by C.A. Chandraprema
What comes into the mind of the ordinary person on the street when he or she hears the term ‘witness protection’ or ‘victim protection’ would be the need to ensure that victims of crime or witnesses are given the protection they need. For example, the eatery owner in Ratmalana whose establishment was subject to a spectacular drive by shooting by members of an extortion gang, is a victim of violence and needs to be protected from the gangs that were after him. Likewise there are key witnesses to various crimes who need to be protected. While giving adequate protection to victims and witnesses is necessary, laws that turn victims and witnesses into predators, who are able to use the law to hound suspects, and browbeat the law enforcement authorities and even the courts is an obvious perversion of justice.
In this respect, the provisions of the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015 which was signed into law on March 7, 2015, requires further scrutiny. The stated objectives of this Act are to set out, uphold and enforce the rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses, to provide assistance and protection to victims of crime and witnesses and to enable victims of crime to obtain compensation from persons convicted of having committed offenses against them, and to set out duties and responsibilities of the State, judicial officers and public officers towards the promotion and protection of the rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses etc. All these are no doubt laudable objectives, but the manner in which these objectives are to be realized according to this Act, gives rise to many questions.
Turning victims into blood hounds
Section 3(f)(ii) of Act, No. 4 of 2015 states that victims will have the right to inquire into the progress of the investigation being conducted into the complaint presented by the victim of crime, by means of a query addressed to the police station or other authority conducting the investigation, the Attorney-General or the Registrar of the Court, as the case may be, of the dates fixed for hearing and the progress and the disposal of judicial proceedings relating to the offense complained of by the victim of crime, including the non-summary inquiry, trial, appeal and application in revision.
The victim will also have the right to inquire from the officer-in-charge of the relevant police station or other authority conducting an investigation, the Attorney-General, the Registrar of the Court or the Superintendent of Prisons, as the case may be, of the dates fixed for the release on bail, the discharge of the suspect, the institution of criminal proceedings against the accused, the conviction, sentence or acquittal of the suspect or the accused; and the date for the release from prison of the convict, and the reasons therefor. Investigating and punishing people for the commission of a crime is the responsibility of the state. But Act No. 4 of 2015 seeks to make it the business of the purported victim to personally pursue the case against the purported criminal to the very end.
It’s only with regard to a few crimes like assault or rape that the perpetrator may be known and identified upfront. In criminal matters, more often than not, an investigation is necessary before a suspect can even be identified. Yet this Act seems to assume that the alleged perpetrator will always be known upfront to the alleged victim. If it’s a case of a victim knowing upfront who exactly had committed the purported crime against him, it will be a different matter but if a victim is unaware of who committed the crime against him and has to wait until the police names a suspect following an investigation and then invokes the provisions of this Act against that suspect, horrific miscarriages of justice could occur.
In certain places, the Act states the painfully obvious. Section 3(g) for instance upholds the right of a victim of a crime to present, either orally or in writing, a complaint to any police officer, in any police station or other unit or division of the Police Department and to have such complaint impartially and comprehensively investigated by the relevant investigating authority. It’s for that very purpose that the British colonial power created the police force that we have today. The Act states that having made the complaint, victim is entitled to be represented by an Attorney-at-Law during an investigation, including criminal and forensic investigations and magisterial inquiries into the alleged offense and make necessary representations to the appropriate competent authorities who are conducting such investigations.
Next of kin of victims are also victims
The victim also can obtain certified copies of Cause of Death forms, Post Mortem Reports, Medico-Legal Reports, Reports of the Registrar of Finger Prints, Reports of the Government Analyst and any other report of an expert and reports filed in the Magistrate’s Court by the Police. In other words, the victim is authorized to breathe down the necks of the entire law enforcement apparatus including the police and the judiciary and this at a stage when the perpetrator of the crime is still obviously unknown. Mercifully, there is a provision to say that where an application is made to obtain certified copies of the reports referred to above, the Magistrate to whom such application is can refuse to issue such reports if the police are of the opinion that the issue of such Reports would prejudice the on-going investigations.
The victim is also allowed to present written communications or make representations through legal counsel to the Attorney-General, before, during and after the investigation and before and during the conduct of judicial proceedings, including the non-summary inquiry, trial and appeal. The victim is also allowed to present written communications or make representations through legal counsel to an investigator, who is conducting an investigation into the offense and to be entitled to receive a response in regard to such communications or representations made. Can any good result from a victim being able to bring pressure on the investigators, the Attorney General and even the courts right through the appeal process as well? Not only is the victim entitled to make representations to all these bodies, he is entitled to receive responses as well. This is guaranteed to slow down the legal processes even further by placing unbearable workloads on the police, the AG’s Dept. and the courts.
