They stand firmly in the baking sun and the torrential rain. They sacrificed their new year holidays. Their determination and courage is steadfast. Their cries are united – go home President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all the Rajapaksas, give us back our stolen money, change the system that allows impunity and corruption.
The government is equally stubborn. The Cabinet resigned, only for four of the same people to be re-appointed as ministers. The Parliament went on holiday at the height of the crisis and even when it met, resorted to petty politicking. A new Governor of the Central Bank and Finance Secretary were appointed. A team departs for talks with the IMF tomorrow in a desperate attempt to find ways to provide Sri Lankans with the very basics such as electricity, food, fuel and gas. The Prime Minister pleads for people to be patient while issuing veiled threats. Police trucks gather at the protest site but dispersed after wide social media coverage.
After several weeks of daily protests that started as small, local gatherings and culminated in one vast protest site at Galle Face, the tense standoff between citizens and their President and government drags on to the continuing economic pain of people and the country.
What, then, could be a way out? Groundviews sought the opinions of academics, analysts and lawyers on what the way forward should be.
Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives
The resilience and determination of the GotaGoHome protesters is to be admired and appreciated by all those who want a strong, functioning democracy in Sri Lanka. They want Gotabaya and the rest of the Rajapaksas out of government and politics and they want them to be held accountable for their greed and corruption. At the same time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot and will not go because if he does he will lose whatever protection he can get form being Head of State and likewise if he goes he and his family will be vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes on the one hand, corruption and theft on the other. The protests are the only source of pressure on him to go and to break the current stalemate. They must persist until their objective is realised. Any compromise will leave the protesters in a position of having let them off the hook. Sri Lanka needs a strong and stable government and it is abundantly clear to all, except themselves, that the Rajapaksas cannot provide it. Any way out, any compromise that keeps the Rajapaksas in place and/or safe from prosecution will be a golden opportunity missed in the journey towards full fledged democracy in Sri Lanka. Interim and all-party governments with Rajapaksas in place are unacceptable. All individuals and organizations that believe in the democratic future of our country should come out and demand that the Rajapaksas heed pubilc opinion and sentiment.
Dr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council
There is a need to end the current stalemate. The protestors are protesting and the government is continuing. The popular mandate given to the government two and a half years ago stands withdrawn by the mass protests and overwhelming public support to them. The potential for violence grows. The sight of mass protests will not help to bring in either tourists or investors from abroad. As far as possible change should be within the framework of the constitution and rule of law. It should also be peaceful. In order to effect an orderly and peaceful transition: First step would be for the government in general and the president in particular to provide leadership to repeal of the 20th Amendment that unduly concentrates powers in the presidency and erodes the independence of state institutions that ensure accountability and transparency. Second would be to elect a new prime minister acceptable to both the government and opposition. Third would be to form an interim government. Fourth would be to engage in negotiations with international creditors and the IMF. Such an interim government with new faces could also appeal to the international community for the necessary bridging finance to enable the economy to get restarted. Fifth, elections should be held as soon as the economic and political situation stabilises and permits this. There is a need to restore the legality and mandate-based legitimacy of the government.
Dr. Kalana Senaratne, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Law, University of Peradeniya
The current stalemate is a creation of the President and the SLPP-led government. Therefore, the primary responsibility falls on them to get this country out of this stalemate. There are many things that can be done. The President can resign (Article 38 of the Constitution) and pave the way for the appointment of a new President (Article 40). However, that alone will be inadequate due to the likelihood of the current Prime Minister being appointed as President. Therefore, the resignations of both the President and the Prime Minister are essential to end the stalemate. If this is not possible, the Prime Minister would need to resign (Article 47) paving the way for the dissolution of the Cabinet (Article 49) and the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet of ministers by the President. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa is to remain, it would need to be as a nominal president. Together with such moves, firm commitments to either amend the constitution or introduce a new one, which abolishes the executive presidency, are required. None of these options would be practical unless there is continued people’s pressure exerted on the existing political leadership. Also, the Members of Parliament representing the SLPP-led majority would need to withdraw their support for the President and force the Rajapaksas (both Gotabaya and Mahinda) to step down. Some other options, such as an impeachment motion against the President, do not hold out much promise at the moment. Quite simply, if any one of the Rajapaksas remains in power, the stalemate is likely to continue at least until a general election is held. The people, who have risen against this decrepit political leadership and culture, should not give in.
Harim Peiris, Political analyst and former Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Firstly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should resign. Knowingly or unknowingly, wittingly, or unwittingly he presided over the mess, which has guttered our nation. It was a result of disastrous policy choices of banning chemical fertilizer and choosing to slash taxes and print money in a misguided notion that it stimulates economic growth. As the chants grow on the streets for the Rajapaksa clan to throw in the towel and spare Sri Lankans of their mis-governance, at least at this stage they must do so. Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and the government must reign and make way for an orderly constitutional transition under a caretaker government. The SLPP has the numbers in parliament, it must accept responsibility for the disaster created and support both reversals of their policies and a transition to elections and a new government. Elections perhaps one year down the road, under a caretaker administration that will allow the professionals a free reign. A transition to policy reversals, a transition to fresh elections, which will lead to a transition to a new, long haul, hard road transition to a new post economic collapse beginning. Clearly we cannot be politicking or going for elections right now. When we don’t have paper to print exam papers and electricity, we cannot have a meaningful electoral contest. That will have to wait. A transitionary process must happen. The first step in that process is for those responsible for this mess to quit. In cricket, when the batsman knows he has clearly touched bat to ball and is caught, he doesn’t even wait for the umpire but heads back to the pavilion. The Rajapaksa administration is out of depth and has irredeemably failed. It needs to step aside. Sadly there was nothing in Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rather pugnacious and worrying speech that the government either accepted responsibility or was planning to step down. Some people asked for a Hitler, perhaps they meant a leader who devastated his country in the name of patriotism. The fertilizer subsidy was the only policy reversal announced. Too little, too late. The resignation of the Rajapaksas en masse would create the political space needed for policy changes and the transition to a new administration with a fresh mandate.
Uditha Devapriya, author and analyst
To say these protests are unprecedented would be to assume they sprang from nowhere. But #GotaGoHome was years in the making, if not decades. It took an economic crisis for people to realise how much they had been lied to, tricked, and misinformed. What’s fascinating about it is that it’s these protests that have compelled President Rajapaksa to take quick action, especially his appointment of Nandalal Weerasinghe and Mahinda Siriwardena. I am convinced that were it not for these protesters, we would have seen the same old faces, especially Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister. We have managed to achieve some real things in the last few days and weeks. I strongly feel Gotagogama must remain. Far from hurting our image internationally, it has set something of an example for the world at large. This is a unique moment. We must seize it.