By Mohamed Harees –
‘In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born’. ~ Brazilian philosopher, Roberto Unger
‘Politicians are crooks.’ This may be a cynical middle-class complaint, but it is also an empirical fact that more MPs with criminal records are being elected to Parliament than ever before. Interestingly, candidates implicated in wrongdoing do quite well at the polls. Candidates with criminal records are disproportionately wealthy, so they have both the means to contest elections, as well as the incentives. While securing elected office does not grant them formal immunity, worryingly increasing number of those in Sri Lankan parliament or Sri Lankan version of politics, are being formally discharged by the Courts due to various reasons. Politics does also give them a certain degree of protection while opening up a new set of money-making opportunities. Their success has a chilling effect on individuals with clean records who might think twice about joining the electoral fray. As a result, the bad equilibrium perpetuates itself; politicians with questionable records are attracted to office while so-called “clean” candidates exit.
Ali Sabri Raheem who was arrested at the BIA with his contraband of gold and smart phones, was just another among the growing number of parliamentarians with dubious, criminal records. In 2020, Premalal Jayasekara from governing party became the first convict facing death sentence to take oath as a legislator. In 2022, Minister Prasanna Ranatunga was convicted of extorting money from a businessman over a land deal, a rare guilty verdict in a graft case in the South Asian country. These are but few names along a long shady line of public representatives. Adding insult to injury, there were many crooks who were acquitted. Particularly, Rajapaksa family dynasty in the Post war period became well known for its utter corrupt rule and nepotism. No doubt, Sri Lanka, once deemed an economic success story, with stunning swiftness, become a cautionary tale of corruption and financial fragility.
Post Covid, Sri Lanka’s pace of economic descent, almost unprecedented outside of wartime, and political upheaval can be traced to a number of factors, chronic political corruption and the preferential treatment of connections, excessive dependence on debt finance, and sheer incompetence ranking high among many other factors. The depths to which the country has sunk, with the degradation of independent institutions and the high level of impunity which has made a mockery of the law and order process, will make recovery of the bank(corr)upt country a very protracted and hugely painful process. This will require a determined populace with high level of public activism, as proved during the year begone, to give effect to this. However, focussed leadership is a pre-requisite.
Thus, when the mass Aragalaya, mainly youth led, reached its peak in July, and the public anger came to a boil over Sri Lanka’s worst-ever economic crisis, as Al Jazeera reported, there was public exhilaration that the supreme power of people ultimately overcame the power of an oppressive regime. They saw the Aragalaya as the genuine freedom struggle of Sri Lanka because for the first time in post-independent Sri Lanka, every segment of the society – all the people – were united. The protesters flashed a red light to that hegemonic system, asking for a more democratic way of governance”. The voice of the millions who came to the streets echoed that the need of the hour was to force political reforms. The movement can be identified as a democratic movement due to a number of reasons. It broke the vicious cycle of patron-client politics. People marched to Colombo not because of the promise of a monetary handout, some liquor and food – the usual package doled out by political parties to attract supporters to rallies. It was largely a youth led movement which was able to speak across ethnic, racial and class divides. It also utilized art and culture in creative ways not witnessed in Sri Lankan politics before. The aragalaya also spoke to issues of economic and social justice, including Sri Lanka’s long history of human rights abuses and impunity, that have long been pushed to the margins. However, the movement was not however homogenous, unified and nor did it have a distinct core leadership.
There may be reasonable doubts in the minds of many whether the Aragalaya in fact transformed our politics, led to an economic revolution and create the new nation we deserve. As was queried by critics, did it create a fundamentally different political and economic trajectory built on a newly integrated social fabric with humanity at its center, beyond the insecurities from race, religion or political loyalties that once blinded us all? Or did it empower citizenry, and give them the confidence and will to hold those in power accountable, by people not only voting at elections but also participating in governance as well? Questions abound about the attainment of goals which were set by those at the helm of the movement, but it cannot be denied that there were many visible gains which could be identified, which will hold in good stead to take this to the next level to fight for human, civic and political rights to expand everyone’s economic opportunities.
For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, Sri Lankans were able to come out of their mental structure of their ethnicity, religion, and political ideologies. As the Aragalaya gained momentum, the protest site evolved into a space for the public to call for the recognition of, and accountability for, injustice and human rights violations that had long been unaddressed. Another key feature of the Aragalaya protest movement was its emphasis on increasing the political literacy of citizens through forums, political talks, and libraries.
The Aragalaya spirit came out of the populace at large, and not out of some politically related groups regularly seen in Galle Face then, as alleged. Galle face based ‘Aragalaya’ was not the only protest. During the Aragalaya, protests took place in all nine provinces of Sri Lanka. Before that, widespread protests took place by the peasants and farmers against the sudden chemical fertilizer ban and dictatorially ordering of farmers to use organic fertilizer without any preparation or assistance and also by teachers too. Spontaneous protests also have erupted at the queues to obtain cooking gas, then fuel (Petrol and Desal), and even food too. Impatient citizens rose up without any instigations from political elements. Even there was unrest among university students because of the closing down of universities and other issues too. When their elected leaders abuse power, and undermine their democratic rights and also become the reason for the downfall of the economy, people have the right to exercise sovereignty through expressing views, opposition, protest and even civil disobedience etc, of course in non-violent and legitimate ways of using that sovereignty. Thus, bar some overstepping instances, Aragalaya was an exercise of those rights in moderation, non-partisan, and enjoyed mass support.