Furthermore, the victim is entitled to be present at all judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings relating to an offense, unless the court, or tribunal determines, for reasons to be recorded that such victim’s evidence would be materially affected if he hears other evidence at such proceedings or the due discharge of justice could be secured only by the exclusion of such victim from being present during the hearing of certain parts of such proceedings. Following the conviction of the offender and prior to the determination of the sentence, the victim is entitled to either personally or through legal counsel, to submit to court the manner in which the offense concerned had impacted on his life, including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life, property and any other aspects concerning his life.
If an appeal or application in revision is presented by a person convicted of having committed an offense, the victim can submit to court that adjudicates upon such appeal or application in revision, the manner in which the offense concerned had impacted on his life, including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life and property and any other aspects concerning his life. If a
grant of a pardon or remission of sentence is being considered with regard to that convict, the victim is entitled to receive notice thereof and submit to the person granting such pardon or remission, the manner in which the offense committed had impacted on his life including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life, property and any other aspects concerning his life. Whoever drafted this law has clearly been watching too many blood vendetta movies.
The manner in which which this Act defines a ‘victim’ is of pivotal importance to this discussion. According to this law, a
‘victim of crime’ can mean a person who has suffered injury, harm, impairment or disability whether physical or mental, emotional, economic or other loss, as a result of an act or omission which constitutes an offense under any law, or a person who suffers harm as a result of intervening to assist such a person. The term ‘victim’ can also be applied to any member of the family and next of kin of such person, dependents and any other person of significant importance to that person. It’s indeed a law to facilitate the pursuit of blood vendettas by other means. Needless to say that if this law is taken to its logical conclusion, what we are looking at is an avalanche of litigation and paperwork that will bury the law enforcement authorities and the courts more effectively than the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii.
According to the Act, a victim of crime is also entitled to receive a sum of money from the government to defray the costs of breathing down the necks of the law enforcement authorities, the AG’s Dept. and the courts. Under the provisions of the Act, apart from victims, witnesses too are entitled to receive from investigating, quasi-judicial and judicial authorities fair and respectful treatment. A witness shall not be harassed or intimidated, coerced or violated as a consequence of providing information relating to the commission of an offense. Furthermore, a witness shall be entitled to protection against any real or possible harm, threat, intimidation, reprisal or retaliation. This however was always the case, even before Act No. 4 of 2015 was enacted. The intimidation of witnesses was never looked upon with approval by anybody in this country.
Institutional backing for victims
In addition to all the provisions mentioned above which enable victims to breathe down the necks of the police, the AG’s Dept and the courts, there is provision in the Act for the creation of a National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses which is to be run by a Board of Management. The duties and functions of this Authority is to receive complaints relating to and investigate into an alleged infringement or imminent infringement of any right or entitlement of a victim of crime or a witness, investigate and inquire into such alleged infringement or imminent infringement and to require any relevant authority to take such appropriate corrective measures in that regard.
The victim and witness protection Authority shall have the power to conduct investigations into an alleged or an imminent infringement of a right or entitlement of a victim or witness, and to require any person other than a judicial officer or a Commissioner of a Commission to appear before the Authority and to produce before the Authority any document, a certified copy thereof or other material in his or its possession or custody, including the reports of investigations, information book, extracts and officers visiting book extracts of the police, for examination and copying; to require any person other than a court or a Commission to provide to the Authority in writing, any information which it or he is likely to possess; interview and record the statement of any person other than that of a judicial officer or a Commissioner of any Commission; and make an application to any court or Commission and be entitled to obtain certified copies of any proceedings of any case.
The Authority is also entitled to enter into, examine and record any event, location or process taking place in any place, including an investigation, inquiry, trial or other proceeding. In other words, if the victim is unable to breathe down the necks of the police, the AG’s Dept. and the Courts, he or she can get the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses to do the job on his behalf. Section 14(1)(f) of the Act states that the Authority may solicit, accept and receive donations, gifts, bequests and grants from sources within or outside Sri Lanka and to apply the same for the proper discharge of it’s duties and functions. Section 24(3) states that the Authority shall not solicit or obtain any assistance from any foreign government or national, foreign or international organization without the prior sanction of the Attorney-General and the Secretary to the Ministry of the Minister in charge of the subject of Foreign Affairs. But that really means nothing. All that the AG and the Minister of foreign affairs will do is to ensure that the funds come from legally acceptable sources.
