By Jehan Perera –
The government’s intention to appoint a full complement of ministers and state ministers, and the jostling for positions amongst them, seems to suggest an attitude of business as usual. This is quite astonishing as it was just two weeks ago that no government member felt safe from the wrath of mobs that formed themselves very swiftly and apparently spontaneously to attack their homes and properties. Last week they overrode the opposition’s demand for time to debate the motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having led the country to disaster. They also scuttled efforts to nominate a female legislator to the post of Deputy Speaker, disregarding the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which could have sown the seeds for consensual governance. They gave priority to their own personal concerns of getting compensation from the state for their losses.
It is unsurprising in this context that anger against the government continues to boil within the country. There are roadblocks and demonstrations by the members of the public in places where petrol is either not being provided or has been pumped to private vehicles by officials and politicians. The lines for petrol and diesel and for cooking gas are longer than ever before despite announcements that ships have begun unloading these fuels. The lines stretch for over a kilometer in the case of petrol and diesel meant for vehicles. Videos circulate on social media providing vivid images of the frustration of those who have waited in line for hours and hours only to find out that stocks have run out before they could get access to the fuel.
The three-wheel taxi that took me to the Aragalaya protest site opposite the presidential secretariat charged me nearly three times the regular fare that prevailed before the economy collapsed. He justified his high rate on the basis that he had spent the whole of the previous day trying to fill his vehicle tank with petrol. The Aragalaya site on Saturday evening was not as busy as it had been the previous week and nowhere near as crowded as it was two weeks ago. But the spirit of the Aragalaya lives in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. The physical presence of protestors may be only a fraction of the turnouts that made the government want to put an end to it through thuggery a fortnight ago. Even those who are protestors have to live their daily lives and earn their daily bread. But special occasions will bring them back in large numbers.
Galle Face is the site of the passion and commitment of a younger generation of Sri Lankans to the eradication of corruption and mis-governance foisted on them by the old. The young people know they are being monitored by state CCTV systems and are vulnerable to being picked up on a later date to be done away with as happened in the past. Hundreds are currently being arrested for the attacks that took place against the homes and properties of government members on May 9. But only a few of those government members who streamed out of the prime minister’s residence with iron rods and other improvised weapons after being instigated by the prime minister’s men are being arrested.
Those who are powerful because they are in the government are glibly denying what is plain to be seen on the social media. This is a continuation of past practices which gives impunity to the powerful whatever they do, which needs to end. At the Aragalaya site on Saturday l listened to speakers who described the hardships of the economic crisis, of the mother whose gas cylinder exploded due to inappropriate mixing of gases by the government, and of the parents who saw their infant die because they could not get petrol for their vehicle to take their child to the hospital in time. These were educated young people who spoke and there were many who listened to them to become message-bearers to the larger population that was not present at the site. They were all brave or had lost their sense of fear. I was also given a private lecture by a regular visitor to the Aragalaya site. He explained to me why the diminished numbers that day did not mean that support for the cause was diminishing. He had a vision for what the Aragalaya should achieve which he summarized in four short points.
First, he said, an all-party interim government needed to be appointed for a temporary period to provide the cohesion needed for political stability that would give the government the credibility to raise the necessary economic resources from abroad. Second was the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and to replace it with the 21st Amendment that would reduce the power of the presidency. Third was to conduct general elections in a new system that would depart from the present 100 percent proportional representation to one in which first-past-the-post constituency system would account for at least 70 percent of the seats to make the parliamentarians accountable to their electorates. Fourth was to abolish the presidency that catered to the traditional ethos of relying on the saviour king rather than on the empowerment of people exemplified by the Aragalaya youth.
Prior to the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, when the power of the Aragalaya protest caused the entire cabinet to step down, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an all-party interim government for a temporary period. This has now taken on a distorted form in the wooing and horse trading of members of other political parties without the consent of their party leaderships. Both the SJP, which is the largest opposition party, and the SLFP, which is the government’s largest coalition partner, have suffered defections to the new government. This display of power play is not a positive sign of stability which is necessary if the government is to deal with the difficult economic issues the country confronts. It is not possible to justify how those who resigned from office due to a failure of government can be part of a new cabinet as if the failure had nothing to do with them.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has made a comparison of the predicament he is currently facing in the government by comparing his situation to the famous play by Bertolt Brecht, the Caucasian Chalk Circle. The prime minister has brought credibility to the government through his ability to deal with the international community and his understanding of the macro economic situation of the country in relation to the world. The 21st Amendment to the constitution that will be brought to parliament this week, if passed, will strengthen the prime minister’s powers still more. Unless circumstances, and the balance of political forces within parliament, permit him to chart a new course of governance that is consensual and transparent, the present government will also fail.
Much is at stake. Unless the economy improves fast the possibility of violence that can suddenly erupt, as it did on May 9, cannot be ruled out. As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor, India has been extremely generous now with its latest gift of Rs 2 billion worth of essential commodities gifted by Tamil Nadu state. The challenge will be to persuade the more distant but wealthier Western countries, Japan and China to be equally generous. The stability of the government that is brought about by the willing participation of the opposition political parties will be extremely important in demonstrating to the world, and to the Sri Lankan people, that the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe really intend to chart a new path. The holding of elections within six months and a new leadership can be an example to other countries with similar broken down systems and government leaders who step aside as statesmen for the new generations to take over.