President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inaugural address to parliament set forth a vision of good governance and civility that would stand among the most outstanding in the world. His speech comes at a time when several leaders of the protest movement, and youth activists, have been arrested for having violated the law during the public protests that led to the resignations of the former president prime minister and cabinet of ministers of the country.
Sri Lanka has witnessed a political upheaval of a kind rarely seen in the world. An unarmed protest movement of the people, for the people and by the people forced the resignation of a president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. This protest movement captured the imagination of the international community due to its size, effectiveness and non-violent nature. The success of the protest movement was due to its spontaneous and peaceful nature.
The swearing in of the new cabinet of ministers by the new president took place in the midst of chaos earlier in the day. Shortly past midnight the protest site that was instrumental in forcing a change of government and was peaceful at the dead of night was forcefully cleared by the military and police perhaps for that event. By this action the new government has risked alienating itself from significant sections of the local and international communities. The past 104 days in which the protest site was in existence saw tens of thousands of people visit it from all parts of the country and all walks of life to demonstrate their solidarity and take part in direct protest as and when they felt it warranted.
The focus of attention at the present time is the presidential election to take place in parliament following the confirmed resignation from office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This election is not a routine process but is an outcome of an unprecedented public uprising known as the Aragalaya which forced the resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers and effectively nullified the electoral mandates obtained by them three years ago. After all it is the power of the people that is vested to the government by the constitution (Article 4).
The occupation of President's House by the Aragalaya (people’s movement) and further occupation of other state buildings used by the President and Prime Minister has been followed by the fleeing abroad of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa early this morning. The occupation of the Prime Minister’s official residence and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, and the attempt to reach the parliamentary complex highlight the continuing crisis in Sri Lanka and the loss of faith in existing political institutions. Unfortunately, we have often witnessed near violent behavior of many of our legislators in recent months which eroded the faith in democratic institutions.
The economic crisis in the country continues to worsen with queues lengthening, prices rising and essentials unavailable. The general expectation after the rise of the Aragalaya protest movement was that a small and interim all-party government would be formed to specifically deal with the economic crisis, stabilize the economy and to conduct fresh elections. But this has not materialized. Governance is the essential element of the state, and good governance is not merely the exercise of power but the safeguard of the rights of each individual and the welfare of all.
The people are undergoing unprecedented hardships at the current time. There is a disjuncture between what government leaders have been saying and what is materializing. Assurances are being made that shiploads of fuel have been unloaded. However, many service stations remain closed and those open have lines stretching for kilometers even overnight. The small 15-member interim government drawn from all parties that was promised by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resolve the present crisis was not appointed. Now the government appears to be heading towards a large sized one dominated by the ruling party with a full complement of ministers and state ministers.
Sri Lanka has a new prime minister but there is controversy over the choice. There is criticism that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continues to use his presidential powers in an arbitrary manner in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. In facing the unprecedented economic and political crisis that grips the country, and widespread public protests, President Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister much to the consternation of all opposition political parties and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government.
The government’s decision to temporarily default on sovereign debt repayments, akin to a declaration of bankruptcy, will deal another major blow to the country’s economy and credibility. It comes at a time when mass protests are spontaneously taking place in all parts of the country on account of the economic hardships that the people are being put through. The resignation of the cabinet nearly two weeks ago and the failure to appoint a new one is indicative of government paralysis which is injurious to the country.
The declaration of a state of emergency by the president in the context of the ongoing public protests against the government cannot be the answer to the ongoing campaign of public protests against the government. These are a culmination of over many months of extreme economic hardship that have resulted in power cuts of up to 13 hours per day, steep increases in prices of essential commodities and shortages that have resulted in long queues on the roads.