Act No. 4 of 2015 is a highly suspect piece of legislation from beginning to end. Why do we need foreign aid to maintain a body meant to look after the interest of victims and witnesses? This will enable interested foreign parties to use the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses to browbeat the police, the AG’s Dept. and even the Courts until they have their way with regard to cases they have an interest in. Any person who fails to comply with any requirement imposed by the Authority will be guilty of an offense of contempt of the Authority which shall be punishable by the Supreme Court as though it were an offense of contempt committed against the Supreme Court itself! Where the Authority determines that a person is guilty of an offense of contempt against the Authority, the Authority may transmit to the Supreme Court, a certificate setting out such determination. Any document purporting to be such a certificate shall be received in evidence, and be deemed to be such a certificate without further proof, unless the contrary is proved. In any proceeding for the punishment of any alleged offense of contempt against the Authority, no member of the Authority shall, except with his own consent be summoned or examined as a witness even by the Supreme Court!
The National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses is not the only institution that has been set up to look after the interests of victims and witnesses. Act No. 4 of 2015 further states that the Inspector General of Police shall, in consultation with and following such guidelines as shall be issued by the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses establish and maintain a special police Division to be called the ‘Victims of Crime and Witnesses Assistance and Protection Division’ for the purpose of providing assistance and protection to victims of crime and witnesses. A Senior Superintendent of Police, who comes under the supervision of the nominee of the Inspector General of Police appointed as a member of the Board of Management of the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses shall be placed in charge of the Division.
The duties of this special police Division shall be to provide protection to victims of crime and witnesses and to investigate by itself or with the assistance of any other police officer, into complaints, allegations or information pertaining to threats, reprisals, intimidation, retaliations or any harm, harassment, coercion or violation being committed on victims of crime and witnesses and their property. The Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015 will only serve to skew the course of justice and to give interested foreign parties a handle on selected cases being heard in Sri Lankan courts.
PROPPING-UP THIS PRESIDENT IS A PRESCRIPTION FOR POLITICAL SUICIDE
DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
In one dimension, Sri Lankan politics is a tale of cross-party political collaboration that should have taken place but didn’t, and those that shouldn’t have taken place but did.The two varying yet intermittently intertwining story-lines have widely discrepant endings, though. Collaborations that should have taken place but didn’t are stories of what might have been and wasn’t. What might have been is often better than what actually was.By contrast, stories of collaboration that should not have taken place but did, are stories of disasters that were avoidable but weren’t.
Sometimes the collaborations that should have been preceded those that should not have been but were acted upon. These are particularly poignant because an alliance or political equation that had the potential of leading to something positive, was immediately substituted by an equation which culminated in catastrophe.
There is another, inner connection. It is the causal link between the alliances that should have been made and weren’t, that led to lost potential, which was then sought to be offset by alliances that should not have been entered into but were, with worse consequences than the stagnation sought to be avoided or offset by entering into them.
The Left was never as strong as it was after the General Election of 1947. If the discussion at H. Sri Nissanka’s residence ‘Yamuna’ succeed and a bloc had formed of the three left parties—the LSSP, CP and the BLP—and the independent progressives, Ceylon would have had a left oriented Government which would have taken the country on a Nehruvian or ‘left-Nehruvian’ path.
Having rejected that option, the same leftist parties were later reviled, and correctly so, for having clung to “Sirima’s sari pota” and electorally decimated where they remain to this very day. Just recently, and incredibly, their residues voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Emergency under which the Aragalaya activists are being arrested.
After the magnificent Hartal of August 1953, the political parties that participated and supported it failed to unite in a single bloc. The result was that SWRD’s SLFP fell prey to the temptation of Sinhala Only, lobbied for by a civil society caucus led by Prof GP Malalasekara and the All- Ceylon Buddhist Congress he chaired, riding the surf of the Buddha Jayanthi and the ACBC report.
When SWRD tried to compensate by course-correction through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, the Left didn’t come forward to enter a bloc with him in support. Ironically the same left entered a united front with his far less progressive widow and enthroned Sinhala only in the 1972 Constitution.
The Left finally entered a United Front in 1963, accompanied by the unification of the left-led trade union movement. The united left won the Borella by-election that year. In 1964 the LSSP broke the left front and joined Mrs. Bandaranaike’s cabinet. In 1968, in place of a reunified Left, the CPSL joined the LSSP in a coalition with the SLFP, holding a joint rally in Bogambara.The resultant vacuum on the left permitted the birth and rapid growth of the JVP.