In this context, more than 10 months on, it is nothing but political hypocrisy that there have been unfair attempts to undermine or tar brushing the gains of the Aragalaya by limiting it to a series of events in 2022 surrounding Galle Face culminating on July 9 and a few leadership characters which apparently led the movement. Some media connected to the government have been engaged in criticizing the hypocrisy surrounding the non partisan nature of some leading characters seen then at the helm of this movement. The Media sometime ago showed eagerness to pinpoint the political hypocrisy of actress Damitha who was seen in the SJB platforms. Hiru referred to a news report of a leading character in the Aragalaya being involved in a brothel racket busted recently.
Aragalaya which saw its peak on Sri Lanka’s July 9, 2022 also had important lessons for the region too. South Asia has seen many instances of popular uprising against authoritarian and unpopular regimes; however, the Sri Lankan situation remained unparalleled in recent history as it was the economic crisis that underpinned what many describe as the Bastille moment, or its “Arab Spring,” that jostled a political awakening. It is politically instructive to note that a powerful dynasty like the Rajapaksas, wielding far-reaching executive powers, was shown the door by the people. It was evident that populist agenda cannot sustain regimes. Mismanagement of the economy, high-level corruption, and short-sighted economic policies steered by regime cronies rather than professional economists are a recipe for political disaster.
Looking back, it may not seem as radical as the French or Iranian revolutions. True! it did not pull out the deeply entrenched roots of the state. Instead, it was satisfied to replace the top of the pyramid with newly ‘elected’, but leaders of the same mould defending the same corrupt mould. However, as Political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda pointed out, there was the emergence of an indigenous body of democratic political thought articulated through the slogans and demands of the citizens’ movement of protest and resistance. The citizens’ movement’s interventions also added an entirely new dimension to our politics, marked by the shift of citizen’s role in politics from being passive onlookers to vigilant and participatory political actors. That process of transition has also provided a new intellectual and political energy to reimagine and deepen our democracy and the constitutional foundations of our democratic-socialist republic, true to the meaning of these not-so-empty, but wholly neglected concepts.
President Ranil Wickramesinghe(RW), backed by the ruling party saw the inherent dangers of allowing the spirit of Aragalaya to take hold in the country’s psyche which will continue to challenge the administrative and political machinery from pursuing its self centered policies and agenda leading to milking of national resources and selling its national assets to line their pockets. It is thus no surprising that RW plans to use the military and emergency powers to prevent the resurgence of a protest movement, though it should sound alarm bells. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda said that the Anti-Terrorism Act was a direct response to last year’s Aragalaya and was seeking to counter political activism. As the economic situation worsens for the country’s poor, working class and middle class, the government was preparing to quell possible unrest with the draconian new law,
The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 37 states that authorities have a duty to protect participants of assemblies from abuse by non-state actors through possible interference or violence As HR bodies asserted, Sri Lankan authorities has been systematically violating international human rights law and standards with complete impunity. The most disturbing pattern of violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly was the authorities’ frequent use of unnecessary and/or disproportionate force and imposing unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on assemblies through the use of emergency powers and the abuse of laws, including the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Amid these violations, members of law enforcement agencies have not been held accountable for abuses they committed against Aragalaya protesters.
As analysts reckon, the struggles of the common people in Aragalaya provide an alternative framework for collective resistance that promotes fundamental democratic rights and liberties. Most Sri Lankans including political parties, academics, civil society and many other traditional changes makers are challenged by the agency and power demonstrated by the people in Aragalaya of Sri Lanka. A vast majority of the political parties and their representatives in the current parliament have had their legitimacy undermined—they are held accountable for the current state of the country and they are associated with a corrupt political culture. The traditional political party system of the country has confronted a significant existential challenge due to the Aragalaya.
This is one of the main reasons for the Aragalaya to be identified as a new page of resistance in Sri Lanka. Further, this also formed a new habit of protest that highlighted and rejuvenated non-violent resistance. It is legitimate to say that the movement has provided a comprehensive narration of non-violent struggles in Sri Lanka that could transform the way Sri Lankans view democracy, politics, the power of the people, and resistance.
Post Aragalaya! Politics in Sri Lanka is appearing to follow a familiar script, with RW at the helm of affairs. Thus, a swift reversal of fortunes in its aftermath is highly unlikely. The long entrenched culture political impunity with deeply institutionalized structures of corruption, nepotism, repression and violence appears to continue. However, all hopes are not lost If the brief hope kindled by the Aragalaya is to survive and be fashioned into viable and sustained political change it will take committed and long term engagement by a variety of actors including civil society and progressive political parties as highly contingent socio-economic conditions continue to shape the politics of the moment. It is the rejuvenated Aragala Spirit that the rulers dread of and fear. It is the rejuvenated public activism which brings change.