Sri Lanka’s Lost People’s Revolution

Ranga Jayasuriya | 27 August 2022
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Not only has the new President failed to provide a degree of accountability, but he is also indulging in a vicious witch-hunt against the activists who stood up against that corrupt and nepotistic regime

If anyone is looking for a crash course as to how hard it is to push for genuine democratic reforms from the bottom up, the recent Sri Lankan experience offers one. It is an even more poignant lesson for it once looked like a fairy tale success. Spontaneous night-time vigils held by the citizens, enraged by the rising cost of living and shortage of basic supplies, evolved into a nationwide struggle. Thousands heeded calls on social media to gather in the Galle Face to demand the resignation of the then president and the government. Protest sites sprung up across the country.  The Aragalaya (struggle) brought ethnic communities together and gave a voice to the marginalized. An apolitical and non-racial people’s campaign forced the Cabinet, and, then, the Prime minister to quit. The President fled the country as protesters surrounded his official residence.  All that was achieved in a carnival vibe. No shots were fired, and no tanks were on the road. One even pondered on Twitter whether to take the DJ mixture to the President’s house occupied by the protesters.

So close, yet so far! 

Revolution is in retreat – so is democracy 

That peaceful revolution is in retreat now. Its activists are hounded. A culture of intimidation has taken hold of the country. The old guard has returned to power through proxy. For a government that is devoid of any semblance of legitimacy, repression has become a tempting option to keep the nation under check. If there is an accidental winner in this sad outcome, it is President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who would not have been where he is now without the Aragalaya. Yet he has labelled the protestors as ‘fascists’ and ‘terrorists’ and unleashed a vindictive witch-hunt. 

Understandably, President Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena are more answerable to the Rajapaksas than they are to the Sri Lankan public. It was the long arm of Basil Rajapaksa, the SLPP strategist and puppeteer that guaranteed the political high offices of both the President and his PM. In that sense, despite the good intentions of Aragalaya, its outcome is a regression of democracy, where the highest elected political office is now a captive of a controversial and corruption-prone political operator. 

How the President could break through this grip is not clear. His Prime Minister may not even ponder about such an act of sacrilege, he is an erstwhile loyalist of the Rajapaksas. Why Premier Gunawardena, who is from Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) nominated to the office of PM, and Dallas Alahapperuma was undercut in his presidential bid was to eliminate any potential future challenge within the SLPP to the Rajapaksa heir apparent. That goodwill needs to be returned! Yet, this pernicious status quo would further be consolidated with the appointment of the new Cabinet. 

Without the participation of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), independents of the Pohottuwa and the JVP, it is in no way an all-party government. The leadership in opposition MPs in Parliamentary oversight committees such as Finance Committee, COPE and COPA would provide the pretence of consensus.

Yet, the composition of the proposed new Cabinet risks negating even the slightest of credibility. Basil Rajapaksa has reportedly sent 16 names of MPs to be appointed to the new Cabinet. Among them are Prasanna Ranatunga, Johnston Fernando, Rohitha Abeygunawardene, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Sanath Nishantha and Namal Rajapaksa. 

Prasanna Ranatunga was found guilty by the Colombo High Court and sentenced to two years in jail, suspended for five years for threatening a businessman in a bid to take ransom. Johnston Fernando and Rohitha Abeygunawardene are being investigated for instigating attacks on peaceful protestors in the Galle Face. Sanath Nishantha, another Rajapaksa acolyte, recently threatened to strip naked the opposition MP Hirunika Premachandra. 

The new Cabinet is expected to have 35 Ministers and 35 Deputy Ministers. In that way, President Wickremesinghe would win the loyalty of the SLPP MPs who underwrite his continuation in the office. Yet, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution retained the limits set by the 19th Amendment on the number of Cabinet ministers at 30 and the number of Deputy Ministers at 40. An exception lies where a national government is formed when the number of ministers shall be decided by Parliament. The national government, for that purpose, is interpreted as a government formed by the party or the independent group that obtained the highest number of seats in Parliament together with other independent groups and political parties.

The purchase of a few pole-vaulting opposition MPs may not make it a national government. Most likely President Wickremesinghe would manage to win the support of small ethnic minority parties who would join his government in exchange for ministerial perks. The President has already gone the extra mile to secure his political office. He offered to compensate the Opposition MPs whose property was torched in violence after the Pohottuwa thugs attacked the Galle Face protesters.

He reappointed Nimal Siripala de Silva as the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation, from the very portfolio he was earlier asked to resign by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after the Japanese Ambassador complained to him about the minister allegedly having demanded a bribe from the Japanese contractor of the Katunayake Airport’s second terminal. Though the reappointment came after a three-member committee ‘cleared’ Minister Siripala de Silva, it has already strained relations with Tokyo. President Wickremesinghe, who counts Japan as a primary source of assistance, seemed to count his political survival above all. Yet, Japan which had been at the receiving end of repeated snubs by the previous administration, including the suspension of the JICA-funded monorail project, is in no mood for further humiliations. 

In a similar vein, allegations of large-scale corruption have been brushed aside, while a few politically connected cronies are milking the nation at its weakest hour. According to the trade unions of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the latest purchase of oil shipment for July is quoted at US$ 145 per barrel against the market price of US$ 129. The premium for suppliers and local agents which was US$3 a barrel in March this year has shot up to US$ 21-29 a barrel in July.

It was against this kind of crass mismanagement and corruption that millions of Sri Lankans took the streets and forced the former regime out of power. Not only has the new President failed to provide a degree of accountability, but he is also indulging in a vicious witch-hunt against the activists who stood up against that corrupt and nepotistic regime. Activists are hounded under charges as ludicrous as being the first to step into the president’s house, eating from the president’s kitchen and sleeping in the president’s bed. In the meanwhile, large-scale scammers and wheeler-dealers are having a field day. Some have already made it to the Cabinet.  

The President is driven by a singular grudge; some elements masquerading as protestors torched his residence. That is a crime, and so are other attacks on the properties of the ruling party politicians and their loyalists. They need to be investigated and perpetrators are held accountable.  However, in any international comparison, Sri Lanka’s people’s struggle is overwhelmingly peaceful. This is not how public anger explodes; even in modern EU nations such as Romania, in the height of revolutionary ferment leading to the collapse of communism, despots were hanged by the lamppost.

In Sri Lanka, a largely peaceful people’s struggle is delegitimized by a regime that is both illegitimate and corrupt. Unlike his predecessor, who might have favoured white vans, the new president is unleashing the state’s coercive apparatus against the leaders of the struggle. That however does not spare the already blighted law enforcement agencies from being further discredited in the eyes of the public and the civilized world. 

The president and the government may not enjoy the legitimacy of the public. But that is not a reason to make the public hate them. The witch-hunt against the peaceful protestors is doing exactly that. The danger is that public anger may find a way out, targeting perhaps the only reason one should put up with the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime: the much-needed economic reforms and SOE restructuring.  The new President may be the right person to do that. But he seems to be preoccupied with pursuing petulant personal aims.

Ranga Jayasuriya, Journalist. 

This article was originally published on Daily Mirror.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.