Fifteen years after the LSSP’s co-optation and nine years after the CPSL’s, the entire old left had been electorally wiped out, with Philip Gunawardena who had joined a UNP cabinet, having been electorally eliminated earlier in 1970.I could go on. The moral of the story is simple. Left unity is a good thing and left disunity is not. Left and the unity with progressive independents is a good thing and its absence is not. The Left uniting with a center party under left dominance is bad but doing so on an equal footing, isn’t.The Left uniting with a dominant center party, i.e., with the SLFP in 1964 and 1970-1975/’77, is a terrible thing.
A center-left or center party uniting with a rightwing or center-right party is a bad thing. President Sirisena and the SLFP learned that lesson the hard way and the current trend of the SLPP opting for Ranil Wickremesinghe over Dullas Alahapperuma, the SLFP and the 10-parties being drawn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s orbit, having voted for his draconian Emergency (the SLFP was absent), will prove electorally fatal.
The Tamil parties have a sad history of supporting the rightwing UNP which inevitably winds up unpopular and the target of a huge backlash. The presence of the Tamil parties in a bloc with the UNP, unfortunately facilitates an utterly reprehensible entry of Sinhala chauvinism into the anti-government backlash.
It is utterly counterproductive for the Tamil parties to be in an elitist UNP bloc. It was the presence of those parties in the UNP-led seven-party national Government of 1965-1970 that facilitated the opportunistic or semi-spontaneous injection of Sinhala ethno-populism into the Opposition campaign of the second half of the 1960s, which even more horridly, culminated in the official Sinhala racism after it assumed office, e.g., media-wise and district-wise Standardization of university entrance, the hegemonistic status of Sinhala and Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution.
The Tamil parties should think twice before being enticed into an alliance, de jure or de facto, with the unelected, illegitimate president Ranil Wickremesinghe who will cause a further spike in unprecedentedly high social disaffection by his economic “shock therapy”. It could cause a toxic cocktail as Sir John’s Delft speech did.
What would have happened to any Opposition political party that joined, propped up or let itself be drawn into the orbit of the hawkish UNP administration of Sir John Kotelawala after the Hartal of August 1953?
What if SWRD Bandaranaike, having left the UNP in 1951, helped it in 1953, after chairing the Hartal rally on Galle Face Green, though the SLFP didn’t participate in the Hartal?
The answers of these counterfactual history questions are obvious. Any such party which became a de jure or de facto prop (“mukkuwa”) of the Hartal-hit Establishment which had a harder-line post-Hartal leader, would have been committing political suicide.Had SWRD Bandaranaike done so, he would not have been the beneficiary of the anti-Establishment tectonic shift caused or denoted by the Hartal and swept into office through the Silent Revolution of 1956.
Why then are the Opposition parties of today doing or contemplating something even more colossally stupid, of joining, supporting or collaborating with the UNP leader of the Aragalaya-hit Establishment? It is suicidal for two reasons:
Firstly, the leader in question is utterly unelected, totally devoid of a popular mandate, and is therefore a completely illegitimate (though not illegal) ruler.Secondly, he will drive through a controversial and polarizing economic program, which will sink any party associated with it.Meanwhile, the failure of the pro-Aragalaya parties, the JVP, FSP, SJB and TNA, to unite is a repetition of the failure of the pro-Hartal parties to do so in 1953-1956.
THE SYSTEM CHANGE THAT CAN ENABLE SRI LANKA TO RECOVER FROM THIS MASSIVE CRISIS
by Prof.Tissa Vitarana
The massive crisis that has affected the lives of nearly all classes in our society, specially the poor and middle, in Sri Lanka is not new to us or to most other countries. It is an inherent cyclical feature, occurring at about seven year intervals, due to ‘boom and bust’ nature of the global market driven capitalist economic system brought on by over production. Periodically it may get out of control, like the Asian crisis of 1997 when a whole region was badly affected.
The affected countries that overcame the crisis by their own effort have learned to tide over these crises with minimal disruption. At an international conference in Cairo I had the good fortune to have a lengthy chat with Dr.Mahathir Mohamed (facilitated by us both being doctors turned politicians). He advised against succumbing to IMF pressure at any cost. This was because it is committed to the Prof. Friedman neo-liberal doctrine which facilitates the exploitation of our countries through an import dependent open economy that USA-led Imperialism controls.
