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What Mirihana outrage signifies

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A bus set ablaze at the Mirihana riot

The previous version of this piece was written soon after the Mirihana Incident, but I was unable to send it to The Editor of The Island as intended due to some reasons which are of no importance to the reader. Whilst accepting that during the past one month many developments had taken place beyond anybody’s control, I am sending an edited version to the Editor of The Island as it consists a preamble to a publication, I am compiling tentatively titled, “End of Democracy in Sri Lanka?” Anybody is free to argue if any semblance of democracy is in existence in Sri Lanka now and call the writer a prophet of doom! Since things are unfolding at a rapid pace it is difficult to cluster them in an abridged form in a one-off article.

In the evening of 31 March, as a friend of mine telephoned me that a large body of protesters had assembled at the Jubilee Post Junction, I just went there to see what was happening.  The protesters in their outward appearance and by the language they used seemed to belong to a cross section of middle and upper middle classes. In the midst of the simmering crowd I was able to identify a couple known to me, staunch haters of MR from the days of his presidency who later collaborated with the Yahapalanists rejoicing at his downfall in 2015. It is true that some carried toddlers and the demonstrators were behaving peacefully at that time. But the slogans they chanted and what was written on the placards they carried were provocative and inciting people to rise against the Rajapaksas.   The biggest question is who drew this peaceful crowd towards Pengiriwatta Road to besiege President’s private residence. Earlier Hirunika Premachandra, the SJB defeated candidate had set an example for these protesters to proceed towards the President’s private residence without any obstruction. It was fascinating to watch mostly the women demonstrators taking selfies as they have done before at nine arches bridge at Demodera and immediately posting those photographs in social media platforms to say that with the hashtag, “I was there” or “it’s me”.

News spread like a wildfire, thanks to FB friends. Protesters converged from Maharagama, Delkanda and Thalapathpitiya areas and occupied the main road from the Embuldeniya Junction up to Pengiriwatta. This was how a peaceful demonstration of middle and upper middle classes that started at Jubilee Post Junction peacefully was hijacked by some unidentified political elements and rabble rousers.

Around midnight, the Embuldeniya Junction was set ablaze ruining the magnificently carpeted road. Parapet walls on either side of the road were smashed and brickbats were used as projectiles to attack the security personnel. I was a witness to this mayhem until the wee hours of the following day. The rest is known to all.

So, this was the beginning. The ‘Gota Go Home’ cry gathered momentum. By carefully watching all the television footage and social media posts and identifying the men and women shown therein we were able to come into the conclusion that none of these celebrities who protested at the early stages of this protest campaign have languished in long gas and kerosene oil queues and had problems in feeding their kids. Most of these  protesters who assembled in front of Nelum Pokuna, represent  anglicised, pro-Western, comprador bourgeois interests who live in luxury apartments, who dine at luxury hotels, whose children attend either private denominational schools or international schools, having one foot here and the other in a Western country, who go on safari tours not to either Yala or Wilpattu as ordinary folk do, but to Maasai Mara in Kenya, Serengeti in Tanzania and  Kruger National Park in South Africa. Some were on vacation, as furlough during the time of the Britishers! (This is not a figment of imagination of the writer; I stand for what I write).

Why this sudden change in behaviour of this privileged lot?  The answer is a simple one. It’s all economics and related to business and disturbances to their lifestyles; not love and solidarity to toiling masses who undergo severe hardships. It was an irony of history that these elitist groups protesting along with petty-bourgeoisie, toiling masses and different elements of the lumpen proletariat

The culmination of these protests was the establishment of a “Gota Go Gama”. If Ranasinghe Premadasa could establish villages within villages which had a historical foundation giving those clusters of homes esoteric names, why can’t a set of protesters do the same in the heart of the city? Evidence is not needed to state that most of the other protests held in the city and elsewhere and in front of the houses of ruling party politicos are organised by hidden hands affiliated to two well organised cadre-based political parties. Can the elite remember how they lived without electricity switching off lights when all the power houses were generating electricity to their full capacity fearing the bitter repercussions after receiving the “chit” sent by the DJV, the military arm of the JVP in the late nineteen eighties? Are we to believe that class identities, class barriers, class consciousness and class distinctions were outstripped and antagonistic class contradictions between these classes were resolved overnight with the cry of “Go Gota Home” campaign? But now we see this class except a few of the former top bureaucrats who helped the politicians of different colours and hues to feast over the cadaver of Mother Lanka and theoreticians who formulate absurd theoretical formulations to the present agitations have slowly and steadily retreated from the hotbeds of agitations. This class is craft enough to identify the wind direction and to have some rough gauge of wind intensity in advance. Very soon publications will appear as Linda Herrera’s “Revolution in the Age of Social Media, The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet” (2014) for the consumption of the western pundits

