Saying No To Authoritarian Governance

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

We the undersigned individuals from academia, the professions, the corporate sector, the clergy, and civil society organisations, join all those citizens and groups in condemning the abduction, arrest, detention without due process, and other acts of abusive Presidential and State authority committed against persons who participated in the Aragalaya Peoples’ Movement. We condemn the acts of violence that occurred during this time.  However, we reject the narrative that the Aragalaya was responsible for the violence and that it has been transformed into a “fascist,” “anarchist,” “terrorist,” group, that has destroyed State and private property, and is determined to destabilise our country. We also reject the constant and dangerous media messages reinforcing this state rhetoric and aimed at discrediting the movement. Various peaceful struggles of the people as in the recent past in the North and the East have been discredited in a similar manner with similar rationales. A country which has been reduced to a failed state cannot afford any longer to tolerate this false and arrogant disregard of the voice of the People by the government.  

 

The short history of the Aragalaya movement is part of our national history and we must reject the efforts of the President, the current Pohottuwa government with its ever present Rajapaksa family, and even some sections of the media to represent the Aragalaya as a fascist, terrorist, movement and distort that reality. 

The Aragalaya Movement has attempted to hold the Pohottuwa government in office responsible for the country’s bankruptcy and the denial of basic needs of the People, in an unprecedented context of economic and political instability and chaos. Our Constitution in its Preamble assures to all of us “freedom…. and fundamental rights as “the intangible heritage that guarantees the dignity and wellbeing of succeeding generations of the People”. The “freely elected Representatives of the People” in pursuance of that mandate are required to “humbly acknowledge (their) obligations to the People.”  These foundational values are incorporated in the specific Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution, and have been interpreted many times in our Supreme Court.

Sovereignty is therefore in the “People,” and Parliament and the Executive must exercise their powers in a manner that ensures that Sovereignty can be “exercised and enjoyed” by the People (Article 4). Fundamental rights must be “respected secured and advanced” by both these organs of government (Article 4(d) and CANNOT be restricted except when it is legal, proportionate and reasonable, in the manner defined in Article 15.

The Aragalaya and its objectives of challenging bad governance therefore conforms to the demands and vision of the Constitution on the responsibilities of Parliament and the Executive in governance. The phrase “lost mandate” used in the Aragalaya, refers to the loss of the Pohottuwa President’s and government’s right to exercise their powers of governance as the legislature and executive on behalf of the Sovereign People.  A government forfeits its  mandate to govern by  gross mismanagement, abuse of power and corruption, and by destroying social cohesion through its anti-minority rhetoric.  We must remember that the Aragalaya movement also established a lost connectivity in this country between individuals and communities of different races and religions. This was a powerful statement of a unity of purpose and vision, and togetherness between majority and minority communities, in a country which had experienced the trauma of ethnic and religious conflict.

It is because the People related to this idea of the lost mandate, and a common national identity  that the Aragalaya was able to mobilise broad based support especially among the youth of this country. We as citizens must recognize that we have a right to struggle for transformative change in governance. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and information, freedom of protest are legitimate forms of democratic dissent and part of this right. The history of country’s shows it is the exercise of the right of dissent and the claiming of rights by broad based People’s movements, that helps  achieve political transformation including institutional reforms. We must therefore challenge President Wickremesinghe’s and the government’s attempts to say that there is a difference between an aragalaya (struggle)  and a “kerella” (rebellion).

We call upon our fellow citizens to understand and reflect on these realities. They should not be misled by this false and devious narrative. It is critically important at this time of national crisis to reject the authoritarian governance of President Wickremesinghe and the Pohottuwa government in the name of law and order. We must remember that the takeover of the President’s House and state buildings on 9th July by the Aragalaya movement was peaceful, and not accompanied by violence to persons or property. The looting and destruction of property in these buildings that occurred later, after the protesters left the premises, was because the government and law enforcement authorities made no effort to be present at those locations, and prevent such lawlessness. In retrospect it seems as if this was deliberate, and intended to discredit the Aragalaya movement.  