The loans given lead to a debt trap which is the root cause of our situation. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt has reached US$ 52 billion and debt servicing last year was six billion dollars and this year seven billion. Hence the shortage of dollars and of essential imports like fuel, gas, chemical fertilizer, medicines and food items. To ensure that at least six months of these imports are obtained the Foreign Exchange Reserve (FOREX) has been maintained at US$ seven to eight billion. Now it is down to zero, and thus causing this severe crisis.
The answer is the development of a national economy with maximum self-sufficiency which is Government regulated in the real interest of all the people, not a few super rich. This was done by Dr. N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance in the 1970/75 SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government. Since the neo-liberal UNP Government led by J.R.Jayewardene took power in 1977 the country has gone into a situation of economic crisis. While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer.
Now it is estimated by nutritionists that about 70% of all families are living below the poverty line and have inadequate food and other essentials. The level of malnutrition has gone up above 20%. It is with great difficulty that the adults of many of these families survive on one meal a day, and provide two meals for their children. Many go to bed at night hungry. The productivity of the economy has gone down and, due to the economic crisis the closure of factories and other work places, has led to massive pay cuts and job losses.
The farmers harvest outputs have dropped due to the shortage and high cost of fertilizer and other inputs. Due to the fall in the import of fuel the shortage and high price has disrupted the transport system, the operation of factories, and the use of machinery in agriculture and in the fishing industry. The economy is on the verge of total collapse.
In the midst of such crisis where the system itself is collapsing, clearly the country and the world requires a system change. Unfortunately those in power are content to tinker with the existing system and make both minor and some major changes, but the outcome has not been adequate. It is my opinion that there needs to be total change of the system that benefits the whole of society and not the few who can manage with the limited but expensive tinkering process.
Society itself needs to be driven not by the profit motive which largely benefits the rich but also by being re-organized to provide the needs of everybody. That is a society based on socialist principles. For instance the high cost of food (due to the massive food inflation) is an outcome of the profit motivated production, distribution and marketing system that exists today. Further, in Sri Lanka for instance due to the high cost of inputs the farmer has to take large loans to cover his cost. He gets into debt and at the time of harvest he has to pay the capital cost along with the interest.
The farmer generally takes big loans from the trader or from institutions (like banks) that provide credit. Many poor farmers in this country find it easier to obtain credit from the traders thereby avoiding the red tape they have to face when they go to institutions that provide credit. But this leads to further problems as the trader often demands that the produce is sold only to him at an amount below the prevailing market price. At times this does not even cover the actual cost of production. And the farmer gets caught up in a cycle of debt from which he has no escape. A majority of the farmers in this country are deeply in debt. They are trapped in a situation of perpetual poverty.
The same problem is faced by small and medium scale entrepreneurs. As a result value added industries too do not develop in the rural sector. There must be a new system which gives the farmers and the entrepreneurs the necessary credit, if possible at no or very low interest at the time that he needs it. This will have to be done by the Government which should ensure that bureaucratic pressures such as the taking of bribes is firmly eliminated.
The LSSP favours a truly cooperative system. There should be producer cooperatives and consumer cooperatives, and they should directly deal with each other without any intermediaries. In the prevailing private enterprise system the producer is exploited by a series of middlemen who jack up the price, so that the consumer has to pay a far higher amount than what the producer gets. This middleman system must be eliminated and the transaction should be directly between the producer cooperatives and the consumer cooperatives.
Thus the consumer will only have to pay the cost incurred in taking the produce between the two without any profit. Such a cooperative system is not a dream but it works in many countries abroad, specially those in Scandinavia. But this has already worked in Sri Lanka too, during the time that Dr.N.M.Perera was Finance Minister in the Government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Unfortunately the cooperatives that are still functioning in this country are cooperatives only in name operated by mudalalis. All the members of the producer and consumer cooperatives must meet and elect reliable office bearers who will function properly at all times. This system change is vital to bring down the cost of living and end hunger and poverty.
Twisting the aragalaya into what it is not
By Uditha Devapriya
Most analyses approach the crisis in Sri Lanka through the lens of human rights, democratic governance, and accountability. Many of them pin the blame on personalities and parties. Not surprisingly, the narrative has shifted over the last few months. From demonising the Rajapaksas, commentators and analysts now fault President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the country’s problems. More than anything else, they accuse him of trying to harness or tame protesters, citing the raid on Gotagogama in the early hours of July 22.