We should be mindful that this so-called Aragalaya is not led by a Marxist party having workers and peasants as its nucleus providing leadership to a broad national united front. It is an unorganised loose outfit representing many interests, classes, ideologies and cultures

It is like a beach carnival with free entry and exit at will. I do not know whether they are knowledgeable of the Paris Commune, Bolshevik Revolution, Chinese Revolution or any other national liberation struggle. Maybe some are aware of the escapades of Che Guevara.

Yuppies who were ignorant of political, economic, social and cultural change  brought forth by SWRD were so ungrateful that they blindfolded the bronze statue of SWRD sculptured by that great Soviet sculptor Lev Kerbal, professor, academician and Vice-president of the then USSR Academy of Arts, a pioneer of Socialist Realism Sculpture, considered as a masterpiece of urban art by their own NGO godfathers. This was a gift by the people of the former USSR to the people of Sri Lanka. An economic refugee domiciled in a Western country lamented that it should have been brought down. Even if this happens, we will not be surprised as we have seen statues of Lenin and Stalin brought down by regime changers and the names of great cities such as Leningrad and Stalingrad changing.

Protesters at the Polduwa Junction were asked to bring underwear and hang them on police barricades which male and female protesters enthusiastically did so, calling it “Nandeta Jangiyak” (lingerie for GR).  A well-respected medical specialist texted me that according to his psychiatric knowledge a used/old panty is a highly valuable object to perverts and within a few days all other garbage will remain by the roadside, sans panties.

It’s better not to go into details of the contents of the songs sung, poems recited, posters and other visuals exhibited at these protest villages. A wreath carried “Gota ta Nivan Dukha” as its condolence message. For Buddhists, nibbana is the supreme bliss, not suffering as the protesters allude. It is unfortunate that the political monk who acts as the godfather of these protesters is blind to such sub-culture aspects emanating from the protest sites. Wearing Guy Fawkes masks is child’s play when one studies these sub-culture aspects emanating as not seen before.

What next? The call has now turned into ousting of all 225 lawmakers (except 3!) and the camping sites have encircled the perimeter of Diyawannawa. Very soon these protesters will have their own clandestine broadcasting and television stations as they are well funded by sources not unknown to the analysts who follow the present scenario. (Do not ask who will provide them with frequencies. See the enormity of funds pumped to “Gota Go Gama”.) As they have come to the perimeter of the Parliament how can one rule out them storming the Parliament electing their own government as now many claimants have appeared to “rescue” the nation. I do not want to discuss this scenario any further and its consequences.  As there are many claimants for leadership internecine, military crackdown, a reign of terror and anarchy cannot be ruled out. Will the middle and upper middle-class agitators at Mirihana enter the history as gravediggers of democracy in Sri Lanka?

Sena Thoradeniya



Opinion

Recent political violence and its consequences

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A house of an SLPP politician on fire after a mob attack

By Dr Laksiri Fernando

The government was directly involved in instigating political violence against peaceful protestors on 9 May, consequences of which had to be reaped within hours even those who are not directly involved in such action from the government side. Given the economic crisis and foreign exchange difficulties the country is facing at present, the consequences of these violent events that would badly affect the image of the country and the people. Sri Lanka has emerged as a violent country among foreign observers and critiques.

There were instances in the past that some ministers were involved particularly in attacks on ethnic minorities (1983). There was election violence where almost all parties were involved. The country is also notorious for a longstanding separatist movement with political violence as the main mode of operation. In 1971, there was a youth insurrection which reemerged in the late 1980s in a more sectarian manner. In April 2019, Sri Lanka became a target of Islamic State, with both local and international roots.

