Photo courtesy of The Times of India
May 9, 2022 will be remembered as one of the darkest days in post war Sri Lankan history. The country, already teetering on the brink of economic collapse due to incomprehensible levels of mismanagement, corruption, incompetence and impunity at the highest levels of government, was driven to violence instigated by mobs brought down to Colombo and unleashed on peaceful protesters by former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Non violent protesters at MainaGoGama and GotaGoGama were attacked in Colombo’s highest security area, during a state of emergency that had been declared by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa under the pretext of protecting the public. Police and STF forces watched on as attackers with iron rods beat protestors and destroyed and burnt property.
These brutal, premeditated attacks are yet another example of the arrogant and unconscionable politics of the former prime minister and his family. People retaliated with an outpouring of pent up anger and violence, attacking the attackers, setting buses that brought them to Colombo on fire, destroying the homes and properties of the chief instigators including Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own home. Violent acts, including burning homes of the enablers and beneficiaries of state corruption, continued into the next day.
Shortly after sparking this violence, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister, thereby effecting the dissolution of the Cabinet. His resignation has further concentrated power in his brother the president. By May 9 (the day the violence was unleashed) parliament was already on a 10 day break from convening, which means it cannot vote to approve or reject the state of emergency. The emergency regulations gazetted on May 6 – when the people’s protest had been overwhelmingly peaceful even in the face of excessive state violence – give the police and armed forces unjustifiably broad powers of arrest, search and detention while disproportionately restricting freedom of association and the right to protest.
On May 10, the defence secretary authorised armed forces to use live ammunition on those damaging property or harming others. In the absence of an operational cabinet, all ministries and secretaries to ministries cease to exist. It is unclear therefore, on what authority he acted. On May 11, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, made an address to the nation but failed to take the opportunity to resign. Instead he continues to cling on to power and shield himself from scrutiny by brokering political deals with parliamentarians who do not have the legitimacy or capacity to lead this country out of crisis. Then on May 12, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister.
To fellow citizens
Our anger, pain and desperation at being repeatedly betrayed and let down by our elected representatives must not define us. We must rise above the ugliness, greed and cowardliness that characterizes our so-called political representatives. The extraordinary strength, courage and energy of the growing people’s movement (now called adaraye aragalaya) must continue to be the essence of our rejection of the political culture we inherited.
In all this, we must keep reminding ourselves that the sovereign power of our country lies in us, the people of Sri Lanka. This power is inalienable from us and includes the powers of the legislature, executive, judiciary, fundamental rights and the franchise.
We are in this crisis today because under the self-serving leadership of the Rajapaksas, the executive and legislative branches of government have colluded to usurp from us our constitutionally inalienable sovereign power. The executive and legislature are essentially protecting themselves by refusing to hold each other to account despite the unprecedented crisis our country and our people are in. They have spectacularly lost our confidence and trust, and cannot legitimately claim to continue to represent our sovereign power.
We now face a situation our constitution did not contemplate.
We must organise ourselves better and increase pressure on the few MPs who still have some credibility to use all the levers of pressure at their disposal to force this parliament into action.
Protesting against this crisis can no longer be the full time responsibility of just a few. We must all do the most we can to push past this stalemate between people, president and parliament and move towards a solution.
We must not relent on our call of Gota go home. He has to go. But we must also rise to the harder task of working things out and bringing people together. There have been several good ideas put forward by citizens’ groups in the last month. Let’s now pool together our perspectives and expertise to propose tangible ways out of this crisis created by the government. Compromise, trust, patience and maturity are skills we will need to draw on. But like the Aragalaya, if we keep the most important goals in sight we will find more things that unite us than divide us.
Let us as citizens do what is not being done for us by our political representatives. Let us develop our financial and economic recovery strategies; invest in our social, cultural, political and educational reawakening; reimagine the relationship between citizen and state; collect our ideas on a new constitution and new political culture; develop strategies to recover stolen assets; seek accountability for past crimes; and clean up corruption. Much of this is already being done by citizens in pockets. The GotaGoGamas themselves have become hubs of creativity and conversation. But now we must come together, listen to each other and begin to build our consensus. If our parliament is to restore any of its tattered credibility, it will have to at some point turn to us for some of the answers. Let’s be prepared.
To the Rajapakse family and its enablers
The prime minister may have resigned but this is too little, too late. The president continues to show callous disregard for the people of this country by refusing to step down. Many Rajapaksas have cowardly fled the country.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Go Home Gota islandwide campaign is both personal and symbolic. It is symbolic because you represent the corrupt, racist, divisive political culture that we reject. It is personal because we do not have confidence in your intentions, integrity or competence as a president. Your days in power are numbered. You may cling on for a few more weeks or months but with every day you stay on, you will be remembered for making this crisis worse and our resolve to hold you to account will only grow stronger.
To Mahinda Rajapaksa, your sons Namal and Yoshitha, your brothers Basil and Chamal, your other family members, all your political stooges, business cronies, state officials and international conspirators: remember this – your options for any semblance of a normal future life will only diminish. We will work tirelessly, in Sri Lanka and globally, to ensure you are brought to justice, you are held accountable and all that you stole from us is returned.
To all those who crafted, upheld and benefitted from the Rajapaksa legacy of racism, murder, forced disappearances, corruption, thuggery, ecocide and the economic ruination of an entire country, we will not forget your part in this.
To our members of parliament
When your fellow citizens needed you to stand with us and against the corrupt, violent and incompetent executive, you prioritised your petty squabbles, your wrangling for power, your party politics and the patronage of the Rajapaksas. Barring a handful of MPs who continue to act with integrity, parliament as an institution has failed us.
With every wasted day, the crisis worsens. Sri Lanka can no longer afford the growing price of the indifference, corruption and selfishness of our political class as represented by you.
The people of this divided country without resources, transport, food, money or electricity – any of the privileges that you enjoy – have been working tirelessly to solve this crisis and set the country straight. In these past few weeks we have learnt to compromise, listen to each other, put the greater common good ahead of petty personal agendas, set aside egos, and make sacrifices all in the name of our collective future. This has been the power of the people’s aragalaya. With nothing but our determination, we have moved mountains.
You on the other hand, with so much more power, privilege, resources and responsibility, have fallen apart. You have not even kept parliament open. You have not talked to each other or taken any decisive action that reflects your absolute determination to fix the devastating crisis we are in.
With each passing day of inaction, power games or incompetence, be sure that no MP who puts their personal interests first in this crisis will be voted back into parliament.
Take note that you now live in a country where citizenship is being re-defined.
You still have options. You can pass a no confidence motion against the president. You can constitute a true national unity government, not one that exists to prop up the failed president. You can use the national list to bring in respected civilians into parliament and government. You can abolish the executive presidency and strengthen democratic institutions. You can call for elections. You can listen to our demands and proposals and act on them.
We are doing everything we can. The simple question is, are you?
Who among you is going to take that first step to win back legitimacy among the people? Who will stand with the people and prioritise our needs and demands over your political career? Who is willing to apologise, come clean, declare your assets, accept the consequences for your actions and commit to a people-centric, transparent, accountable, honourable political practice? Who will risk being a whistle blower on corruption? Who will push us beyond this deadlock? Who will prove to us your capacity to envision a Sri Lanka that is greater than your petty political ambitions?
This crisis has revealed the nature of our people, parliament and president. There stands a gulf of distrust and cynicism between us.
One man. 225 representatives. 22 million citizens.
Where will our future emerge from?