On August 2, the Joint Opposition held the “Jana Bala Sena” rally, beginning at Lipton Circus and ending at the Vihara Maha Devi Park amphitheatre.
The protest at Lipton Circus was broadcast live by Hiru News and has received 1000 likes, 228 shares and over 950 comments at the time of writing.
Ending at the Vihara Maha Devi amphitheatre, the rally drew a large crowd. Below is a capture of the crowd at yesterday’s rally. Scroll below or click here to see additional photos and audio.
The speeches were emotive and rousing, with many lambasting the Government for their inefficiency. Reference was made to the number of large infrastructure projects initiated by the previous Government, such as the Hambantota Port. This Government, they charged, was “selling the country, piece by piece.” Another theme often touched upon was the end of the war, with the speakers reminding the assembled crowd how much had been sacrificed, and the pain and fear all citizens had lived under.
“Despite the defeat, Mahinda Rajapaksa is still our leader!” The cry was met with uproarious cheers.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking later at the rally spoke about the rising cost of living and the increase of customs duty on vehicles (duty was increased on August 1 for vehicles with an engine capacity of less than 1000cc and hybrid or electric vehicles).
He too, emphasised that the country was “leasing” national assets such as the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport, adding that foreign countries should not accept any assets offered by the Government.
Both these projects, initiated under Rajapaksa’s tenure, have had their fair share of controversy.
The Mattala Rajapaksa Airport has been witheringly described as “the world’s emptiest airport“. The airport was left without a single carrier in June when after repeated bird-strikes, and due to lack of commercial viability, operator Flydubai stopped flights. The Government entered into a joint venture with India in an attempt to salvage losses in July. Questions are now being raised about the seriousness of that agreement, with negotiations on a business plan stalled, and the Indian Civil Aviation Authority indicating that there is no proposal to buy a controlling stake in the airport. In an interview with the Hindu, the Transport and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva says the discussions are still underway.
The Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port was, as the name indicates, initiated by the former President. Initial reports promised that 20% of shipping traffic, and especially oil tankers, would call over at the Port. Instead, the Authority had to take an additional loan from the Chinese, amounting to USD 40 million, to blast a rock that was blocking the entrance to the Port. It was soon dubbed ‘a white elephant’ with few ships docking at the Port in 2012 and 2013.
An RTI request lodged by Groundviews found that even in 2017, only 230 ships had docked at the Port. In 2012, there had been a total of 34 ships, according to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Interestingly, these figures differ with numerous other reports on the number of ships docking at the port at the time, with the Daily Mirror, and the Diplomat reporting that the figure was just 18 vessels in 2012. The former President also cited different figures for ships docking at the Port in 2012 – he put the figure at 32, in a statement responding to the New York Times report. As the figures show, the Port was making a loss of approximately Rs. 1.7 billion in 2017, according to the SLPA.
This is without even beginning to consider the allegations of corruption that surfaced, implicating the Rajapaksas, in 2015. A New York Times report this year revived these charges, including that the Chinese had donated to the Rajapaksa’s campaign funds. Following a complaint made by MP Ranjan Ramanayake to the CID a cheque of USD 150,000 wrongfully deposited to the Pushpa Rajapaksa foundation, run by the wife of ex-Minister Basil Rajapaksa, was also made public. (Colombo International Container Terminals maintained that the money was a donation made “in good faith” for the construction of housing).
In response, the Joint Opposition MPs chose to target the Sri Lankan journalists who had contributed to the article, and threaten legal action, first against the Times, and then, later on, against a local newspaper.
The bluster appears to have worked. The allegations reported on by the New York Times have been all but forgotten, one month later, in mainstream media. Those present at the rally appeared to have forgotten too, cheering uproariously at the mention of the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport projects.
The Joint Opposition is now using their own inefficiency as a campaign tool – with the Government being criticised for its willingness to ‘sell the country’ as some put it – despite the fact that the two ‘national assets’ mentioned are in fact, loss-making, and have been since their inception.
Interestingly, the banners on stage displayed messages in both Sinhala and Tamil, and those speaking at the rally took pains to note that there was no real division between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. This was done in several ways – including harking back to the war, and noting that the fear experienced by all communities then had been vanquished by the former President. It appears that the Joint Opposition and the former President especially, has learned from his loss at the Presidential elections in 2015. The message was for all citizens to stand together as one to defeat the incumbent Government, and there were also calls to “stop dividing the country” (a rallying call also used by the Joint Opposition during the constitutional reform process to oppose any devolution of power).
It might seem laughable that the Joint Opposition simply denying that division exists would be enough to garner support, especially given the double-standards displayed by the Joint Opposition with regards to controversial statements made by former State Minister Vijayakala Maheswaran and the Anunayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, Vendaruwe Upali Thero, with one being roundly condemned and the other supported. Or when considering the vicious attacks online, leveled at Sandya Eknaligoda, in the wake of her successful contempt of court case against Gnanasara Thero, which included death threats, and which called both her and her husband, disappeared journalist Prageeth, a ‘terrorist’. Or recalling the violence just five months ago in Digana and Ampara, leveled against Muslims.
The convenient amnesia displayed by those on the stage was unsurprising, but it is less easy to explain and understand the reaction from the crowd.
Perhaps the answer comes from a recent publication by Harshana Rambukwella which examines the notion of authenticity through leaders such as Angarika Dharmapala, S W R D Bandaranaike and Gunadasa Amarasekara. Rambukwella notes that authenticity can be, and often is, constructed. Rajapaksa remains an authentic leader in the minds and hearts of those gathered at the Vihara Maha Devi Park. Given the widespread support for Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, the use of Buddhist values to gain domestic and international support could be a key strategy for the Government, going forward. Are members of this Government willing to do this, after recent political events such as the No Confidence Motion and several Cabinet reshuffles revealing the widening split within the governing coalition? Will this Government interrogate its own shortcomings, in order to speak to the people who gathered on August 2?
That remains an open question.