The acting president was appointed as Prime Minister by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the ranks of the opposition after the Aragalaya (people’s uprising) took a violent turn on May 9. That was the day the torching of some 70 houses of government members took place in the aftermath of government-sponsored goon attacks on peaceful protestors which also saw the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The entry of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe into the ranks of the government immediately served to stabilize the Rajapaksa government that was tottering without a cabinet and without a prime minister. It infuriated those who wanted the government to step down immediately but gave a measure of hope to others that stability and rational governance would be restored to the country in place of the irrationality that had prevailed.
In one of his first acts as the acting president, Mr Wickremesinghe has declared that the houses of all government members that were destroyed will be rebuilt. The destruction of the houses of government members constitutes the main act of violence that mars the period of the Aragalaya. There was a need to empathise similarly with the thousands of families who have lost their homes over the years due to war and violence and continue to live in makeshift shelters. The death toll during the four months of mass public agitation has been remarkably low and in the single digits in comparison to the vast numbers participating in the protests. From a comparative perspective, and viewed in international terms, the upheavals in Sri Lanka have been peaceful which accounts for the strong international interest in developments in the country.
However, the acting president has declared a state of countrywide emergency. There are expressions of support for a tough approach to restoring normalcy. The problem, however, is that the vast majority of people continue to suffer economically from the debacle the country is in, and their willingness to come out and protest will be difficult to suppress. This may explain the approach of the heads of the security forces who have urged the government to find a political solution without getting them to crack down on the protestors. The fact is that the cause of the protest movement is the same as that of the families of the soldiers who are facing the same economic deprivations as the rest of the country.
There is also a need to be cognizant of the extent of international media attention that has been focused on Sri Lanka in the recent weeks. There are regular news items and feature stories in international newspapers and television channels about what is happening in Sri Lanka. The story of how an unarmed and peaceful people’s movement caused a powerful president to flee abroad and brought down a government has been a fascinating one for the international media. They see Sri Lanka as a possible model that may be replicated elsewhere in the world. International attention is a double-edged sword. A deterioration in the situation accompanied by a spike in violence and government repression could once again bring back the old condemnation of the country on account of the allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes.
As articulated by the Collective for Reforms, a grouping of leading civil society leaders and activists, “We acknowledge the positive contribution of the peaceful protest movement, praised nationally and internationally, and applaud their decision to peacefully vacate state property and de-escalate the heightening crisis. We call on the government not to resort to Emergency Law and curfew to suppress the rights of the people to democratic protest but uphold the values of the Aragalaya which hold promises for a truly democratic and egalitarian polity in a future Sri Lanka.” The challenge is not only to win the elections in parliament and be the president. The challenge will be to engage with the Aragayala without arrogance and with a consciousness of a null mandate, and ensure peace and justice.
In political science, a revolution is a fundamental and relatively sudden change in political power and political organization which occurs when the population revolts against the government, typically due to perceived oppression (political, social, economic) or political incompetence. For a revolution that drove out a powerful president and an equally if not more powerful prime minister, both regarded by the majority of people as war heroes, and also to the resignation of the entire cabinet of ministers, the Aragalaya has been remarkably non-violent and free of killings. Both the protestors and security forces have been restrained in their actions. On more than one occasion individual members of the security forces have openly shown their sympathy for the protestors although there have been acts of brutality too.
The main reason for restraint on both sides would be the participation in the Aragalaya of a wide cross section of the population. So far the Aragalaya has spanned the generations and ethnic divides and has even included young children carried on the shoulders of their parents as entire families joined in the protests. It has the ability to melt into the homes of the people, giving the impression of a return to normalcy, and then re-emerge as a massive tide of people out on the streets when the occasion demands and a date is fixed. The public protests have united the country’s people in their one goal to see the end of a government that they believe stole their wealth and reduced their incomes by one half in a matter of three years.
The success of the Aragalaya is forcing political change that would not have been possible in ordinary circumstances. This is due to the fact that the electoral mandate received by the government three years ago has been effectively nullified by the public uprising. This applies in particular to the members of the ruling party and former government who have a null mandate having lost their moral legitimacy to govern the country which led to their resignations. This provides the context in which the leaders of the protest movement are laying down conditions to the government, such as the need for an interim all-party government, economic and tax reforms and constitutional change and elections within a year. There are other demands such as their rejection of the acting president and seeking his resignation.
In this context, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s latest proposal needs serious consideration. He has joined the call of civil society and religious leaders for a consensual decision on the presidency by parliament. He has said he is willing to withdraw from contesting for the presidency if all parties get together and agree to nominate two MPs for the presidency and premiership, who do not have aspirations of holding these positions in the long run. He further said they are also willing to accept responsibilities in an upcoming interim government, if this condition is met as well as agreement is reached on a short term action plan to stabilize the country and go for fresh elections as soon as possible.