Mayhem starts in Mirihana! Where will it go? How will it end? by Rajan Philips

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Thursday/Friday (March 31/April 1)

6:00 PM

– Protesters gather at the Jubilee Post in their “tens of thousands”.

7:30 PM

– March towards Pengiriwatte Road leading to the President’s private residence.

8:39 PM

– “Several hundreds” protest at Pengiriwatte Road, chanting “Gota, Go Home.”

9:48 PM

– Tense situation as protesters try to the break police barricades.

10:27 PM

– Tear gas and water cannons fired as protesters break through barricades.

11:51 PM

– Sri Lankan Army bus and jeep set on fire. Vehicles overturned.

12:30 AM

– Kandy-Colombo Road blocked by protesters at the Bulugaha junction.

12:32 AM

– Injured people admitted to hospitals in Colombo and Kalubowila.

12:43 AM

– Police curfew imposed in Colombo and Nugegoda Police Divisions.

05:59 AM

– Police curfew lifted.

Online media registered the above timeline as Thursday night and Friday morning as protests unfolded near the private residence of President Rajapaksa in Mirihana. Sri Lankans at home and abroad, from Colombo to California, saw live reporting of the events. Over 30 people, including journalists, have been admitted to hospitals with injuries. Over 40 people have been arrested. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) has called Thursday’s events “unrest” and “riot” and blamed them on an unnamed “extremist group.”

While social media has been telling everyone about a major protest planned for Sunday, April 3, there has been little or no public intimation about the Mirihana protests, except for reported warning by state intelligence sources. On Friday morning, The Daily Mirror reported continuing “public outrage against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa” on social media. And public demonstrations are reportedly expected to continue on Saturday with a ‘white cloth’ campaign outside the Nelum Pokuna theater. Candlelight protests have been going on in several parts of the country as it plunged into darkness with extensive power cuts.

There is no clear information about the organization of the protest planned for Sunday. A Whatsapp message sent out by a social media group has been asking people to come out to protest on Sunday morning. Political parties have denied involvement and a number of them have called on their members not to participate in the protest on Sunday.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is being accused of having it both ways – encouraging the protest but disclaiming involvement. “People are suffering in darkness, they don’t have gas, food. We have tolerated the government enough. It’s time to act therefore join us and take to the streets on April 3,” Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa reportedly posted on his Facebook page. The post triggered “harsh criticisms” against Mr. Premadasa and calls to political parties “to stay out of it.”

The UNP, whose leader Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the All Party Conference convened by President Rajapaksa, has indicated that it will not participate in the protest on Sunday. In a twitter statement, the UNP said “the United National Party will not be joining any protest organized by anonymous groups. We are committed to conducting our Sathyagraha Campaign around the country. The next Sathyagraha will  be held at Matara on April 6, 2022 .”

The JVP has also “cautioned against protest campaigns that cannot be traced back to a recognizable and accountable organiser or group.” While acknowledging “the people’s right to organize their own protests against Sri Lanka’s worsening economic crisis,” the JVP has warned of “dangers lurking in a protest movement that has no accountability.”

Last week on this page, I referred to a statement by David Beasley, the executive director of the UN Word Food Programme (WFP), that the food situation in many countries today is worse than the 2011 crisis of rising food prices that triggered the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and across North Africa. I went on to comment that in Sri Lanka “no one can predict how the public mood will change and what it will precipitate if the current shortages and high prices continue to worsen and the government fails to provide relief to the people.”

Mirihana is now evidence as to what the public mood is. Howsoever it came to pass, the Mirihana protest summed up the mood of the people and their boiling anger at the government’s utter ineptitude and its heartless insensitivity. For the first time, public anger directly targeted the highest in the land. Once public anger is breached, it is hard to predict what course it will take. The perception of inaction by opposition parties is also opening up space for seemingly spontaneous protests to fill in.

Before Thursday night it seemed that India was ready to do some heavy lifting to protect the Rajapaksa presidency. Now, all of India’s lines of credit in cash and kind may not be enough to either prevent Humpty Dumpty from his great fall, or patching him up after the fall. But India has no permanent interest in Gotabaya Rajapaksa or any other Sri Lankan political leader, for that matter. If Gota is gone, as he is being asked to go, India will look for the next best bet among aspiring contenders. But is there any way that Gota can stay?

Protests and Options

One way would be to emulate what President Lyndon Johnson did when he stunningly announced at the end of a televised address on 31 March 1968: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” After becoming President in 1963, following Kennedy’s assassination, and his landslide victory in the 64 election, Johnson was hugely successful on the domestic front with truly historic achievements in civil rights, social welfare and social justice. But he was undone by the Vietnam war which started dividing America and destroying his presidency. Lyndon Johnson opted to take himself out of office and out of politics for the sake of the country.

Short of resignation, the best that the Sri Lankan President can do is to announce that he will not seek a second term but will use the remainder of his single term to work with all the political leaders and parties in parliament to make sure that Sri Lanka avoids mass starvation and that its derailed economy is put back on track. He should also commit to dissolving parliament at the earliest constitutional opportunity in March 2023. Beyond the current term, the President and the family should forget about any more extended terms in office. They should consider themselves lucky to get through with what they have now.

For the country, getting rid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the weekend is not going to solve the country’s foreign exchange crisis and its chronic shortages. Deposing the regime is not going to bring shiploads of food and fuel next week. As the constitution provides, if the President were to resign, the Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, will become the acting President until Parliament elects, by majority vote, an interim President from one of its MPs to serve out the remaining term of the resigning President. Let us not mention impeachment.

In a situation where Gotabaya Rajapaksa finds no alternative but to resign, Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot conceivably continue as acting President. He too will have to reign, and Parliament will have to find a way to elect some other MP as President, who will then appoint another MP as Prime Minister and still others as cabinet ministers. In the same breath, Parliament can pass a resolution calling for its dissolution, which the new acting/interim President will have to duly comply with.

All of this can happen and can be even fun if the country were in normal times. But it will not be fun for parliament to become theatre when people are running out of food and the country has already run out of fuel and electricity. On the other hand, allowing the incumbent President to continue, but on a tight leash from parliament, will avoid disrupting the pressing tasks of keeping essential supplies flowing to avoid mass starvation and endless dark nights. For this scenario, it cannot be business as usual for President Rajapaksa and for the rest of the Rajapaksa family.

The President will have to find a way to engage all the parties in parliament and forming a new cabinet focused on immediate relief measures and negotiations with the IMF. On Friday, Harsha de Silva posted an article entitled, “The Government cannot go on this way,” in which he draws attention to the collapse of public and investor confidence in the government and calls for “the complete overhaul of the monetary board of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL),” whose decisions are the main cause for the current crisis. The President has no option but to do this if he is to stay in office, and along with overhauling the monetary board, the President should also surround himself with a new team of advisors who will recommend Sri Lanka’s negotiating team for the IMF. It cannot include GL Pieris, Ali Sabri, Nivard Cabraal and S.R. Attygalle.

If the SJB or the JVP have other alternatives they should let the country know what they are. The SJB and the JVP have been flogging the dissolution horse for a while, but they do not have the votes in parliament to ride the poor animal home. Udaya Gamanpilla is now threatening that he and Weerawansa would be able to muster enough votes from both sides of the aisle to force an immediate election. Why would anyone from the opposition join these two discredited weathervanes who want a new election to get a new Finance Minister?

If parliament can muster a majority resolution to dissolve itself, so be it. But it would be ill-advised to do so in the current circumstances. It will leave the Executive President in total control until a new parliament returns. Worse, it will be a disruptive diversion from the more pressing tasks now – to scour for foreign exchange, streamline supplies, and restore electricity. Even if an election were to be held this year, it would still be a ‘hung parliament’ under the proportional representation system. How would it make it easier to get things done than it is now?

One would like to see the lifting of the curfew within five hours on Friday morning as a positive sign that no one in the government or the family is thinking Rathupaswala (August 1, 2013). There are legitimate fears that the government may use the current protests to clamp down militarily. But any clampdown will only worsen the situation of food shortages and foreign exchange crisis. The sanction-happy West will impose itself with vigour and will make the IMF inaccessible. All the currently assured cash and kind lines of credit from India will cease. China alone cannot feed all Sri Lankans, and it will likely not even try. There are better options.

Post Disclaimer

Disclaimer: Mayhem starts in Mirihana! Where will it go? How will it end? by Rajan Philips - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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