BY DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
The word that is most in currency, after the Mirihana mass resistance, is: “ARAGALAYA” (Struggle). The struggle to remove the ruler, the ruling clan and the regime, has begun.
Future historians will write that the masses of Sri Lanka began to write their own history on March 31st, 2022, at Mirihana, a suburb of Colombo, actually of the administrative capital Kotte, instead of having political parties and politicians write it for them. The mass resistance was met with the regime’s repression but was not defeated or cowed. Mirihana is a miniature of the process that will determine this country’s future.
Can the regime tear-gas and disperse a whole nation as it did the Mirihana protestors around 4 a.m.? Can it disperse an entire people with rubber-bullets and water cannon? Can it shoot the whole citizenry? That is simply an impossibility.
On the morning after Mirihana, what is the key takeaway? That the protest and the slogans resonated widely throughout the nation. It also resonated among Sri Lankans living overseas. It also went global (thanks initially to Al Jazeera).
Sri Lankan society, from all parts of the country, sat up, admired and applauded the demonstrators. The reactions I got, from the visiting domestic help to medical specialists with PhDs and UN officials in retirement, was one of amazed appreciation and enthusiasm.
My wife’s niece, a lawyer doing her postgraduate studies in the UK, wrote on FB that she wished she was at the protest and that she is proud of being Sri Lankan. Perhaps her FB ‘slide’ summed up Mirihana best: ‘THE PEOPLE vs. The Family’.
The Mirihana protest was organised by middle-class civic networks, an important new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. In the first phase, the protest was noticeably of the educated middle-class, with numbers swelling, not only because of the power-cut but also because the Mirihana residents had been sorely inconvenienced and alienated by the ‘special arrangements’, since 2020, due to the President’s insistence on continuing to reside there.
It must be noted that it was from the thick crowd of bilingual middle-class protestors, men and women, including professionals and entrepreneurs, that the most hard-hitting and radical of slogans I have ever heard in Sri Lanka was chanted. It was a one-word description/definition of the ruler, deriving from the irrationality of decisions, and chanted repeatedly, insistently and loudly. Once the word is out—and that word, especially—a ruler is doomed.
The Mirihana middle-class mobilisation was a microcosm of the island’s middle-classes, and the regime does not seem to be aware that in a middle-class society, if you by make their lives impossible, they come at you with all the education and skills at their command. No regime can lose the middle classes and remain in power, certainly not when it has lost the peasantry and the working classes already, as the incumbent regime has.
The mood at Mirihana shifted due entirely to the characteristic action of the regime. The unprovoked, unconscionable use of tear-gas, rubber-bullets and water-cannon caused a segment of the crowd, which had previously not been at all violent, to resist by throwing back the tear-gas canisters. The mood of resistance hardened further when a protestor, shot either with a rubber-bullet or live ammunition, bloodied from a wound in his side, was rushed to hospital.
The regime then deployed armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with camouflaged paint were seen rolling through at least one city street.
As happens everywhere in the world when the authorities initiate escalation and resort to violence, the ratios in the composition and temper of the crowd recomposed kaleidoscopically. The middle-class component thinned-out, while the word of the brutal crackdown reached inner-city youth who streamed towards the action to show solidarity.
What happened from then on was Act 2 of the Mirihana drama. Its high point was an unforgettable cameo of a youth in a motorcycle helmet, standing alone, making a powerful yet poignant social critique and moral appeal to the armed soldiers.
Act 3 was around 4 am when tear-gas and other methods of suppressive coercion was massively used and the protestors resisted with the rubble of masonry from a nearby worksite.
Meanwhile, inspired by the Mirihana mobilisation, and triggered by the regime’s violence, protests spontaneously broke-out on the Colombo-Kandy Road, in Kelaniya, and as far afield as Anuradhapura.
As of this morning, 45 arrests had been made. Those demonstrators fought for all of us. They deserve solidarity and support.
The social resistance that emerged at Mirihana was revelatory of the mass mood. The people are ahead of the political parties and the politicians. The people have instinctively understood the prerequisite for a solution to the economic problem, given that all decision-making is centralised in the hands of one man who has a tendency to make irrational policy decisions and therefore cannot be counted upon to make rational ones.
