By Ameer Ali –
Aragalaya demands systemic change, because the existing system with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) as its synecdoche has allowed crooks to govern, bankrupted the economy and brought misery to people. The prevailing penurious state needed immediate repair by any means and from any source. There was one man in the parliament during the days of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (MR) premiership, who was promising a magical panacea. He was the member who led his oldest political party to a historic defeat – worse than suffered by a previous leader, Sir John Kotelawala in 1956 – lost his own seat and entered the legislature through backdoor. He was Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW). When MR resigned after the 9th May failed attempt to end aragalaya, he said that he did so to enable an All-Party Government to be installed to tackle the ongoing economic crisis and bring stability to a nation in multiple conflict – a situation MR jointly fathered with his siblings and children. In the absence of other suitable candidates therefore GR had no choice but to appoint the magician RW as PM. It was a gamble with high stakes. Although it was an appointment constitutionally, in reality RW was a hired by the existing system to accomplish a preset task. That task was to repair the economy and bring dollars to facilitate imports of necessities. He could enjoy all trappings attached to that position, so long as he completed the set task before being de-hired. The rest would be taken care of by the guardians of the system with GR as its head.
It is with this backdrop that one should look at what RW had accomplished so far, the difficulties he is facing and the challenges confronting aragalaya. Before he was hired, RW, with his educational credentials and political experience known within foreign quarters of power, was insisting on the need to approach IMF without delay, while articulating the idea that a consortium of countries should be approached in order to ease the scarcity of precious dollars. Already, during the last days of MR as PM, a delegation to Washington under the former and a very-short-tenured Finance Minister Ali Sabry was dispatched to Washington to set the ball rolling with IMF. Also, GR sacked Nivard Cabraal, promised independence of CBSL and brought in Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe (NW), an accomplished financial economist with long central bank experience, as its new chief. NW knew very well what IMF would expect and therefore immediately set upon reversing the previous easy monetary policy adopted by his immediate two predecessors in the name of providing liquidity to a disastrous alternate path of development initiated by GR. These measures were in any way associated with aragalaya’s demand for systemic change.
All that was left to the hired PM cum Finance Minister RW was to prepare a new budget with fiscal reforms in conformity with NW’s tight monetary policy and to satisfy IMF. But he went a step further to bring in constitutional reforms to dilute or remove completely the executive powers of the president, transfer those powers to the parliament and PM as in olden days, and in addition defenestrate parliamentarians with dual citizenship. To be fair with RW, even before being hired he promised these reforms to satisfy GGH and GGG aragalayers. Furthermore, in his attempt to introduce the principle of accountability he also made provisions for the youth to play a role through the parliamentary process. The was also news that he demanded NW be removed to be replaced by one of his own men and was rebuffed by GR. But these measures threatened the very heart of the existing system that set the pattern of governance over the last seven decades.
Although the system of governance in operation is called parliamentary democracy, that democracy had been systematically denuded of its flesh and only the skeleton remains. What really in existence is majoritarianism built on the ideological edifice of Sinhala Buddhist ethnoreligious nationalism. All constitutional and legislative changes that were brought since the time of independence only calcified this foundational ideology. JR’s 1978 constitution cemented that ideology in concrete and GR’s and MR’s victories at the last elections were the product of that ideology and constitution. Under no circumstance therefore, the guardians of that ideology are prepared to surrender it to any challenger. Hence, RW’s constitutional initiatives, even if they were half-hearted and meant to be used as bargaining chips for him to gain popularity and remain in power, they were strictly out of bounds for the hired PM. This is why the guardians with support of GR are now busy canvassing among parliamentarians to deny the required two-third majority to pass these reforms. (Incidentally, it is a shame that one Muslim MP, without any understanding of the danger into which he is putting his own community, also had join those anti-reformists).
On the principle of accountability also the guardians believe that politicians and administrators should be accountable not to the people via any new mechanism, but to the managers of the rotten system. The idealogues of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism are prepared to exonerate, and had done so previously, even criminals as long as they show obeisance to Buddhism and its sasana. This is the level to which they have demoted Buddhism, a heavenly blessing to all humanity. With their pernicious ideology they have also defamed the Sinhalese, a community unique in the world for its exceptional friendliness, urbanity and innocence.
At last, the younger generation of educated and critical minded Sinhala-Buddhists have waken-up to the horrors committed by the idealogues and their guardians. Aragalaya is the product of that awakening and that generation is not for sale at any price to any politician but is determined to bring about a systemic change. It is a landmark event and a dividing line in the history of this country. The guardians of the old system are also not going to give up that easily. They tried to end aragalaya and its demand for systemic change on 9th May, but it backfired. Their next move would be more vicious and brutal, and it may well have the support of the state’s defence apparatus. Yet, if aragalaya gets an effective leadership that it badly needs at the moment, and if the masses rally behind it, which they would in the face of mounting economic hardship, Sri Lanka is destined to witness a new dawn.
Finally, to the minorities in the country who had been disconnected for decades from the prevailing system, there is no alternative but to join aragalaya. They have to find solutions to their problems from within the country and with its people. It is welcoming news that aragalaya youth are in dialogue with minority community leaders.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia