The protest movements initiated and run by the citizens, independent of the involvement of political parties and the conflicts associated with them, seem to be serving as a political womb that gives birth to a more prosperous community of citizens. People protest in Kalutara earlier this week – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Now the mass uprising that has erupted in the wake of the crisis facing the country has reached a historic moment in which the initial phase of a great transition of the political will of the people has largely ended. The process so far can be considered as a direct democratic uprising of the people.
There are many good things that could be done by peaceful mass uprisings. But, unless exercised with due discipline, clear and sound knowledge on when and where to stop them, such uprisings could even end up in plunging the country into political anarchy. The people are still on the streets. Despite the two-thirds majority, the Government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in a pathetic state of disintegration.
The Mirihana event on 31 March
On the evening of 31 March, a large number of people living in the vicinity of the private road leading to the residence of the President at Mirihana, Pangiriwatta staged a vigorous protest against the suffering they have been undergoing due to severe shortage of food, fuel and other essentials along with record inflation and crippling power cuts. Even earlier, a group of women led by Hirunika Premachandra had staged a protest in front of the President’s residence. It was a program of a political party.
But, the 31 March event, which was relatively a bigger and more powerful protest movement, may be considered as a voluntary and impulsive protest movement of independent citizenry which had no affiliation with any political party. Although not on such a large scale, this group had carried out a peaceful and disciplined protest near the Jubilee Post in the evening for about 20 consecutive days. The participants of this protest included men and women from middle-class backgrounds. The fact that they had engaged in the protest for about 20 consecutive days indicates the extent of the pressure imposed by the crisis on their lives.
It is not clear as to why they had decided to shift the venue of the protest movement to a location in front of the residence of the president. Perhaps, they must have thought that it was the ideal venue for the protest. Whatever it may be, it appears that a fairly large crowd had joined the protest held in front of the president’s residence compared to the earlier occasions they had it near the Jubilee Post. Although this mass protest movement was dispersed by deploying a large force of police and the army, and attacking the demonstrators with tear gas and water cannon, the chain of events that took place on that day has led to make a number of significant and far-reaching changes in the political picture of Sri Lanka.
Primacy for the people
Until this historic event which took place on 31 March, the political parties held the monopoly power to determine the political course of the country. If at all the people have become politically active in the past, it was at the behest of the political parties. But the people who took part in the event of 31 March have not acted on the orders of any political party. It was a very bold and strong protest launched on a decision taken independently by a group of people living in a particular area. They have not sought the support of any political party for that. It seems that their intention has been to act on their own strength. The protests launched by the masses without the involvement of political parties, albeit not so vigorous, had become a common occurrence in many other places.
In addition to a strong anti-government and anti-systemic hostility, it was clear that the people had a strong opposition to all conventional political parties. It can be considered as a newly emerged trend. With this development, it can be said that the dominance of the political parties in the political space of Sri Lanka has been completely broken down and the people have now gained a significant share of it. The policy followed by the Government as well as the Opposition in regard to the crisis facing the country until the event of 31 March cannot be said to have been just or positive.
In a massive crisis of this nature, what the Government should have done was to realise that it was not an issue that the Government alone could overcome and seek the support of the Opposition parties as well, and formulate a reform program which has a true potential to overcome the crisis, and acceptable to the people, and implement it with the support of everyone concerned. But the Government did not have a far-sighted vision to do that. The corrupt, wasteful, foolish and arrogant policy pursued by the Government in this context, led to shattering the public support base of the Government to the maximum.
In such a massive crisis if the Government does not accomplish its duties and responsibilities, then the Opposition should have shouldered the responsibility of directing the Government, the people and the country to a program of structural reforms to overcome the crisis. But the Opposition political parties were more inclined to use the crisis facing the country as an opportunity to seize power as soon as possible which they have made the number one item in their priority list rather than finding a solution to it. By then, the competition of Opposition parties for political supremacy had also assumed a rough and ugly shape.
The ambitious policy of the JVP to become the next sole alternative to the political power of the country also exacerbated the divisions among the Opposition parties. Had there been a public criticism on the conduct of political parties before the crisis, there was a huge increase in that tendency after the crisis; consequently the portion of people that appeared for various political parties had begun to shrink while that of the people who were inclined to view the issues from an independent perspective has been increasing. Most importantly, this crisis has led to weakening the backward and tribal attitudes of the people. It has caused to weaken the anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim attitudes as well as the attitude against non-Buddhist religions that existed especially among Sinhala Buddhists with consequential impact on promoting pluralistic attitudes.
Transition of the popular will of the citizenry
The protest movements initiated and run by the citizens, independent of the involvement of political parties and the conflicts associated with them, seem to be serving as a political womb that gives birth to a more prosperous community of citizens. The death toll of violent clashes and riots that broke out at different times in the past was very high. The fear and cruelty unleashed by those conflicts had turned the survivors of those conflicts also into spiritually dead people. This extraordinary social environment had caused to create an unscrupulous society which was selfish, tribal, rooted in superstitious beliefs, easily deceivable and cowardly.
The struggle the hundreds of thousands of people are making in this crisis in the form of protest movements for the dignity, freedom, and above all, for a wholesome transformation of Sri Lanka have contributed to heal their wounded and sick souls and turn them into advanced, sensitive, pluralistic and scrupulous citizens. Despite the preparations made by a group of young people appealing to the public to gather in large numbers in almost all the cities in the country to stage a mass protest on Sunday, 3 April, has caused a great deal of criticism, the overwhelming response received for their appeal shows that their appeal had aroused a great public interest.
Also, the vastness of their thinking and the use of modern technology for achieving it deserve special attention and appreciation. If the appeal for the display of protest had been made in the name of a political party, the response it received from the public would not have been so overwhelming. The leaders who have designed and organised this protest movement should realise that the vast majority of respondents who took part in the protest did not know from whom have they received the invitation though there has been an overwhelming response to their appeal. If those who steered such an invisible program tend to think that the people of the country have already accepted them as their leaders, they must realise that it is far from reality and is not a correct idea.
Arriving at a solution
The crisis in Sri Lanka now lies in a situation where the political dominance possessed by the ruling party led by the Rajapaksa family has lost it to a great extent that cannot be regained. But the power has not yet been truly transferred to the people or to any other alternative power group that can be considered as the representatives of the people. Under the circumstances, it will be in the interest of the people to direct the country to a program of structural reforms that will help overcome the balance of payments crisis and the socio-political crisis under a temporary governing body before initiating a transfer of power.
The present moment can be considered as a critical turning point in the crisis. If that turning point is missed and caught in a wrong end, the entire transformation that is envisaged could go astray and plunge the country to a political anarchy. The slogan that says “No” for 225 may be nice, but not democratic. Who should be in the legislature and who should not be in it, ought to be decided by the people, not on the streets, but by the voters at the next general election. The people want a systemic change, not a regime change. It must be achieved in a constitutional and democratic manner. That’s why it requires a program of reform that operates within a democratic framework.
It must take place within a constitutional framework. It is necessary to introduce a reform program and set up a temporary administrative framework to implement it. If the President agrees to such a program, an interim governing council that would allow representation of the Government and the Opposition, the political streams which are outside the mainstream political parties and the people themselves who can now be considered as the real owners of the transformation, could be formed.
The incumbent President needs to be associated with the interim governing council regardless of his Rajapaksa name, because his official status provides the constitutional basis required for the transformation program envisaged to be carried out in the country. It is the interim or the caretaker government that should rule the country until the next general election and also formulate and implement a reform program.
I do not intend to talk about the basics that should be included in the reform program as I have already talked about them previously. It is important that the United Nations will be involved in this program as an observer so that no one could disrupt it in the process. An Interim Constitution should be adopted to empower the interim or caretaker government to pursue the Reform Program, implementation of the program for making a new constitution with people’s participation, and the functioning of the Constitution Council which is composed of the people’s representatives.
At the same time, until a suitable system of governance is adopted after enacting a new constitution, the powers of the President which have placed him above the law could be abolished and subject him to the rule of law and also the judiciary could be given the full powers of review until necessary reforms are made to the judiciary. It means granting the judiciary the power to repeal any illegal activity or law that is contrary to the law. The abolition of the ‘78 Constitution and the ratification of the New Constitution can be made a matter of a single referendum.
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