The politicians of center-right and left are respectively saying “go to the IMF” and “tap the potential of the expatriate workers”. The people are saying “GOTA GO HOME!”
If the ruler and the ruling clan think that things will settle down, the economy will pick up and the citizenry will forgive and forget; if the regime thinks it can continue in office even with the induction of the military for the next 2 ½ years, then that is evidence of the accuracy of the single-word ‘signature’ slogan descriptive of the ruler’s mentality, that was chanted most frequently and with greatest resonance at Mirihana on Thursday night.
Export-led economy or import substitution?
Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis. Although successive governments may have contributed to this state of affairs, the present government stands directly accused of causing a total collapse of the economy. Three main reasons are given for this sudden downturn; the drastic tax reductions, the fertiliser ban and depletion of dollars due to artificial jacking up of the rupee causing a dollar and rupee crisis. These policies may have succeeded under different circumstances but not when the country is ravaged by a pandemic. However, the inability to foresee the unsuitability of such policies at this time is the failure of our leadership and their economic advisers. There are about 54 countries which are in debt crisis at present but none of them are as hopeless as Sri Lanka.
Historically, the reason for the weakening of the economy is the fact that the expenditure on imports has been higher than the income from exports under successive governments since 1977. In 2014, Sri Lanka spent USD 19 billion on imports while the export earnings have been just USD 11 billion. To meet the difference, we had to borrow and as a result got into debt which at present is about USD 50 billion. Worse, we have been borrowing to live high, pay back loans and even for vanity projects.
Most of the developing countries are deeply in debt and often the debt is much more than their total export earnings. This is a situation that countries with export-led economies have to cope with. Export-led growth attempts to promote the expansion of gross domestic product and per capita income with inflows from export earnings but this seldom happens.Sri Lanka’s earnings from exports was only 23% of the GDP in 2014 and it has been around that figure since 1977. If exports are to be increased to a significant level, we may have to borrow heavily to start export-oriented projects on a large scale which would take us deeper into debt, making repayment almost impossible.
Foreign direct investments and foreign funded industry are the other sources of foreign exchange. What attracts investors mainly is the cheap labour available in the developing countries. Thus, the governments of developing countries are forced to keep wages low to attract investors. The workers may be deprived of an improvement of their living standards that growth is supposed to bring. A good example is Sri Lankan estate workers.
People in countries with export-led economies must produce what people in another country want. The economy therefore depends on foreign demand, when the demand declines the economy suffers. For instance, when the Covid pandemic hit the rich countries the demand for garments dropped and the garment industry suffered. Another problem is access to foreign markets and the competition among producing countries. Further, the governments of the countries which import these items may control the quantities they import through taxes and sometimes through politically motivated sanctions. Thus, the export-led economies are at the mercy of the rich countries.
The global economic system controlled by the Western powers through the Bretton Wood Twins and Washington Consensus does not encourage developing countries to seek alternative means of growth. They give aid to those who follow their instructions which are geared for capital development at the expense of labour. Self-sufficiency is discouraged. Instead, they must remain as suppliers of few commodities and cheap labour to the global market. Sri Lanka supplies tea, garments and cheap labour to West Asia. We have not looked at alternative models. We have not attempted to produce our essential needs, such as food, medicine, building materials, etc. Though these can be locally produced, we import them using foreign exchange earned by exporting tea, garments and cheap labour. And when the demand for these falls, as it happened at the height of the pandemic, our economy becomes so weak that a bungling government could send it crashing.
In 2021, while its economy was struggling, Sri Lanka imported fruits and vegetables worth USD 380 million out of a total of USD 6 billion spent on non-essentials such as cheese, butter, ice-cream, bottled water. We need only USD 300 million to import chemical fertiliser. This was while the farmers were protesting and agriculturists were opposing the fertiliser ban. This, I see as a consequence of not having a well-developed national economy and an import-substitution programme. Self-sufficiency in food was not considered important, and catering to the super rich and tourists became a priority.
