A ‘new’ president but ‘old’ games of state abuse

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The sullen growling of the Sri Lankan populace looking resentfully on as the nation’s political establishment consolidates itself once more, in the wake of an unparalleled surge of people power leading to the fleeing of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amidst the tactical retreat of the Rajapaksa family, must not be mistaken for weakness.

Farcical exercises of power

We have a ‘new’ President in place, no doubt. But a President ‘chosen’ by a Rajapaksa Parliament, while perfectly within the confines of the subversive Constitution that Sri Lanka is saddled with, is certainly not the moral solution to the extraordinary crisis of the State that we see. That solution is rendered even more hideous by the fact that President Ranil Wickremesinghe was resoundingly rejected by the electorate at the polls and only entered the House through the vagaries of the National List.

A cynic may well respond that electoral mandates mean little when a President who, just a few years ago, obtained a ‘stunning’ peoples’ mandate, was literally chased away from his house. That said, what we have now is hardly a ‘stable’ or ‘secure’ Government conducive to setting the economy to rights, as global financial rating agencies have themselves affirmed. It does not require much punditry to work that one out surely. Jostling heads of parliamentarians to have an ‘all  party’ Government of the same rogues who brought this crisis on the heads of Sri Lankans is hardly the answer.

Postponing polls that will bring about a House that is more accurately reflected by the electorate and proposing constitutional amendments that will hardly disturb the balance of power are farcical exercises. So too are victories on the floor of the House while entrenching the status quo, whether in relation to the validation of emergency powers or otherwise. These are only temporary reprieves. A few days ago, the public was apprised that the Elections Commission had called upon the Maha Sangha to inform that holding elections of any kind were not practical at this stage.

Full-on attack on constitutional liberties

Pray is the Elections Commission labouring under the mistaken assumption that the Constitution confers upon it a political role? What occasioned its members to follow in the steps of politicians who troop regularly for meetings with the Sangha, using those ‘events’ as propaganda exercises? Maybe it is time that the Commission was re-educated on the role and function of ‘independent’ oversight commissions. Regardless, the point here is that, the State’s attacks on Sri Lanka’s protestors have become multifold, part of a full-on state assault on the constitutional right to freedom of speech, expression and association.

Unsurprisingly, ‘old’ games of abuse of state power continue with scarcely a pause. Systemic corruption, governance failures and abuse of state power which lie at the centre of Sri Lanka’s financial meltdown do not show any sign of change under a new Executive President whose office is remarkably prompt in issuing regular ‘puff’ press releases in regard to steps that are being taken towards ‘economic recovery.’ These reassurances can be taken on face value only by the very naive, it must be said. Indeed, the focus of this Presidency appears to be more on ‘hunting down’ protestors.

Last Friday’s horrendous raid on the protest site at the Galle Face Green, the dismantling of medical tents, libraries and attacks on unarmed protestors did not stop there. We are witnessing the relentless hunt not only of the (possibly) guilty but also the palpably innocent. This includes arrests of several key activists who had entered and frolicked inside state buildings, on charges of, inter alia, destroying state property. State agents are also tracking down journalists and members of the Buddhist and Catholic clergy who had been in the forefront of the struggles.

Where will this end?

Does the Government believe that the hundreds and thousands of people who poured into Colombo during the past months can all be locked up or intimidated? That is a belief that Sri Lanka’s history has proved wrong time and time again. The country’s medical professionals this week issued a statement that made this point clear by speaking to the fact that the genuine aims of the ‘aragalaya’ must not be lost sight of, in the name of violence at the hands of a faction.

While physical intimidation and threats are levelled at selected individuals, civil rights lobbies that had stood up for the protection of constitutional rights, including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, are also pointedly targeted through strategic interviews and media interventions. All this is part of a state propaganda machine working frenziedly to protect its own. By itself, that is perfectly predictable, we are acutely familiar with these patterns of state violence.

And at least for now, this is an effective checkmating of the months-long protests that had paralysed Sri Lanka, calling for the ‘Rajapaksas to go’ but also asking for ‘system change.’ Well, the Rajapaksas have (temporarily) gone, leaving their faithful in charge, content to play the role of puppet masters as it were for the moment at least. And there are unwelcome truths that must be acknowledged. There is a context to the State’s counter-attacks which underlines mistakes committed by protestors during the course of the ‘aragayala.’

Taking heart from the core message of the ‘aragalaya

These counter-attacks may not have been enabled to such a flagrant extent as is presently evidenced if lunatic political elements had not infiltrated the  ‘aragalaya’ (peoples’ struggle) and if manifestations of violence by some of its proponents had been roundly and publicly condemned by their colleagues far sooner. What we are talking of here are not internal criticisms within components of the ‘aragalaya’ itself but a more robust acknowledgement of its pristine aims of ‘system change’ not mere regime change.

These are two important ‘ifs’ that determined the course and outcome of the struggle. That it got to the point of asinine and cocky assertions by some ‘aragalaya-ists’ of their own importance, whether storming into the state television studios or on public podiums is unfortunate to say the least. That seasoned hands of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) advocated an assault on Parliament at one point is an excellent example of missing the wood for the proverbial trees.

That, by itself is more worthy of condemnation than its compatriot group, the Frontline Socialist Party waxing eloquent that whoever sits in the seat of the Presidency must be ‘acceptable to them.’  All this subverted the core of the ‘people’s struggle’ and made it easy for the State to counter-attack with force which is what we see now. That said, this does not diminish the value of that struggle or the very real gains that it made. Public scorn directed at all politicians defied common patterns that defined civil society ‘activism’  in the country since independence.

Generally that has meant supporters of one or the other equally corrupt and dysfunctional alternate political parties clustering around their favourites following an election win. This made wholesale reform of the political establishment or ‘system change’ quite impossible. That, in a nutshell, took place in 1994 (Chandrika Kumaratunga) and in 2015 (Ranil Wickremesinghe).  The nature of the ‘aragalaya’ which was against the political establishment broke with those self-defeating patterns.

We must not lose sight of that crucial fact.

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