Hundred days on, where from here after ‘Aragalaya’ victory?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Sad but true. When Sri Lanka was burning, literally and otherwise, global governments and institutions like the UN and UNHRC kept childing the nation’s government against the police firing even tear-gas shells or water-cannon against peaceful protestors elsewhere. They even condemned the security forces opening fire, killing a not-so-non-violent protestor, who was in a mob that was setting fire to a petrol bowser /tanker strategically parked on a railway track.

Weeks and months later, when every Rajapaksas had quit government, they were quick to appeal for peace, restraint. They said they were keeping a close watch on the evolving / emerging situation, and appealed for calm and smooth transition. Between the lines, there was an unsaid, unread message. Amen!

The list did not stop with the UN, the US and the EU. Nearer home, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, and other professional organisations of doctors, surgeons and engineers, not to leave out religious institutions like the Maha Sangha and the Catholic Council were advising restraint when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was President, and suggesting cordiality after he had left. Therein hangs a tale that could be unravelled in the months and years to come.

For their part, the Indian neighbour and the ‘Chinese friend’ of Sri Lanka have also since opened their mouth and called for social peace and political harmony. Thankfully, they maintained a healthy distance when unsavoury episodes were unravelling one after the other over the past weeks and months.

Mischief, not ignorance

Yet, India could not escape occasional and unfounded mention in the Sri Lankan social media about New Delhi sending troops to help out the Rajapaksas, then in power, and facilitating Gota’s demeaning exit to common neighbour Maldives. It was not ignorance, but mischief that was behind such claims and posts.

First, Sri Lanka has an armed force that has both national pride and professional pride. No government in Colombo, especially after the decisive defeat of LTTE terrorism as far back as 2009, could afford to upset and antagonise them by inviting foreign forces, to substitute them, or take on them (???), if that’s what was meant.

India has had its unsavoury experience with the IPKF in 1987-89. Institutional memories seldom fade, not when Sri Lanka was facing a near-similar situation, though without either side firing a shot. ‘Non-violent urban insurgency’ was/is the name of the game, and New Delhi was wise enough to understand the ground situation between than those in control of the ‘peaceful protests’ better than their detractors in the country understood, to be able to appreciate.

The government/institutional-level calls for peace and restraint, that too after Gota had scooted, has since been followed by INGOs like the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) howling protests against the free-hand given to the security forces to control the situation. They again are yet to mention a word against the arsonist attacks or on the occupation, hence denigration of multiple ‘Symbols of the Sri Lankan State’, namely, the President’s Secretariat and official residence and also the Prime Minister’s office.

Dictating terms

And their current condemnation of the security forces even before anything has been reported comes at a time when the centre-left Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) has talked about possibilities of a ‘civil war’ if Parliament elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as President, on 20 July. Without identifying themselves politically, a section of the protestors who were at the ‘Aragalaya’ (struggle) site, who had stayed on in the President’s Secretariat, official residence and the PM’s office, have since vacated all but the presidential secretariat. They would stay put until after the results of the presidential poll was known.

It is as if the protestors wanted to dictate terms to the larger political class – and by extension, constitutional institutions of every kind. Already, FSP leaders, owing up authorship and ownership for a substantial portion of the success of the mass movement, have been underscoring the mass nature of the protests that got everyone of the Rajapaksas in office, out, and outside of the constitutional norms and parliamentary processes.

They now seem to have been emboldened enough for declaring that they would not stop with leadership changes but wanted to enforce ‘systems change’, as if on ideological lines, again the very same way. Translated, they see the parliamentary processes as existing now only as a tool of a people’s movement for change.

Does it transpire that they are looking at a communist-government set-up as existing still in China, where the party is supreme and the government, Parliament and the armed forces are adjunct agencies? They have not included the armed forces in their list, but then when they said it, the security forces were not interfering with their protests and arson, big and small.

Layers and layers

As the Galle Face Green protests complete hundred days, and is still continuing, the question arises as to what the intentions and who their leaders are, if and when a new President wants to engage them in talks. There seem to be layers and layers of them, what with Ranil as President endorsing a set of demands put forth by one such group. Do they have an organised structure for the government to hold negotiations with? Two, do they represent all protestors across the country, starting even with multiple groups in GoGotaGama?

It is also here whom as President, or whose government would they be willing to talk to, if invited? Rather, whom they would not approve of as President even if elected by Parliament and endorsed by the Supreme Court, even if indirectly, as the Chief Justice is the one who swears in a new President? Ranil names top the list, yes, but are the protestors all together at it, or would there be a palpable division if Parliament elected him? But are there other names in their expandable list, if it is one?

Hundred days on, the protestors have won some, not, some. Truth be acknowledged, their goal from the beginning did not stop with getting Rajapaksas alone out. They wanted the cleansing of the existing political system of corruption, nepotism and all other ills that had contributed to the current national impasse, from which there is no easy or quick way out.

Now that the Rajapaksas, whom they branded as the symbol of all that was wrong with the Sri Lankan State and political systems, what do they intend doing next? Do they have a schematic approach to ridding the system of corruption, nepotism, et al, which would still only be a beginning? If so, how are they going to implement it – through the elected Parliament, which is still supposed to be legit and constitutional, or through the extra-constitutional means, through which they have already tasted victory?

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)