We must remind ourselves that it was the Aragalaya protesters who handed over to the Police cash amounting to millions of rupees found in President’s House. Any shortfall in the amount handed over by the protesters must surely be explained by the Police, who had custody of this cash for three weeks. The Aragalaya activists gathered near Parliament but did not attempt to storm the  Parliament building. They stated publicly that they would not gather near Parliament during and before the proceedings connected with the election of the new President. When the President states that the Aragalaya movement was meant to overthrow and undermine the institution of Parliament by force, he is denying these realities. Contrast the events of 2018 when Parliamentarians perpetrated acts of violence and destroyed property and denigrated the office of the Speaker of the House within the Chamber of Parliament. This was with complete impunity. Shockingly, Minister Bandula Gunawardane of this Pohottouwa government even said in Parliament recently that impunity was a part of Parliamentary privilege. This highlights that  the narrative about extra Constitutional and anarchist  efforts to capture governance is flawed.

It is also ironical that the Aragalaya is now being accused of unlawfully entering State property and looting artifacts and damaging state property, when the enormous financial loss caused to the country by corruption and gross mismanagement of national resources by politicians and public officials of this government, and in the Bond scam during the Yahapalanaya government, have  not been prosecuted in any legal proceedings. No one has upto now been held accountable, despite the appointment of many Commissions, and frequent investigations.

The President’s new discourse outlined in his policy statements to Parliament and the nation suggests that the State is going to make institutional arrangements to sponsor the Aragalaya with hotlines, a high-powered committee and administrative arrangements.  This is surely a peculiar interpretation of the abiding values embedded in the right of protest and dissent of the People. Amazingly, these plans and policies of the President have been combined with the declaration of a State of Emergency accompanied by draconian Gazette regulations. These measures have empowered the armed forces and the police to suppress dissent and violate the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of citizens. The President’s constant adulation of the military, his frequent visits and interactions with the armed forces, send a chilling message of militarism in governance. These actions are supported by a reckless, irresponsible, and sometimes corrupt constituency of Pohottuwa  Parliamentarians, who helped to elect President Wickremasinghe to office, and are still members of this government. 

Given these appalling realities, we as citizens ask the President and the Opposition Parties to address the following important matters.

For the President:

1. Recognise that in our Constitution Article 4, the  Executive President holds office as the person “ELECTED BY  THE PEOPLE.”  The Constitution provides for a transfer of power to a President ELECTED BY MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT due to a vacancy in the Presidency.  This should not be interpreted to mean that a President who takes office after a discredited ex-President has vacated post  can claim to hold office for the balance term of that ex-President, and his government. The loss of legitimacy of the predecessor President and government surely affects the idea of continuity. President Wickremesinghe should therefore, in keeping with foundational democratic values not seek to hold office for the full BALANCE TERM of the former President. 

2. Clarify what he means by the mandate given to him to “introduce systemic change in governance on behalf of the silent majority.” All we see is that he has engaged in various measures which entrench dictatorial governance. Even more dangerously he is justifying authoritarianism in governance on the myth of threats to national security.  He is also framing the need for national unity and an all party consensus at this time, as the essential need for co-operation from the opposition parties, with the discredited Pohottuwa government.  

This is in fact encouraging the public  and these parties to disregard the flagrant corruption and abuse of power that caused this dreadful man-made disaster in our country and the very rationale for Gotabaya Rajapakse being forced to run away. We are encouraged to forget why all his family members were forced out of office. After all, it was the Aragalaya initiative that helped the nation to recognize the responsibilities and accountability of the Rajapakse led Pohottuwa government for abysmal  governance and abuse of power.

3. We call upon him to act on the clearly articulated demands of the Aragalaya.  Their concept of systemic change is a corruption free government that is not engaged in reckless abuse of powers. They want an abolition of the Executive Presidency and strong institutions that respect the rights and needs of the People. Therefore, fulfilling his oath of office, the President must WITHDRAW THE STATE OF EMERGENCY which has NO RATIONALE OR JUSTIFICATION WHATSOEVER at this time.  He must respect, protect and implement the fundamental rights of the People, including the right to protest and dissent. Such action must be accompanied by the release of all those participants in the Aragalaya held in custody under orders of arrest and detention, and restoration of their right to freedom of movement and overseas travel.    

