By A Special Correspondent –
Sri Lankan people have suffered immensely during the last few months due to the lack of food, fuel, gas and medicine as well as transport options due to economic mismanagement and the shortage of foreign currency to pay for essential imports. There have been horror stories from the long lines of people waiting to obtain a few litres of petrol. Over 20 people have died while waiting in such lines. The deteriorating economic conditions in the country led to the emergence of a protest movement called aragalaya (struggle) that came to a peak with the mass agitation for system change and the departure of former executive president Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of the country a few weeks ago. A new president and a cabinet are in place now but the citizens are becoming concerned and agitated about the way that the President has given extra ordinary powers to the police and security forces to detain people under emergency regulations. Under emergency regulations the normal law of the country can be bypassed by the police and security forces in certain ways. They seem to extend to unlawful assembly and discourage people organising strikes also. Penalties have been gazzeted for using social media and other forms of communication for encouraging others for such acts. In short, the government defines what is an acceptable behaviour and what is not through such regulations. It is reported that the government is contemplating the ban of some groups and political parties that engage in unacceptable behaviour or acts as well. Some are questioning whether there is an emergency in the country-other than the economic emergency- to deserve such drastic regulations?
Recent arrests of aragalaya activists by the police-some in civilian clothes- on trivial charges indicate an emerging pattern that should concern those who admire civic, political and human rights of citizens and the freedoms that they offer to peacefully express people’s views, concerns and aspirations to others in society including the political authority via peaceful assembly. The choice shouldn’t be between freedoms and rights on one hand and food, fuel, gas and medicine on the other. Both are important for human well-being and sustenance. Trying to establish order by using security forces and the police together with unidentified persons in civilian clothes without identity labels (perhaps ruling party goons) when large segments of the population are demanding a ‘system change’ is utterly unacceptable in a civilised society. It seems to be an attempt by the pro Rajapaksa ruling junta led by a new hero President who is a failed politician throughout his political life and found an accident of history created by evolving circumstances to assume power by constitutional means but lacking broad public support on the ground.
After the former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was driven out of the country by a massive gathering of protesters and the people at large in Colombo earlier in July 2022, there was a period of some uncertainty as to who will fill his shoes. According to the constitution, when a head of state resigns, it is the Prime Minister who becomes the acting President. Thus Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe who was the PM at the time (nominated by Gotabaya some weeks ago) became the acting president and later the parliament elected him to be the executive President of Sri Lanka by a majority of vote among MPs. No sooner than Ranil assumed office as the President, signs of a hardline approach to the protesters (or aragalaists as commonly known) became evident. He was personally unhappy with the burning of his home at the height of the protests. The new approach started with disproportionate use of force by security forces and the police by attacking GotaGoGama protesters in Galle Face and removing their temporary huts and equipment in the middle of night. This resulted in injuries to many protesters some requiring hospitalisation. The protesters had built various structures on Gall Face grounds over time to accommodate a library, cinema, kitchen, a public University, stage for musical performances and speeches, and a shared work space with computers. Diverse coalition of various groups but for a common purpose was evident from aragalaya activism.
Targeted search of homes and political offices followed with the arrest of prominent protest leaders in the following weeks. A famous case was when one activist leader while he was in a Sri Lankan airline flight bound for Dubai. He had entered the pro government Rupavahini television station at the height of the massive gathering of people in Colombo and made a statement with another person with the consent of television authorities. On July 29th, two police teams and unidentified men in civilian clothes raided the office of the Frontline Socialist Party, one with a progressive agenda, creating anxieties and confusion among occupants. Father Jeevantha and other protest leaders are being chased by similar police teams. Prominent social media activist Pathum Kerner has been summoned to the CID and the courts remanded him until 4th August. Police has obtained court orders against other activist leaders preventing them from going abroad. All this has contributed to a sense of anxiety and uncertainty among the protesters, civil society organisations, artists, media personnel and leaders of the opposition parties. Ominous signs about the manner that the so-called new government -actually it is government by same old politicians-may want to steer the country in the name of establishing stability is becoming clear each day. What can be seen out of these actions is an attempt towards creating a de facto ‘police state’ and delegitimising the protests (aragalaya) through the use of emergency powers and spreading fear in the community. This should be condemned by all those seeking a system change and concerned about the human rights record of Sri Lankan governments at a time when the population in general is experiencing various hardships due to the shortages of essentials. The government should rather try to create cooperation among the people by sensible, humane and democratic methods. It should change course immediately.