Now, the question is whether Sri Lanka will continue with export dependency. More importantly, are we going to spend more than we earn and live beyond our means? Are we going to borrow more and depend on foreign largesse? Don’t these loans and gifts come with strings attached? Will we have to cough up a few more ports or grant federalism?
What has happened has happened, there is no point in crying over spilt milk. The solution lies in our ability to learn to live within our means. We must never import more than we export, if we have no gas we must learn to find alternatives. The energy-efficient Anagi stove made of clay can be used even in Colombo flats. This could develop into an excellent cottage industry which could supply both the stove and firewood made of wood chips, sawdust or paddy husks compressed into cakes for easy storage and use in the stove. If instead the government, to pacify the protesters, import gas with borrowed dollars we will sink deeper in the debt mire. We must get along on a shoestring until we can stand on our own feet. Even IMF loans have their serious disadvantages and no country up to now has developed with IMF aid.In the long run, what Sri Lanka should do is to adopt a strategy to strike a balance between strengthening the domestic demand and export orientation. Import-substitution is a suitable policy for countries which want to come out of the debt trap. Heavy indebtedness, whether for an individual or a country, is a fetter that could restrict forward movement and freedom. It has made us part with ports, fuel storage facility, and sign agreements inimical to the national interest.
Sri Lanka, being predominantly an agricultural country, must give priority to the development of agriculture. Our aim should be to curtail our dependence on imported food items, which could be produced locally. More than 50% of export earnings go for import of food items, half of which could be locally produced. Everything required for agriculture––fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides, seeds and machines––should be locally produced. Big investors may not be interested, for they cannot expect high returns, as the local market is small. Yet, the small farmers could be made into small entrepreneurs and assured of reasonable returns on their investment if the exploitation by rice mill owners and middlemen could be eliminated by government intervention. By this means a quarter of the export bill could be reduced.Renewable energy policy should be fully implemented to reduce expenditure of fuel imports. CEB engineers are not very co-operative and their resistance has to be overcome. The capacity of the petroleum refinery also should be enlarged making use of facilities available at Sapugaskanda, Trincomalee and Hambantota which would further reduce the cost of fuel imports.
Small industries mainly for local needs such as electrical items, kitchen utensils, building materials, small electronic items, fabrics, could also be gradually developed with the aim at import substitution.Sri Lanka has to learn experience and decide whether to continue with the export-led economy, which, as shown above, is subject to external factors beyond our control and which has several disadvantages, including debt accumulation and the threat of sudden collapse. Time is opportune for use to think of import-substitution. The present crisis may offer a good opportunity to make virtue out of necessity and give priority to local production.
N. A. de S. Amaratunga
Fixing the economic crisis will not stop GotaGoGama
By Jehan Perera
The economy is continuing to deteriorate with barely any dollars in the government’s possession even to pay for essentials such as fuel and medicine. The people will not be able to tolerate more weeks and months of shortages of essential supplies that force them to line up in queues for hours. There is anger seething in people who spend hours standing in queues and those who have seen their real incomes fall by more than a half as prices soar and the rupee sinks. Even though the present economic crisis has its roots in the political system and its weaknesses, the priority at the present time is to salvage the economy and get more dollars to pay for the import of essential commodities. The anger that is building up in society was seen on the fateful evening of May 9 in the attack by government affiliated goons on the GotaGoGama and MinaGoGama protest sites and in the retaliation that followed.
In this turbulent environment UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken up the premiership and the challenge of guiding the destinies of the country as Prime Minister at the time of its worst crisis ever. There is presently much public opposition to this, as the belief prevails that the new prime minister was handpicked to protect those guilty of corruption and mismanagement, in particular President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest of his clan.Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is also seen as a person who has been rejected by the people. He comes to the Prime Minister’s position having lost the last election as prime minister and seeing his party reduced from 105 seats to one. This is the sixth occasion on which Ranil Wickremesinghe has become prime minister.