Reasons for Increasing Violence

During the initial years of independence, Sri Lanka was a peaceful country. Even the independence movement was characteristically peaceful without going into extremes. Except some incidents, related to worker’s strikes, the country was by and large peaceful and appreciated by many observers and commentators overseas. The situation dramatically changed in late 1960s giving rise to a strong leftwing organisation, the JVP. Even if the old-left parties were advocating ‘class struggle,’ no organisation had any military wing or anything like that.

Then, what went wrong since the 1970s? ‘Frustration-aggression’ theory could be one explanation. This is also the case in recent events beginning with farmers’ protests opposing the fertiliser ban. There were more broader reasons than ‘frustration’ or ‘relative deprivation.’ When it came to long queues and shortages in cooking gas, petrol, kerosene, diesel, medicine, and other basic amenties, the ‘relative deprivation’ turned into a ‘absolute deprivation.’ Most devastating was power cuts. All these happened within a context of high inflation where the value of people’s salaries and income became absolutely depreciated.

There were broader social reasons. Population explosion with young people becoming large both in numbers and as a proportion, widespread graduate and educated unemployment, dysfunctional education, the gap between rural and urban areas widening both in economic and social terms are some of them. Constitutional instability with amendments like 18A, 19A, 20A, back and forth, also contributed immensely for the youth to join militant political organisations and trade/student unions.

Can any of the reasons, however, justify political violence that became unleashed in the country in the recent past or before? Perhaps it is a common dilemma in many countries that human beings have a propensity to violence, ranging from mild verbal aggression to physical violence and vicious murder and everything in between. Aggression patterns, however, vary from country to country, age to age, and male to female. It is a fact that women are less violent than their male counterparts.

From PM’s Office

It was a Monday. Background was for the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, given the increasing protests and because of obvious failures. With the organization of MP Johnston Fernando and others, hundreds of people were rallied around the PMs official residence, the Temple Trees. Soon the PM asked the people to come in and addressed them in an aggressive manner.

The PM asked whether he should resign, and the crowed shouted ‘No.’ They were shouting, ‘Whose power, Mahinda’s power.’ ‘That means I don’t need to resign,’ he replied. He has further said “You know in politics I have always been on the side of the country. On the side of the people … I am willing to make any sacrifice for the people’s benefit.”

Johnston Fernando, the government’s whip, was more aggressive and violent. “Let’s start the fight. If the President can’t handle the situation, he should hand over power to us. We will clear Galle Face.” The crowd cheered. Another person who was closely involved was Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son.

Some of the people who were prominently involved in organising the meeting were Johnston Fernando, Sanath Nishantha, Milan Jayathilake, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sanjeeva Edirimanna, Saman Lal Fernando, Mahinda Kahandagama, Dan Priyasad, and their supporters. Western Province DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon was clearly involved as an accomplice.

The objectives of the gathering were extremely clear. It is difficult to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa was unaware. During the apparent lack of interference of the police at Galle Face, his intervention was very clear on the side of the attackers.

SLPP goons wreaking havoc on the Galle Face protest site

Attacks and Counter Attacks

There were two sites that were particularly attacked. While there are different names, the most popular being ‘Gota-Go-Gama’ and ‘Mina-Go-Gama.’ Apart from around 200 people who were brutally attacked, their platforms, tents, placards, and flags were destroyed. Some people were thrown into the Beira-lake. Whatever the extremes of their slogans and demands, the above protest sites were prominent as peaceful protests.

It is strange to see, however, within hours of the above incidents, over 40 houses of the government supporters, including MPs, were attacked, and burnt down destroying some of the personal valuables. Ten people were killed in the incidents. Below is one incident that Al Jazeera reported.

“Earlier in the day, legislator Amarakeerthi Athukorala from the ruling party shot two people – killing a 27-year-old man – after being surrounded by a mob in Nittambuwa, about 40 km (25 miles) from Colombo, police said. CCTV footage showed the MP and his security officer fleeing into a nearby building. They were later found dead.”i

Of course, there are contradictory and different interpretations of the incidents. However, it is difficult to deny the involvement of some form of political activists. Who are they? Geetha Kumarasinghe narrated her ordeal in the following manner in Parliament.