4. Recognising himself as an INTERIM PRESIDENT he must act under the Constitutional provisions and hold a General Election as soon as he is empowered to dissolve Parliament. This will enable the country to decide on the next government.  In the interim period he should implement the general demand in the country today for a government representative of all parties, without reinstating the discredited Pohottuwa government. He clearly made a promise to the nation on the 13th of July  that he would resign as PM and only hold office till an all-party interim government was appointed. The huge trust deficit that he acknowledged then must be recognized now by President Wickremesinghe, if he is to lead an all-party interim government. 

5. President Wickremesinghe should not waste time on ad hoc Constitutional reforms such as the 22nd Amendment. Even the much publicised 19th Amendment had serious problems of achieving balance of powers between President and Prime Minister. It had many other shortcomings as evidenced in the constitutional crisis of 2018.  The President should immediately take steps to ensure the abolition of the Executive Presidency before Parliamentary elections are held. The 21st Amendment that went before the courts, addressed this critical demand for constitutional reform and an early abolition of the Executive Presidency.  This can be enacted without delay with a time frame for transfer of power. 

For the Opposition Parties:

Respond to the current situation in the interests of the nation but not in such a manner as to ensure the continuation of the Pohottuwa Cabinet and government. We expect them to also respect and advance the fundamental rights of the People. They must take a stand on repealing the Emergency and in particular in supporting an interim All-Party government that does not seek to deny or restrict the right of dissent and protest of the People. This must be their contribution to helping the All-Party Interim government this country needs at this time. Co-operation with a discredited government is not a solution to the current economic and political crisis though it is advocated by some religious leaders and some media.

In conclusion if President Ranil Wickremesinghe takes the above course of action he will be recognized by the country as a person who lived upto his declared commitment to a system of Parliamentary democracy, and respect for the Rule of Law, in such a system. He should not acquire the mantle of “strong man” leadership and authoritarian governance, that yoke of corrupt and selfish Rajapakse family rule of decades, that has burdened  this country and almost destroyed it. If he does so, he will not  lead Sri Lanka to an era of economic recovery, and political stability (including resolution of national question), but rather throw us all into  an abyss  of continuing unaccountable and undemocratic governance.

