By N Sathiya Moorthy
At a time when the nation is steeped in the three C’s, of food, fuel and forex crises and not necessarily in that order, comes the UN threat of an impending ‘catastrophic hunger’ in many parts of the world, particularly Africa, whose effects would be felt for a long time, even if immediate mitigation efforts were launched. In the case of Sri Lanka, the World Food Programme (WFP) is talking about assistance for around 500,000 people, but that does not mean that the rest of the poor and middle classes would have enough to eat and could afford it.
In the midst of this chilling prediction, the government seems to be still meandering around aimlessly, as if the twin leadership would be happy to go to bed tonight with new problems than the previous day, and not fewer problems. Tomorrow is another day, and both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would like someone else to shape that day than they taking the bull by the horn and doing something about it.
The reasons for the concerns are not far to seek. A month after assuming office as Prime Minister in a more democratic fashion than his previous five stints, the otherwise skilful Wickremesinghe still seems to have been overwhelmed by circumstances that he does not seem to know where to begin, for him to end somewhere. If there is Parliament session, as now, it will take care of as many days. Nothing really happens other than the talk-shops from the past. In comparison, in the pre-crises days, Parliament, despite being unruly on days, did transact valuable business of multiple types.
The drift is appalling but no one, including the political Opposition, wants to do something about it. They are not offering solutions, not because they are not in power, but because they have none to offer. Even vociferous TNA parliamentarians, for whom President Gotabaya personifies, ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’, have stopped with calling for and/or predicting his early exit. They are not talking either about the so-called political crisis, or the real-life economic crisis, for them to offer step-by-step correctives.
Worse next time
Speaking in Parliament, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, former minister in the Gota Cabinet, has cautioned/warned the nation that next time there is violent protests, the results would be worse than the previous one, on 9 May. Clearly, he was referring to the ‘retaliatory violence’ that followed the ‘Rajapaksa goons’ attacking peaceful protestors at Colombo’s Galle Face Green beach-front after President Gota had forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his elder brother, political mentor and all.
That very evening, the homes, cars and businesses of 78 ruling SLPP politicians were gutted in what now looks like coordinated arson, across southern Sri Lanka. Anarchy ruled the streets for those two hours or so, as the police, the security forces, the neighbour next door were all found wanting, and equally so. It is this that Weerawansa is referring to –- and he is clear that no rich person would be spared the next time round.
It is an odious warning for those who can remember and recall the first two ‘JVP insurgencies’, particularly the second one (1987-89). Of course, Weerawansa is not in the JVP for a decade. Nor has he referred to the JVP directly, or even to the past insurgencies. But the strength of his warning does not leave anything to chance, anything to imagination. He did not say-so, but imaginatively, it has to be linked to a revival of the struggle that is now slow-paced, to obtain the exit of President Gotabaya.
It may not be the JVP, or even the breakaway Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), which were believed to be behind organising the anti-Rajapaksa protests at least in parts. Leaders of both parties have owned up their independent contribution(s) to organising the protests, post facto.
They are believed to have a strong presence in trade unions and university students’ unions. Their competition can stall the nation. Their cooperation could worsen it. Where Weerawansa’s NFF fits into their scheme, if at all, and if the former wants any part of it, is for his party to clarify.
It does not stop there. The police has reportedly arrested more than 2,500 persons for the day’s events – both for the violence in GotaGoGama and the arson across the Sinhala South. In Parliament, two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to whose exit it was all timed, has accused ‘Aragalaya’, or the ‘Struggle’, of murder. It was the murder of ruling SLPP parliamentarian, Amarakeerthi Athukorala, which the social media first and the conventional media soon afterwards, passed off as suicide.
Among those arrested are some Buddhist monks. Activists have urged the police not to arrest a Catholic nun-cum-school principal, also on allegations of instigating violence and arson. Whether the perceived charge against Sr Mary Sonali is true or not, the Catholic Church cannot escape responsibility for letting an air of permissiveness creep into the laity, as never before.
In the name of seeking justice for the victims of the ‘Easter blasts’ (2019), Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, had said and done things against the government and the Sri Lankan State, that might have encouraged at least some among the laity and the clergy alike. In hindsight at least, if the Church concluded that such a course should have been avoided, that much is it better for the collective future as a Nation.
Nothing explains the prevailing air of permissiveness better, or worse, at the intellectual level than the role of an advocate in the controversial ‘Aeroflot’ aircraft ‘arrest case’. The high and mighty Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has chosen to look the other way, saying that they would refer the matter to the Chief Justice, if and only if a formal complaint was received.
Better or worse still is the attitude of the Election Commission, whose chairman Nimal G Punchihewa recently declared that the nation cannot go to the polls until the economic crisis was addressed. It is a political statement, which is linked to a condition, whose fulfilment in the future reads speculative, if not outright problematic.
One month after the 9 May incidents, the police are yet to file a single indictment in a single episode of that day, and the numbers should be running into hundreds. Instead, newspapers are still talking about the ‘Easter blasts case’, where too the trial is far away from commencing. Whatever be his other suspicions and complaints in the matter, Cardinal Ranjith has a point when he complains about the delay – though he too has stopped doing so, once the anti-Rajapaksa protests began capturing the nation’s imagination.
If nothing else, the police should fast-track what should be seen as the worst of the day’s events – namely, the cold-blooded murder of parliamentarian Athukorala. Early indictment and adequate publicity for the pre-trial stage itself should help discourage those that may go berserk, or want to go berserk, the ‘next time’ that Weerawansa is talking about. The intelligence agencies should also track down how and who tried to pass of the murder as suicide – a tale that remained so for the first 72 hours or even more. The latter, if it went unpunished, too, could have greater consequences than can be imagined, the ‘next time’ round!
(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: email@example.com)