotabhaya opted to accept only Ranil’s proposal or non-proposal. The people led by the Aragalaya forced the issue on the governing clan and they caved in. Rajapaksa-proxy, namely Ranil Wickremesinghe, was appointed as Prime Minister and later elected by Parliament in the wake of Gotabaya’s desertion (by the way, this is not the first time that he deserted his office when the going got tough; he left the Sri Lanka Army in the midst of crucial fighting in the North).
Pressure enforced by mass movements can change governments. It can cause, besides many an obstacle to regular routinized daily lives of all, an entirely fresh beginning to be made by each and every entity that is involved in the sociopolitical life of the country. Disowning or distancing from one segment of the country’s sociopolitical life is not a good recipe for any political party which is aiming to grab power in the elections.
There are some very salient and crucial elements in the current circumstance in the land.
1. A sizeable segment in Parliament seems to be far too divorced from the people’s wishes and aspirations
2. Their preoccupation with their own vested interests is destroying the will and the purity of the Aragalaya ideals
3. Petty issues such as pension at the end of their 1st term in parliament seem to be more significant than the need for an urgent change in the ‘system’ and that mindset has overtaken the wider interests of today’s youth.
4. Reluctance and fear on the part of all Parliamentarians for a total overhaul of the ‘system’ has gripped them to blind allegiance to the ‘status quo’.
5. Romanticist-approach to a ‘system change’ is losing its initial luster thereby losing the main protagonists, today’s youth, of the Aragalaya.
6. Last but not the least, absence of an acceptable political leadership/leader of the movement has cost the movement dearly resulting in the loss of direction and discipline of such a political uprising.
The failure or a would-be failure of the Aragalaya could be ascribed to many more reasons than the aforementioned factors, yet a resurrection of the original enthusiasm and drive is far more difficult than it was three months ago. The representatives of the Colombo elite may have dropped out altogether. The last thing that should have happened to such a mass uprising has happened which is unforgivable sense of apathy. Sri Lankans time and time again have proved to be quite at home with this societal weakness- mass apathy.
The Galle Face Green is no more crowded with protesters; frequent arrests of leading personalities being taken into custody is bearing fruits for those who initiated the arrests. Ranil Wickremesinghe is once again showing his true personality. His unforgiving attitude of arrogance and inferiority complex, undoubtedly weak and lacking in mental steadfastness, is being displayed but ironically advantageous to himself and his close friends.
Against such a gloomy backdrop, one would find more questions than answers. Have we all lost our will? Have we lost our friends and relatives? Have we lost our self-confidence? Have we lost our step? Have we lost our aims and goals? Have we lost our way? Have we lost it all? How far can we advance as a mass-based movement or have we given birth to a movement that has already been aborted? The complexity of matters, the complexity of a sociopolitical journey of a nation is not easily understood, nor resolved in a couple of months. History has shown us that civilizations have strived for centuries while it had taken only a couple of decades to collapse.
Perhaps, fresh thinking is the right way to tread. A novel way of thinking is the most needy weapon one should use today. As the great Bertrand Russell said: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid … Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”
Human endurance and human steadfastness is not an accident of our civilization; it is taught and learnt; it is practiced and coached. As much as great leadership is not an accident, so are the illuminating consequences of failed leadership. All these factors, both positive and negative, each would take its own respective course. One is not more deaf and blind than who is not willing to see and hear with keener sense of awareness. Education must be an essential accomplice of great deed. Not only what’s gained via Universities and schools, but in the real world where the wise and experienced always show the way forward. The great wise men and women have enriched mankind and our earnest hope at this hour must be for the emergence of such greats who have wandered the enchanted corridors of human civilization.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org