By now, much has been written about the causes that led to the emergence of aragalaya. Therefore, there is no need to add further comments on this aspect. However, this article focuses on the strategy of the government and shifting the gear to manage and control public protests that have arisen due to the mismanagement of economy and the existing corrupt political culture. During the year, aragalaya activists and some opposition parties criticised the government on both counts articulating the sentiments among average citizens and their sufferings while the elected politicians in government enjoyed all the perks such as car permits, liquor licenses, appointment of family members to key positions, and more. People at large and youthful protest leaders were demanding a system change. With the appointment of new President and Prime Minister (popularly known as Olu gedi maruwa), a concerted effort is being taken by the functionaries of government to re-establish its authority by the use of force rather than consultation and consensus. Instead of a system change, current attempts by the rulers will ensure the continuation of corrupt system with cosmetic changes, media strategy and political rhetoric to suit the new approach.
One aspect of the political rhetoric is the labelling of protest activists as terrorists. This was evident in the recent parliamentary debate about the extension of emergency law by another month. Some MPs recollected their harrowing experiences during the 89/90 period or as far back as 1971 when the country experienced armed conflicts in the South led by the JVP against the governments and counter insurgency acts by the latter. These conflicts together with 1982 ethnic disturbances pushed thousands of Lankans to flee the country. Is the government attempting to engineer a similar exodus in the current circumstances? Time will tell. Lately, the government has been establishing passport offices in the districts at a rapid rate to encourage more Lankans to go overseas. Hidden intention may be twofold: a) let the protesters leave the country b) let them earn dollars and send back. Either way, this does not indicate a patriotic approach. Moreover, protest leaders reject the accusation that their protests amount to terrorism. Instead they are peaceful and a non-violent struggle for system change. An essential part of this struggle is peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and communication as well as the freedom of mobility. These rights and their use by an informed, youthful protest leadership was able to shake the foundations of government pushing it to change the President, cabinet and important office holders in the government bureaucracy. Recent moves by the government to employ security forces, the police and unidentified shadowy groups against protest leaders seem to be part of an effort to curtail such freedoms to gain political advantage for the ruling junta and their parties.
Political advantage is not only for the Rajapaksa loyalists in the Podu Jana Peramuna (PJP) but also the United national party (UNP) which is the current President’s party that lost all its seats in parliament at the last election a couple of years ago. With the appointment of several advisors by the President and nomination of a defeated UNP member to fill the seat vacated by his appointment to be the President, signs are that the UNP is being given a new lease of life when its head became the head of State. It is possible that some resentment for this development can be witnessed in the coming days and months at the grassroots level as the UNP and PJP are competing political parties for power.
However, what is more alarming is the fact that the State machinery -both at bureaucratic and political levels- decided to utilise the security forces and the police to carry out arrests, intimidation and searches on the pretext of looking for trouble makers or those who violated existing laws. Laws under which charges have been brought are trivial e.g. harming public property. Even the break of a window or a table is considered harming public property. If the public who are unhappy about the governance system enter public property and occupy for some time, it is also considered a criminal act. Some protesters climbed up the official buildings to raise the national flag. Could this also be an act against private property? Those in the aragalaya criticise the government for not doing enough to prosecute and punish those responsible for billions of losses from the public purse during the last decade or more while taking active steps to curtail aragalaya by such trivial means.
A more broad understanding about this approach and tactics used by the new government can be discerned if we look at Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history of violence and state repression of dissent. Each time when there was dissent from the South or the North, the government opted to use its security forces and police to intimidate dissenters, arrest, detain and even keep them in custody for longer periods by using various draconian laws. In previous decades under the Rajapaksa rule various disappearances and killing of journalists and civil activists also took place. A famous case was the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge who was a critic of the government at the time. When the ruling junta was challenged, the rulers used security forces and the police to engage in counter action resulting in human rights violations that drew international attention. The question is why the rulers are resorting to same old tactic at a critical time like now when they need the support of not only opposition parties but also the general populace to overcome the current mess? The key to this remains in the fact that the hierarchical way governance is organised in the country. Its latent aim is to disempower the masses and keep power in the hands of a well-entrenched ruling political class. In actual fact those in the parliament and governance mechanisms are closely related to each other by family, kinship, schooling and education, party or work relations. Within this highly sophisticated and hated network, one can observe the existence of patron-client relationships for economic and political gain. It is this system that the protesters have been challenging by word and anti-systemic action. It is this system that created the current economic circumstances where the government cannot find necessary funds to import essentials without borrowing more money from overseas lenders. It is this system that led to defaulting borrowers including international bond holders. Rulers seem to want to keep their disproportionate privileges and power while borrowing more from foreign sources to run the country in the name of democracy. Many Sri Lankans have realised that this is not possible anymore without a system change i.e. entering of patriotic and capable Lankans to governance structures such as the parliament, security establishment, and the public service. They also realise that the many ills facing the country today are due to the executive presidential system.