  1. Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare, Emeritus Professor of Surgery, University of Peradeniya
  2. Prof. Savitri Goonesekere – Emeritus Professor of Law, former Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo
  3. Prof. Harendra de Silva – Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics, University of Colombo
  4. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda –Emeritus  Professor , University of Colombo
  5. Prof. Priyan Dias -Emeritus Professor, University of Moratuwa
  6. Prof. Deepika Udagama – University of Peradeniya
  7. Prof. Arjuna Parakrama – University of Peradeniya ,
  8. Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe – University of Colombo
  9. Prof. Camena Guneratne –Open University of Sri Lanka
  10. Prof. Sasanka Perera – Department of Sociology, South Asian University
  11. Bishop Duleep de Chickera
  12. Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe 
  13. Dr.G.Usvatte-aratchi – Economist, UN Secretariat in New York City, formerly Chairman, PAFFREL and Chairman, Law and Society Trust
  14. Dr. Ranil Abayasekara –   Senior Lecturer (retired), University of Peradeniya
  15. Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere-  Retired Prof. Princeton University, USA
  16. Ameer Faaiz – Attorney at Law
  17. Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris
  18. Dr. Sakuntala Kadirgamar – Executive Director, Law and Society Trust
  19. Dr. Mario Gomez- Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies
  20. Dr. Chulani Kodikara- Researcher 
  21. Dr. D. C. Ambalavanar – Visiting Lecturer in Surgery, University of Jaffna
  22. Dr. A C Visvalingam – former President, Citizens Movement for Good Governance
  23. Rev. Andrew Devadason – Clergy,  Anglican Church,  Diocese of Colombo
  24. Rajan Asirwathan – Former Precedent Partner and Country Head K PMG and former Chairman, Bank of Ceylon
  25. Chandra Jayaratne – former Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce
  26. Aneesa Firthous – Human Rights Activist 
  27. Aruna  Shantha Nonis – Convenor, Janodaanya (Upward Breathing of People )
  28. Dr. Farah Mihlar -Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter
  29. Shiekh M.B.M.Firthous – Chairman, Bismi Institute
  30. Ashila Niroshine Dandeniya- Executive Director,  Stand Up Movement Lanka
  31. Bisliya Bhutto – Former Member of Puttalam Pradeshiya Sabha
  32. Buhary Mohamed- Human Rights Activist
  33. Herman Kumara- National Convener, NAFSO
  34. Christopher Dias
  35. Deekshya Illangasinghe – Activist
  36. Fr Nandana  
  37. Visakha Tillekeratne – Consultant, Food and Nutrition,
  38. Geetha Lakmini Fernando .-Executive Director, Shramabhimani Kendraye 
  39. Juwairiya Mohideen- Women’s Rights Activist
  40. Hemamali Perera- Attorney at Law, Human Rights Activist,
  41. Jansila Majeed – Women Rights Activist
  42. K. J. Brito Fernando – President,  Families of the Disappeared
  43. Marisa de Silva
  44. Rev. Niroshan de Mel – Vicar of St. Michael and All Angels Church,  Colombo 3
  45. K.Nihal Ahamed -Social and Environment Activist, Katugastota
  46. Shreen Saroor -Human Rights Activist
  47. Krishanti Dharmaraj – Human Rights Advocate
  48. Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda
  49. Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan – Women’s Rights Activist
  50. Soraya M Deen – Attorney-at-Law
  51. Mahishaa Balraj -Attorney-at-Law
  52. Rev. Andrew Devadason- Anglican Church, Diocese of Colombo
  53. Marian Pradeepa Sudarshani Coonghe –  Administrative Secretary, Janawaboda Kendraya
  54. Minoli de Soysa -Editor and writer
  55. Mohamed Fairooz,  – Journalist 
  56. Ranitha Gnanarajah -Attorney at Law
  57. P. Jeyatheepa -Counsellor.
  58. Fr. Adikarage Don Bennette Chrysanthus Mellawa- Director, Caritas Anuradhapura
  59. S.C.C.Elankovan – Lawyer and Development Consultant
  60. Janakie Abeywardane- Development Researcher
  61. Mahbooba Rifaideen – Attorney at Law
  62. P.M. Mujeebur Rahman –  Journalist 
  63. Jayani Abeysekara- Human Rights Activist
  64. Vanie Simon -Women’s Rights Activist
  65. P.N.Singham – Activist
  66. Fr. Rohan Silva – Director, Centre for Society and Religion
  67. Sheila Richards – Civil Society Activist
  68. Ramani Muttettuwegama,-Attorney at Law
  69. Thiru Kandiah- Retired Academic
  70. Yohesan Casiechetty – Attorney-at-Law and former Headmaster, St. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Kollupitiya  
  71. Ruwan Laknath Jayakody -Writer
  72. S. Sumithra – Human rights Activist
  73. Saman Kapila Wijesuriya -Co-Convenor Global Alliance for Justice for Easter Sunday Victims
  74. P. Muthulingam- Executive Director, Institute of Social Development 
  75. Sandun Thudugala – Director Programmes and Operations, Law and Society Trust
  76. Sirany Thevakumar – Community Activist
  77. Rev. Rosairo SJ -.  Chaplin Home for the Elders,
  78. Sr. Deepa Fernando – Holy Family Congregation
  79. Suren D. Perera – Attorney at Law,
  80. Upendra Gunesekere – Human Rights activist
  81. Safana Gul Begum -Attorney at Law
  82. Vincent Bulathsinghala – Attorney at Law ,
  83. Y.M Nawarathna – Human Rights Activist
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