He was first appointed Prime Minister after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 but had to leave the position the following year when his party lost the general election. Subsequently, he was appointed as the Prime Minister from 2001 to 2004 during the presidency of President Chandrika Bandaranaike, who ended the term of his government prematurely. He was re-elected to be Prime Minister in 2015 only to have President Maithripala Sirisena dismissing him in October 2018. He was reappointed for the fifth time nearly two months later due to a court order. The past experience is that when the President and Prime Minister come from two different political parties the relationship sours and mistrust grows.
The possibility of a similar fate is present this time too. But it can also be different. The Prime Minister’s hope, and the country’s too, will be that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a changed man having learnt from bitter experience that he has been at the receiving end of self-seeking and irrational advice. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has shown his mettle in taking up the challenge of heading the government at this time. He has been appointed Prime Minister in a parliament in which he is the only parliamentarian from his own party. He is too intelligent not to know the odds that are stacked up against him. He has twice had the bitter experience of working with Presidents from rival political parties.
The ruling party members are likely to have their own ideas of what needs to be done and may not cooperate with the Prime Minister who comes from a political party that has been their traditional rival. Therefore, the role that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will need to play is crucial to the success of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He will need to ensure that the ruling party members fall in line with the policies of austerity, sustainability and a respect for human rights that will be able to attract the necessary financial aid flows from the western countries and institutional lenders, such as the World Bank and IMF.In terms of the 20th Amendment that he has pledged to give up soon, the President has the power to decide on ministerial positions and even to dissolve Parliament after the passage of two years and six months from the date of its election. These are threats that the ruling party parliamentarians are likely to take seriously even if they do not like being in this situation.
The untrammeled powers of the presidency that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa currently holds can be used to create the space for the Prime minister to make his decisions and ensure that the rest of the government falls in line. The key need is to restore economic and political stability and the broken trust between the government and people. Parliamentary debates during the coming week will have to deal with two immediate issues – voting on the nomination of the Prime Minister and the election of the Deputy Speaker. Winning a majority vote by one side in Parliament will only lead to further polarisation within the house, which will do little to deal with economic issues facing the country. The President needs to make an appeal to achieve a consensus through consultations among political party leaders as the way forward in the larger interest of Sri Lanka.
In the meantime, the continuation of the Aragalaya (struggle) at Galle Face and elsewhere in the country can be the external check and balance on the government. The positive feature of this protest movement is that it has brought together the different ethnicities, religions, social classes and the older generations to be with the younger. The main target of the Aragalaya remains the president and the misuse of his presidential powers. Therefore, President Rajapaksa cannot continue to long use or misuse his presidential powers in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. Even if the Prime Minister is able to ease the economic crisis, the political crisis will remain especially if the President does not engage in the political reform he has promised and which the people demand.The Aragala site on Vesak night was packed with people in the same way it was 37 days previously when the protests at Galle Face overlooking the Presidential Secretariat first commenced. As it was then, the main target of the protestors was the President as evinced by the name they gave the site GotaGoGama.
The undiminished commitment of a core group of activists has sustained the protests through scorching sun, rainstorms and, latterly, a government goon assault. Their commitment is reflective of a countrywide desire to cleanse politics of its corruption and abuse of power. Time has taken its toll and there are fewer tents than there were at the beginning stages of the protests. People have their jobs to keep and lives to lead. But there are still enough who come even irregularly to keep the torch alight. Some even bring their children so that the torch may last through the next generation.
The Aragalaya has achieved important outcomes in the past month and much more than could have been anticipated before it commenced. It forced the resignation of the most successful politician this country has ever seen, who lost his way due to the dismantling of the system of checks and balances that he contributed to in the biggest measure. It has led the President to accept the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and thereby reduce the powers of the presidency, to take steps to ensure an all-party interim government and to consider the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, has said that the GotaGoGama should be institutionalised and the facilities available there enhanced. This will also help to ensure that the President and Prime minister keep to their promises.
