By Jehan Perera –
The government’s efforts to suppress the protest movement by the targeting of its leading members individually is polarizing the country more than ever before. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of the protests, the government is targeting prominent and key members of the protest movement with flimsy charges and under conditions of Emergency Law in which the regular law and its protections can be suspended in their operation. The Fitch Rating of Sri Lanka dated July 28, 2022, states that the government’s parliamentary position appears strong, but public support for the government is weaker. It is therefore important for the government to hear the legitimate voices of the protesters and find ways and means of engaging with them in a meaningful manner rather than suppressing them.
As pointed out by Dr Mahim Mendis of the Open University in a recent contribution to the Island newspaper this polarization is taking place on class and social lines which is dangerous to the stability of the polity. Vindicating Dr Mendis’s observations was the group of about 30 civil society activists from around the country who I had an opportunity to meet with over the weekend. They belonged to local level inter-religious committees set up in particularly volatile “hot spot” areas. During the discussion, a key point made was that economic hardships could foment local level conflict. Another point made was the importance of maintaining non-violence in the struggle to obtain “system change” that would ensure corruption and mismanagement is defeated.
After my session ended and I was preparing to leave, a woman came up to me and asked if she could speak privately. She said she did not want to fall into trouble, but was there anything we could do to protect Fr Jeevantha Peiris. She said she was from Doloswala in the Ratnapura district where Fr Peiris was based. This is an area where there are Indian-origin (Malaiyaha) Tamils who are very poor as their salaries, which were low to begin with, have not kept pace with inflation. Recent studies have shown that food prices have increased by more than 100 percent which makes life very difficult for those on fixed incomes especially incomes that were poverty level incomes (no more than Rs 1000 a day) to begin with. She said that the police had come to arrest Fr Peiris but the people wanted him back because he helped them to survive.
Fr Jeevantha Peiris has been an important and visible figure in the protest movement that has based itself in Galle Face opposite the presidential secretariat. He has a court order against him to ensure that he will not leave the country, as the police have filed a complaint against him and wish to conduct investigations regarding his role in the protest movement. As a member of the Collective for Reforms, which consists of civil society members, trade unionists, professionals and retired government officers among others, I have attended meetings to discuss the protest movement and its objectives. Fr Jeevantha was one we met. There was no violence or arrogance in him. He epitomized the servant-leadership espoused by Christian religious doctrine, the values which are found in other religions too, which could transform this country if adopted by the political leaders.
It is therefore no cause for surprise that given his conformity to the values of his religion that a petition on his behalf has been signed by 1640 Catholic clergy, priests, nuns and ordained brothers and sisters expressing “serious concern about the potential arrest of Fr. Jeevantha Peiris, Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Rathnapura (Sabaragamuwa Province) and human rights defender.” The statement goes on to make a critique of the government’s approach: “Declaration of emergency sent a chilling political message of intolerance of dissent and this was followed by draconian emergency regulations, that can severely restrict and violate freedom of expression, assembly, movement and lead to arbitrary arrests and prolonged detentions. The president’s decision to declare emergency has been ratified by parliament, indicating that both the executive and legislature are now on a repressive path. It is contradictory when the president and prime minister say they are not against peaceful protests but the leaders are taken by the police individually or collectively under Emergency laws.
The current government is seen by many as illegitimate with a nullified or lost mandate even though it is a legally constituted entity based on a popular mandate obtained at elections held three years ago. It is a government with a president, legally elected by parliament, but a parliament that has a nullified or lost mandate. In these circumstances, the government needs to rethink its heavy-handed approach to dealing with the protest movement. The practice of repression by a government that is perceived by many to be illegitimate, even though legally constituted, is a recipe for further instability which the country cannot afford. The World Bank and IMF, and long term friends of the country like Japan, have made it clear that they will only step in to support the country if it is politically stable, shows transparency and accountability and has a government that has the people’s confidence and trust.
In this desperate situation with divisions in the country mounting, there is a feeling among sections of the educated and upper classes that there is no better person that President Ranil Wickremesinghe to handle the current political and economic crisis. Businesses and affluent sections of the population are prepared to give the new president a chance to prove himself. These sections of society are apprehensive of the longer-term implications of the protest movement, which they perceive as having radical leadership at the forefront. However, the severe fuel crisis and high rate of inflation which has helped to catalyse the protest movement continues unabated, indicating only a temporary lull. They are apprehensive about a total breakdown of law and order and point to the torching of the 70 houses of government members.
President Wickremesinghe is the key actor at the present time. His experience and maturity as a political leader is high and even if he failed to achieve what he promised to do in the past as prime minister, it was at least partly because he had presidents above him who undermined his efforts. In the periods of his premiership he sought to ensure that the oppressive weight of the government on the people was minimized. He ruled with a light touch, be it during the period of the Norwegian facilitated Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE or in the post-war Yahapalana period. This again won for him the confidence of those sections of the ethnic and religious minorities and civil society who believed in the politics of moderation and consensus.
There are those who believed in him and the contribution he could make to society who said he would have been the best president Sri Lanka never had and that he was more suited to a western democracy rather than to Sri Lankan democracy where racism and false promises take the foreground. They do not wish to believe he is the captive of vested interests which had led to the popular demand for “system change.” Even to this day the hope remains in the ethnic and religious minorities, and those in the ethnic majority community who believe in politics for the common good, that the Ranil Wickremesinghe they believed in will re-emerge and overcome the corruption, mismanagement and heavy handedness of the present time.
The heavy handedness at the present time does not seem conducive to sustain this hope. It is essential that it does or else the hope of political stability and getting out of the economic pit will prove to be elusive. Representative democracy must necessarily mean that the voice of the people is heeded instead of being suppressed. The legitimate demands of people who have seen their living standards crash in a matter of months should be addressed through dialogue with them and not by assuming emergency powers and threatening individual liberties.