Every time the younger generation with the benefit of free public education that opened their eyes to the socially unjust system/s in place including the highly politicised police service came up with ideas for reform and freedom, the geriatric leadership or the ruling class that held levers of power almost as an inheritance due to the party and family-oriented patron-client relation system in place resisted their demands. Leaders launched repressive measures by using state security establishment and party goons to quell uprisings. For this they received international legitimacy and assistance at critical junctures. After a period of civil commotion and protest, the present leadership is also attempting to use the same old method to quell the public anger and agitation against the existing system of governance and neoliberal economic management by using various tactics including the use of police to arrest protest activists and bring them before the courts on trumped up charges. Using fear is a well-known tactic used by security forces and the police in Sri Lanka. It is impossible for Sri Lankan leaders to go this far so quickly in a matter of weeks to change the gear to a policy of using repressive measures under emergency regulations (when there is no emergency) unless they have got support from a powerful country or two. Most likely China which has one party rule fits the government agenda to use force to keep law and order more than any other country especially with a democratic system including India. China has a significant economic interest in the country including the Port City and Hambantota port (on 99-year lease). International attention is required on the attempts by Sri Lankan leadership to turn the country from a failed state with a population demanding a system change to a police/military state unleashing terror in order to preserve the privileges of the ruling junta led by President Ranil Wickramasinghe (A recent media report stated a body of a young person floated to the coast in Colombo). He is a democrat from outside but someone who has been waiting in the wings for decades to access true power by becoming the President. He realised his dream by accident at this crucial juncture in Sri Lanka’s modern history and he is putting into action his true pro-Rajapaksa agenda to suppress popular power.
Coming days will show whether this competing discourses and activism will generate true system change as aspired by the protesters and the silent majority or the country will slide further into anarchy. However, the design of new government and its leadership is clear. For human rights violations including the attacks on peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, communication and movement, there will be more international criticism. Government leaders must be acutely aware of this situation. The current leadership is also trying to navigate geopolitical competition in the South Asian region between China, India and the Western block while searching solutions for the economic and political crisis. Whether the leaders will be able to secure stability of government and the country with the measures they are talking by the use of emergency regulations, security forces and the police will become clear in the coming months.
Finally, instability in society is created not by aragalaya activists, trade unions, religious leaders, artists or opposition political parties who express their dissent about the way things are in the country. It is the result of government’s failure to provide basic necessities and responsive governance, to implement rule of law, or just mechanisms for youth employment and fulfilment. No government is worth its salt should survive when it becomes ineffective from the point of view of a larger section of the community. If force and law are used to curb dissent rather than persuasion and consensus building, it can lead not only to the lack of trust in the government but also breakdown of the social system altogether. Sri Lanka can truly become a failed state where there is no rule of law or basic norms of a civil society.
Sri Lankans do not need to be deprived of their citizenship rights any longer on one hand and the essentials for living and working on the other. They deserve their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, communication and movement. Limitations on these by intimidation, arrests and surveillance can make them more agitated and even angry. Change needs to happen at the top rather than trying to make citizens conform to draconian emergency laws for compliance to an unacceptable system. This is a time when the creative energies of the youths be utilised to find solutions to country’s problems. The existing system and associated practices need to change the weaknesses built into the system over decades and meet the people’s aspirations. Present attempts by the authorities seem to be to curb creativity, criticism and resistance to preserve archaic systems and practices as well as the power of a few. One can even describe the current struggle or aragalaya as one between the young and the old generations one with formal power and the other with popular power.