By Priyalal Sirisena –
The new president Ranil Wickremesinghe faced condemnation by international community as well as by internal actors including the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, soon after he assumed power. He could not at least pass his honey-moon period of congratulations for his new appointment. Following the vacation of post by Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled to Singapore, as his final fortress -the presidential house- was overrun by the protestors a few weeks ago. After Mr. Wickremesinghe had assumed duties as the Prime Minister under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his house was set on fire during the protests on the 10th July. While the protestors have condemned his appointment itself, his actions have given a new and interesting re-interpretation to what he often refers to as ‘democratic politics’.
Three important transferences are to be noted.
Firstly, we have been given a new definition to the word ‘democracy’- perhaps a one which was never anticipated by ancient Greeks. A ruler with no popular mandate. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party could not secure any seat in the legislature at the last election, and he himself entered the parliament thanks to one single seat offered to the party for overall votes his party had received. A person fully rejected by popular vote is now holding the top-most position of political hierarchy. One could claim that this is “lawful” and it is the “democratic procedure” yet I am sure that it violates every possible interpretation of the concept of democracy. This, I observe as the difference between formal democracy and democratic proper; in other words, symbolic democracy and democratic “real” (in Lacanian sense), that holds political analysts speechless. This perhaps is the best example in the entire world to explain such a shocking difference between the two, that may be quoted by school and university students in future. While this small South-Asian nation has managed to chase away its political head for the first time, they have also given a new meaning to democracy as well, by appointing an individual rejected by the public, as its executive political head. While it is obviously so odd, the problem is that it is “constitutional” and it is “legal” as well.
Secondly, we are experiencing a dramatic shift of political paradigm. Previously, we had an apparent difference between two major political alternatives. One with racism, extremism, anti-Western and anti-human rights discourse; and one with pro-democracy, pro-human rights, pro-Western and ideas of good governance. All the sudden, now we have a collective front of both, of which Mr. Wickremesinghe is the main actor. He has now engaged in a new venture cursing protestors, using emergency laws, deploying military against civilians and opposing the Western world for raising voice on rights abuses. This was the script that Rajapakses and their followers previously played. While the previous binary oppositions are disappearing, we see Rajapakse fans rejoicing the moves of the new President, whose power solely depends on the votes of SLPP members in the parliament. While it is now clear that the May-09 attackers on GotaGoGama are not going to suffer any adverse consequences, protestors are systematically being hunt down by “legal” means.
The same person who condemned the attack on protestors at GotaGoGama in May, had launched a crack-down on protestors soon after assuming power. This time the police and the military, equipped with proper court orders, engaged in removing protestors to clear the gates of the Presidential Secretariat building and the Galle Face Green. Protestors, lawyers and even journalists (including a BBC reporter) faced suppression this time.
Apart from using the police force and the military, politicians in Sri Lanka have resorted to the assistance of underworld figures for decades. A number of names of such underworld characters would come into your mind. The notorious attack on GotaGoGama on the 9th of May was however largely an act of a mob consisting of politicians themselves, and their blind political followers. The police was accused of not doing anything. Quite differently, it was alleged that para-military group (wearing military uniforms) have been used in the operation to clear the gates of the Presidential secretariat. If this were true, then Mr. Wickremesinghe is the first politician to deploy trained mercenaries in political operations, while I do not have adequate information to confirm the same. Mr. Wickremesinghe was using arguments of national sovereignty, to respond to international critiques, in defence of his actions.
All these “lawful” or “apparently lawful” developments have now paved way for systematic suppression of the protest. This time the protest appears to fade away in its confrontation with this “constitutionally justified” and “lawful” state of affairs. Instead of social justice, there is a gradual increase of the supply of essential consumables to please the middle class and the rural farmers alike. Continuous supply of fuel, gas and fertilizers seems to be the strategy to silence the ordinary citizen, while protecting the corrupt elements in the parliament and Rajapaksa family. If their safety is not assured, Mr. Wickremesinghe is likely to lose their support in the Parliament. Whether Mr. Wickremesinghe is taking SLPP for a ride; only the time will tell.
*Priyalal Sirisena is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. He studied at the University of Colombo.