Internationally, these allegations have found a ready audience. Colombo’s civil society circuits have been given ample time and space on Indian and Western media outlets. The latter have been only too willing to amplify their concerns. In most cases, their narrative follows a set pattern: the government is oppressing protesters, it is using legal and extra-judicial methods to tame them, and it is resorting to militarisation to harness dissent. Such narratives reinforce Sri Lanka’s image as a militaristic State, more or less in line with what was churned about the country at the peak of the separatist conflict.
There is nothing inherently or fundamentally misleading about these claims. Sri Lankans are clamouring for democratic change and they perceive the State and its organs, which include the military, as an affront to their dignity. Yet Colombo’s civil society narratives tend to miss more than a few important points. For instance, they fail to note that while the army has been deployed against protesters, a significant proportion of the latter criticise the army, not for militarising the country, but for acting as vassals of the State. The “People vs Army” line, in that sense, does not really hold when considering how individual soldiers have also joined the protests, to be gleefully welcomed by anti-regime demonstrators.
As far as these analyses go, the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Other narratives include the view that anti-regime protesters all unified under a slogan – #GoHomeGota – because they all had the same demands. These demands included widening access to political power and representation for Sri Lanka’s deprived minorities, not just its ethnic but also sexual minorities. According to this reading, opposition to Rajapaksa brought together different groups, classes, and interests: a welcoming development that can be used to push forward important liberal-democratic political and constitutional reforms.
There is no doubt that, viewed from a certain perspective, and as far as opposition to the State went, the anti-Rajapaksa movement was progressive and liberal. Yet to contend that this alone made the protests progressive would be taking things too far. The truth of the matter is that Gotagogama, out of necessity, lacked a cohesive leadership. This enabled it to play host to different interest groups, not all of whom shared a liberal progressive stance on certain themes and issues. Probably the most important point to take from the protests at Galle Face was that former supporters of the outgoing president formed a significant section there: not really a crowd you’d count on as supporters of liberal causes.
I realised this myself when I paid a visit on July 12, the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa vacated his office. Towards the evening, when crowds began swarming into Galle Face and emotions were running high, the rhetoric from the centre of the protest zone escalated rather wildly. The centre stood a few feet from a campsite set up for members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ community. It was more than a little ironic, then, when an anti-Rajapaksa heckler began shouting slogans which were rather homophobic, throwing words like “butterfly” on the country’s leadership. It was hardly what you’d expect from a protest that was, in every respect, supposed to be aligned with civil society visions of progressive dissent.
In an intriguing essay on the Gotagogama protests (“Sri Lanka’s Next Test”, Project Syndicate), Priyanka Krishnamoorthy raises an important question: was, and is, the aragalaya “a mere marriage of convenience”? In 2019 more than a third of the country gave a whopping majority to Mr Rajapaksa and his party, essentially “endorsing the Rajapaksas’ brand of majoritarian politics.” It goes without saying that the fuel and gas shortages and power cuts have brought them into the streets. But will that by itself be enough to ensure their unity with groups, such as minority rights activists, who have been traditionally viewed with suspicion and tarred as agents for NGO and Western agendas?
In depicting the aragalaya as a swelling of progressive anti-State sentiment, liberals make the same mistake that their nationalist counterparts do: portray the protests as a monolith movement, which it is not. The simple truth is that the aragalaya has hosted gay rights and pro-democracy activists as much as it has homophobes and ultra-nationalists. Liberal outfits may be shy of admitting this, but it’s important to make such a point because the aragalaya needs to be recognised for what it is: a diverse array of political, social, and cultural views and perspectives which do not necessarily cohere with each other, but which came together to oust an unpopular regime: in its simplest sense, a popular uprising.
The same goes for the July 22 raid. By all accounts, the raid was unexpected and, from several standpoints, reprehensible. Yet as the President made it clear, it was his way of demonstrating the State’s commitment to law and order. One may disagree, as I do, with his use of force, and validly concur that it tilted mass opinion against Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. But then government supporters can claim, as critics like me do not, that in no country has peaceful protests entailed the occupation of public property. This is a deeply divisive debate, one that is yet to be taken forward and concluded.
Civil society and international, particularly Western, media have given the protests the spotlight they deserve. Yet they have also twisted the aragalaya into something it is not. If opposition to the Rajapaksas can be considered liberal, the aragalaya should certainly be lauded for its unyielding stand against the Rajapaksa. Yet to deny its multifaceted character and the complex nature of the situation in the country would be going too far. One must be nuanced in everything. Even when lauding criticism of the State.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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