Whither Aragalaya?

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Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the post of Prime Minister on 09 May. On 09 June, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa resigned as a Member of Parliament. Following a mass uprising on 09 July, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the President’s House and subsequently resigned after leaving the country.

This seems to have given some opposition parties a delusion that they can topple the government if they protest on the 9th of any month. They also declared 09 August as a day of mass protest and called upon the people to gather in Colombo. The purpose of the call is to send President Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government home. Even though the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and Frontline Socialist Party were behind the call, Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s Member of Parliament, former army chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was the frontline speaker and he called upon people to participate in the ‘final battle.

On 09 July, the day of the historic popular uprising in the capital, the protestors were seen chasing away other politicians but a section of them was seen happily welcoming Fonseka. That reception seems to have given him a delusion that he has huge support amid the protest movement. Fonseka behaved as if he was the main speaker of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement both inside and outside Parliament.

He termed the orders issued by the government to suppress popular protest as ‘illegal’ and appealed to the army not to follow those orders. Although 13 years have passed since he retired from the post of the army chief, he appeared confident that the soldiers will heed his request. Samagi Jana Balawegaya did not fail to declare that they had nothing to do with his protest call.

As expected, people were not interested in participating in the final battle on 09 August. Those who called for that protest could not mobilise people in large numbers. Some trade union movements and supporters of the respective parties took out protest marches in some places. No one claimed to have seen the field marshal at any of those demonstrations.

People’s lack of interest in participating in that struggle does not necessarily mean that they support the current government or that people do not have enough problems to take to the streets. But people do not like to continue protracted struggles without clearly defined goals. There is a fear among people that continuous protests without clear goals may lead to chaos. It is also true that the Wickremesinghe government’s crackdown on the protestors had discouraged many organisations that have participated in and supported the ‘Aragalaya‘ protest movement for the past four months.

It must be said that those who call for a ‘final war’ have distorted the basic sentiments of the popular uprising that has changed the Sri Lankan political scene to a great extent. The protest movement had some basic goals: a new political culture must be created; A governance system that is accountable to the people and free from corruption should be established; There is no doubt that the people continue to show solidarity with the basic ideals of the protest movement which calls for system change as a whole.

At the same time, the opinion that the new president should be given time, who claims to have embarked on measures to rescue the country from the economic crisis, is strong among a significant section of the population, especially among the upper and middle classes. The cost of living continues to skyrocket despite some measures being taken by the government to provide temporary relief to the people.

On the one hand, the government, which claims to be interested in taking measures to mitigate economic risks, has on the other hand increased electricity tariffs by an unprecedented 75 percent. There is also a possibility that the charges of many services like water tariff will be increased. And by increasing various taxes, the people are being indirectly burdened. If this trend continues, it is inevitable that beyond a certain point, people will return to the streets. The political bureaucracy is determined not to allow a repeat of the popular revolt of the last four months where the people can rally to the doorstep of the regime and challenge it. The repressive measures of the Wickremesinghe government reflect this.

The ‘Aragalaya‘ movement may have died down. But that will not quell the political fervor that has developed among the public against misrule. In the period after the fall of the Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lankan politics cannot remain the same. Certainly, politicians cannot act as before without respecting the feelings of the people who will be watching them closely.

At the same time, it is necessary to look critically at what the ‘Aragalaya‘ movement has achieved so far and the approaches it has adopted. From the very beginning, the movement did not have clear-cut leadership. It was also seen that various organizations that came to the Galle face at Colombo in support of GotaGoGama and turned it into a platform to declare their intentions.

After Gotabaya Rajapaksa abdicated and fled the country, there was no clarity among the protest movement as to what was next. When the protest movement with the massive participation of the people shook the political bureaucracy and attracted the attention of the world, some political forces that infiltrated it tried to ‘hijack’ the movement in a manner consistent with their political agenda and led to violence. This in turn became an opportunity for Wickremesinghe’s government to unleash oppression.On 09 May, thugs unleashed by Mahinda Rajapaksa from Temple trees attacked the peaceful protestors at Galle Face which led to an uprising among people across the country. A similar response was not seen in the early hours of 22, when the police and army forcibly evicted the protesters.

The systematic change was the main slogan of the protest movement. Systematic change is essentially a political revolution. Regime change does not mean system change. Real systemic change is changing the political and economic structure of society. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke about system change during the November 2019 presidential election. Today President Wickremesinghe is also talking about it. They are against such a change. Such a change is completely against the interests of the class they represent.

So, the political ruling class will forcefully suppress the forces fighting for real system change. However, system change cannot be done while keeping the current state machinery intact. Therefore, simply using a slogan without a clear explanation of what a system change is can be misleading. Meanwhile, politicians are reverting to their old ways as if they were waiting for the protest movement to die down.

At the height of the protest movement, most of the political parties who talked about the formation of an all-party interim government and the need to build political commitment and win the trust and support of the international community are now focused on not cooperating with such an arrangement.

It is not clear how sincere President Ranil Wickremesinghe is in calling on party leaders to come forward to form an all-party government headed by members of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna as ministers. But political parties fear that participating in such a government could become a trap for them.

Although the President continues to hold talks with political parties, developments indicate that there is no chance of success in forming at least one multi-party government.

Political parties formulate their strategies keeping in mind how the positions they can take now will affect them in the next election. Even though the Opposition parties speak in support of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement, they are still inherently supporting the government’s current repressive measures. The political class does not want the people to decide how they should act.We also heard voices in Parliament stating:

“We were with the Rajapaksas before. We are still with them. We will be with them in the future. We will rise together with Rajapakses”.

Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

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