A way out of today’s constitutional impasse and the way forward
The citizens right to recall their elected representatives :
By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan and SCC Elankovan
After 30 days of sustained peaceful agitation led by youth and supported by thousands of ordinary citizens all over the country Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa finally resigned after many weeks of turmoil and back and forth efforts to retain his position. The Cabinet of Ministers had resigned twice earlier. The resignation came close on the heels of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence where he addressed SLPP party supporters after which they descended on the un-armed and peaceful protestors, mercilessly attacking them, not sparing even the women and old people, burning and breaking everything they could get their hands on, while the security forces looked on. Despite the strong-arm tactics, curfew, emergency regulations and the threat of legal action, the protests continue calling for the resignation of the President who, on the strength of the 20th Amendment, has absolute power.The people of this country are asking for accountability. This, in effect, is an exercise of the Right of Recall by the Voters, the people exercising their Right to recall their representatives where they have acted against their interests, mismanaged and brought the country to a state of economic collapse after allegedly being involved in rampant corruption and nepotism.
This protest campaign is giving rise to debate and discussion not just among academics but on the streets and in homes, as to what are the citizens’ democratic rights where their elected representatives do not act in their interests but in an arbitrary and authoritarian way, causing loss and deprivation to the citizens even to the extent as happened recently of inciting violence causing injury to person and property. The other point at issue is how can the impasse be resolved where the citizens demand that the President and the government go and the President and government refuse to depart. It is in this context that we put forward the right of recall as a way to resolve the situation and as being one which the people themselves are voicing through their actions.
“Citizens right to recall the representatives they elected”.This right is premised on the principle of the peoples ‘sovereignty. The Constitution of Sri Lanka, Article 2 states ‘Sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable’.The Right of Recall is an instrument to enhance accountability among elected representatives and gives the electors a method of asserting their sovereignty without having to wait for the elapse of the period till the next election. It is argued that the representatives of the people, holding public office, are answerable to the people and expected to work for the people. If they act contrary to the peoples’ interests and continue in Office against the wishes of the people they could, on the basis of this principle, be recalled.The process of a Recall is a political one and different from the impeachment process which is legal and predicated on certain grounds being proven as well as the support of two-thirds of the members of Parliament for such resolution, (see Article 38 of the Constitution). As things stand, it is virtually impossible to impeach the President. As the majority of people in the Country wish to do away with this President and his government in whom they have lost confidence and the President refuses to step down there is a Constitutional impasse. Hence, we have to consider alternate methods for removing him and I would submit that in the present circumstances prevailing in the Country after the collapse of the economy and now governance, we should consider the Right of Recall as an option.
Sri Lanka, is one of the oldest democracies in South Asia. But today it is a travesty of democracy. The Government, headed by a President who wields unrestricted and wide ranging powers, has ruined and bankrupted the country, which is in the throes of an economic crisis where even the basic necessities are now in short supply and people have to queue up for food, fuel and even medicine, with electricity cuts affecting the output of factories and even small businesses and hence livelihoods. In spite of the non-violent demonstrations and agitation of citizens from every walk of life and every community and religion, and where the entire country has lost confidence in the President, extending even to the whole parliamentary system, the President refuses to step down because he maintains that he was elected by a majority of electors for a specific term. This is indeed a mockery of Democracy.
It must be noted that apart from the mismanagement, corruption and subversion of the judicial processes that marked this regime the autocratic methods of policy making and political culture of authoritarianism have contributed to the resulting economic down turn. This too requires systemic and structural changes. It is now being proposed by the BASL, and some political parties, that the solution lies in doing away with the 20th Amendment under which excessive powers were conferred upon the Executive Presidency under the fallacy that a strong presidency would guard the Country against the security lapses that happened during the Easter Sunday terrorist attack and drive quick economic development. The provisions of the 19th Amendment, under which checks and balances were provided, will be re-enacted as the draft 21st Amendment with some modification or changes where needed and could be passed by the present Parliament as the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. It is submitted that the citizens Right to Recall their Representatives should also be included in this enactment
The Right of Recall has come to be accepted in India at a local government or municipal level. The Right of Recall has been a part of the political discourse in neighbouring India, and was even discussed at the Constituent Assembly during the Constitution drafting process 1946-1949. It was argued that it would help in the political education of the people and encourage voters to think, but on the other side it was contended that it would be improper to provide this right at the infancy of Indian democracy and could lead to political rivalry and render the Constitution a battle ground. For these reasons Dr. Ambedkar did not accept this amendment. Sardar Vallabai Patel also discussed this proposed amendment. In 1974 a constitutional amendment bill on voters’ right to recall elected representatives was brought in the Lok Sabha by CK Chandrappan and Atul Bihari Vajpayee the BJP leader had supported it, but the Bill did not pass. The former speaker of the Indian Parliament Somnath Chatterjee had also sought to introduce the Right to Recall to ensure accountability. However, the Election Commission of India was not in favour.