“When they were attacking my home, I was trembling in fear and was hiding in a corner of a room. What wrong have I done? I have never hurt anyone. I have sacrificed everything to engage in politics and serve my people. I slogged and slaved in cinema and won many awards through sheer dedication and hard work. They destroyed all my trophies and awards. Why? Why did these young people do this to me? I can never get my awards and trophies back. You all have mothers, I am also a mother, why did you do this to me?” she sobbed.

Who Indulged in Violence?

One side is very clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Johnstone Fernando, and Namal Rajapaksa were clearly on one side. But who were on the other side?

The JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, recently admitted or claimed that “Our party has been there right from the beginning. We have our youth, cultural, student and women wings, at the Galle Face.” Of course, there were other groups and more independent ones. Silva’s attitude towards politics and other parties also became clear when he referred to heckling of the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, when he visited the Galle Face protest site. Silva said the following.

“Everybody should be careful. People hate to see politicians travelling in luxury cars with security contingents. People detested the politicians’ attitude of trying to stay above them. The Opposition Leader went there in his luxury vehicles with his security guards and henchmen. So, he had to face the wrath of the people.”

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in Parliament, denied any involvement of the JVP in house attacks and counter violence. He may be true to his conscience. There is a possibility that within the JVP itself that there are two wings operating. Tilvin Silva’s words remind us of the JVPs aggressive and violent past.

Dilemma of Violence

Violence appears to continue. There was a recent incident of people or groups attacking and burning a house of an owner of a fuel station. Undoubtedly there are extreme grievances on the part of the people due to fuel shortages and high prices of consumer items, including essential medicine. However, none of these reasons could justify political violence unleashed by the government or the opposition politicians.

There may be deep seated reasons why people in the country are extremely violent. Some of the reasons may go to the educational system and the way students are taught in schools and universities. Some reasons may be rooted in the family institution or even religion. Political culture in the country does appear to be extremely distorted or lopsided and change of which should come from all sectors of the political society. What might be important in the meanwhile are:

Deplore strongly political violence of all forms.

Request the new national government to ameliorate people’s economic grievances.

Punish those who have involved or instigated violence without discrimination.

Establish rule of law and impartiality of the public and security services.

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Opinion

21A and Ranil

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It is no secret that Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe is adept at “buying time” when confronted with any important issue. He appoints committees for that purpose. Unlike most politicians, he treads very cautiously until the time is conducive for an apparent solution.

Hence one should not be surprised if the draft 21A Amendment receives the same response at the first meeting of the new Cabinet scheduled for T24 May. Already the foremost item vis-a-vis stripping the President of executive authority has been put on the shelf. And taking into consideration that among those to be discussed is the provision for dual citizenship, one could see that the need for a committee to study deeper into it is a foregone conclusion.

Sri Lanka has a reputation of putting off for tomorrow what should be done today.

WILLIAM OPP

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No business as usual for interim government

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By Jehan Perera

The government’s intention to appoint a full complement of Ministers and State Ministers, and the jostling for positions amongst them, seems to suggest an attitude of business as usual.  This is quite astonishing as it was just two weeks ago that no government member felt safe from the wrath of mobs that formed themselves very swiftly and, apparently, spontaneously, to attack their homes and properties.  Last week they overrode the Opposition’s demand for time to debate the motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having led the country to disaster.  They also scuttled efforts to nominate a female legislator to the post of Deputy Speaker, disregarding the request of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which could have sown the seeds for consensual governance. They gave priority to their own personal concerns of getting compensation from the State for their losses.

It is unsurprising, in this context, that anger against the government continues to boil within the country.  There are roadblocks and demonstrations by the members of the public in places where petrol is either not being provided or has been pumped to private vehicles by officials and politicians.  The lines for petrol and diesel, and for cooking gas, are longer than ever before, despite announcements that ships have begun unloading these fuels.  The lines stretch for over a kilometer in the case of petrol and diesel meant for vehicles. Videos circulate on social media providing vivid images of the frustration of those who have waited in line for hours and hours only to find out that stocks have run out before they could get access to the fuel.