Most recently, in 2016, the Representation of the People Amendment Bill was introduced by Varun Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, to recall Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs), but was unsuccessful. However, it has been implemented at the panchayat level in the Grama Sabha and also at the municipal level in a number of states, including UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and in Punjab. In a country, such as India, with its large population introducing this principle at the level of the State legislative Assemblies and the Lok Sabha (Union Parliament) would pose many logistic and other problems, besides which the rural voters are not so politically educated and literacy levels, especially among older people, is still low. Hence it is not practicable to introduce this right at the higher levels.
In other countries
The right of recall has come to be accepted in many countries. We would like to draw attention to the UK (United Kingdom), Recall of MPS Act passed in March 2016. This Act makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their MP and call a by-election. Other countries like the US, Germany, Ecuador, Japan, Canada, etc., have this provision but generally at the local government or municipal level. A few state legislatures in the US have this provision, for example the State of Wisconsin. In Canada the only Province or territory with Recall election law currently in force is British Columbia. The law requires 40% of the voters to sign the petition and thereafter the petition has to be validated by the Election Commission. In Germany provisions for Recall of members of the State Parliaments of Germany, exist in five of the federal states. All these states allow for the recall of the entire legislature by triggering a new election. .
That this principle has been a matter of political discourse over a long period of time is shown in a letter by George Washington to his nephew in 1787, quoted in Edward Fallone’s book on this subject, which states as follows: “The power will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a limited period to representatives of their own choosing, whenever it is executed contrary to their interest or not agreeable to their wishes their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled”.
In Sri Lanka, with its small and politically educated population of 22 million and high literacy level, the right to recall principle could be introduced without much difficulty and would help to enhance the quality of Sri Lanka’s representative government as members of Parliament would be more mindful of their parliamentary duties when they know they can be “recalled”. The actions of citizens stepping in, recognising that the only way to save the country was for them to act and demand the resignation of the President and the government they elected is an example of the exercising of the right to recall. In fact, the electoral system in Sri Lanka permits the sitting member to be replaced by the next person on the list so it would not be necessary to go for an expensive election either. In the case of the President, if we were to follow this procedure where a certain percentage of the persons who voted for him submit a petition to the Election Commission to have him recalled, the question would arise as to who would take his place or what procedure should be followed in doing so. If it involves another election this may not be possible in the present conditions and the financial straits in which the country finds itself, but I trust this is a matter which can be studied and resolved satisfactorily through for example a Parliament being given the task of electing the new President.
The report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform 2016 noted that citizens throughout the country demanded that the right to recall and modalities for implementing the same be included in a new Constitution. Now, we could argue that our fellow citizens have demonstrated and actually made this “Right to Recall” functional in deposing the government and that it is therefore the moment for legislators to acknowledge the citizens’ action by including this right as part of the envisaged 21st Amendment.
We would caution that the right to recall is but one of the wide-ranging changes that should be made to introduce a system of governance to increase the level of accountability of public representatives. Further, changes which take cognizance of the principle of subsidiarity and give due place to local government and Provincial Councils are also equally important. This will make for a more participatory democracy in which the minority communities and other layers of society who remain structurally disempowered can share power, too. This could be incorporated into the 21st Amendment or be the subject of a separate Amendment, but brought in parallel. The abolition of the Executive Presidency per se, is also an urgent requirement but might also require a referendum.
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