The three-wheel taxi, that took me to the Aragalaya protest site, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, charged me nearly three times the regular fare that prevailed before the economy collapsed.  He justified his high rate on the basis that he had spent the whole of the previous day trying to fill his vehicle tank with petrol.  The Aragalaya site, on Saturday evening, was not as busy as it had been the previous week and nowhere near as crowded as it was two weeks ago.  But the spirit of the Aragalaya lives in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. The physical presence of protestors may be only a fraction of the turnouts that made the government want to put an end to it, through thuggery, a fortnight ago. Even those who are protestors have to live their daily lives and earn their daily bread.  But special occasions will bring them back in large numbers.

ABOLISH KINGSHIP

Galle Face is the site of the passion and commitment of a younger generation of Sri Lankans to the eradication of corruption and mis-governance foisted on them by the old. The young people know they are being monitored by state CCTV systems and are vulnerable to being picked up on a later date to be done away with, as happened in the past.  Hundreds are currently being arrested for the attacks that took place against the homes and properties of government members on May 9.  But only a few of those government members, who streamed out of the Prime Minister’s residence, with iron rods and other improvised weapons, after being instigated by the Prime Minister’s men, are being arrested.

Those who are powerful because they are in the government are glibly denying what is plain to be seen on social media.  This is a continuation of past practices which gives impunity to the powerful, whatever they do, which needs to end.  At the Aragalaya site, on Saturday, l listened to speakers who described the hardships of the economic crisis, of the mother whose gas cylinder exploded, due to inappropriate mixing of gases by the government, and of the parents who saw their infant die because they could not get petrol for their vehicle to take their child to the hospital in time.  These were educated young people who spoke and there were many who listened to them to become message-bearers to the larger population that was not present at the site.  They were all brave or had lost their sense of fear. I was also given a private lecture by a regular visitor to the Aragalaya site.  He explained to me why the diminished numbers that day did not mean that support for the cause was diminishing.  He had a vision for what the Aragalaya should achieve, which he summarized in four short points.

 First, he said, an all-party interim government needed to be appointed for a temporary period to provide the cohesion needed for political stability that would give the government the credibility to raise the necessary economic resources from abroad. Second was the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and to replace it with the 21st Amendment that would reduce the power of the presidency.  Third was to conduct general elections in a new system that would depart from the present 100 percent proportional representation to one in which first-past-the-post constituency system would account for at least 70 percent of the seats to make the parliamentarians accountable to their electorates. Fourth was to abolish the presidency that catered to the traditional ethos of relying on the saviour king rather than on the empowerment of people exemplified by the Aragalaya youth.

ARAGALAYA

PROMISE

Prior to the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, when the power of the Aragalaya protest caused the entire Cabinet to step down, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an all-party interim government for a temporary period.  This has now taken on a distorted form in the wooing and horse-trading of members of other political parties, without the consent of their party leaderships.  Both the SJP, which is the largest opposition party, and the SLFP, which is the government’s largest coalition partner, have suffered defections to the new government.  This display of power play is not a positive sign of stability which is necessary if the government is to deal with the difficult economic issues the country confronts. It is not possible to justify how those who resigned from office due to a failure of government can be part of a new Cabinet, as if the failure had nothing to do with them.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has made a comparison of the predicament he is currently facing in the government by comparing his situation to the famous play by Bertolt Brecht, the Caucasian Chalk Circle.  The Prime Minister has brought credibility to the government through his ability to deal with the international community and his understanding of the macro economic situation of the country in relation to the world.  The 21st Amendment to the Constitution that will be brought to Parliament this week, if passed, will strengthen the Prime Minister’s powers still more. Unless circumstances, and the balance of political forces, within Parliament, permit him to chart a new course of governance that is consensual and transparent, the present government will also fail.

Much is at stake. Unless the economy improves fast the possibility of violence that can suddenly erupt, as it did on May 9, cannot be ruled out.  As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, India has been extremely generous now with its latest gift of Rs 2 billion worth of essential commodities, gifted by the Tamil Nadu state.  The challenge will be to persuade the more distant, but wealthier Western countries, Japan and China, to be equally generous.  The stability of the government that is brought about by the willing participation of the opposition political parties will be extremely important in demonstrating to the world, and to the Sri Lankan people, that the government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, really intend to chart a new path.  The holding of elections, within six months, and a new leadership, can be an example to other countries with similar broken down systems and government leaders who step aside as statesmen for the new generations to take over.

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