taking a closer look at ‘aragalaya’

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The ‘Aragalaya’ or the protest by peaceful demonstrators in front of the Presidential Secretariat has exceeded fifty days and continues. The protesters claim the 6.9 million who voted for a change and for Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed to deliver what was promised on election platforms. 

Fuel prices have gone up several times to unprecedented levels. Consequently, people stand in long queues mainly for petrol, gas and milk-food, while consumer prices are sky high. The scarcity of medicines in hospitals is also flashing red lights. People complain they have to spend their time in queues constantly. The poor cannot afford the wave of fuel and consumer price hikes. Yet, it is the fault of all Governments since Ceylon became independent in 1948 for not implementing robust economic policies. Still, everyone blames the present President in a matter of three years. People have a short memory of Covid-19 and how the Government handled the pandemic, which brought international acclaim.

On 9 May 2022, hundreds of SLPP supporters arrived in busloads at Temple Trees, to bid farewell to the outgoing Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa. When this crowd came, it was alleged that Mahinda Rajapaksa with several Ministers of his Cabinet set the visiting supporters to attack the peaceful protesters in front of ‘Temple Trees. Later, thugs marched towards Galle Face Green and started attacking the crowds of peaceful protesters with batons and iron rods. That provoked some of the militant elements among protesters to trigger a state of lawlessness in the country, followed by lynching, arson on houses, scorching of vehicles and busses, shops, assaulting the public and looting, akin to the infamous July 1983 Black July riots in the country.

In Parliament

In Parliament on 19 May 2022, President’s elder brother, Chamal  Rajapaksa, said: ” We are engaged in politics with honest intentions; that is why we are still in politics. Our sacrifices in politics have completely gone in vain. It would have been better if the former PM retired after completing his two terms as President of Sri Lanka.” The ultimate result was terrifying. The looters took charge of the situation and plundered all valuables before burning houses on 9 May 2022. So far, Police have taken more than one thousand perpetrators.

MPs Wimal Weerawansa and Gammanpila have written to the President urging a Commission to probe into the mayhem on 9 May 2022 and reveal who masterminded the hostilities. MP Athuraliye Rathana Thera also wrote to the President. Both MPs and the Thera wanted to know if the thugs came purely to attack the peaceful protesters and whether the brutal attack was pre-planned?

The newly sworn-in Minister of Plantations and Industries, Ramesh Pathirana, dropped a bombshell in Parliament by revealing the Inspector General of Police (IGP) did not want to stop the protestors from attacking and burning down several parliamentarians’ houses. When Minister Pathirana attended a meeting at the Presidential House, the thugs were on their way to attack the peaceful protestors. He had phoned the Western Province SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon and requested him to prevent the attack. The SDIG had assured Minister Pathirana the Police would prevent the attack. However, while Minister Pathirana was at the President’s House, former MP Arshu Marasinghe had phoned the Minister and requested Minister Pathirana to warn the President to stop the impending tragedy. However, when the President contacted SDIG Tennakoon, he claimed the IGP gave instructions not to prevent the thugs from entering the protesters’ area. The President then ordered SDIG Tennakoon to stop the riots having to remind him by saying “I am the President of the Country.’

Much water has flowed under the bridge since the 9 May incident. The IGP denies SGID Tennakoon’s version in an eight-page letter written to the Defence Secretary. He further added  in his letter ( which is well known among the public through the Media) that, “out of the 184 recruited to Police service, 126 were absorbed into the Police Force without any interviews based on politicians’ recommendations. Thirty-four candidates were appointed in the top A1, A2 and A3 stations.”

The IGP’s letter to the Defence Secretary has exposed twenty-one Police Officers who were caught with drugs, and one hundred and fifty-six drug addicts. Still, one hundred officers are dealing with drug dealers. Furthermore, he had stressed that all politicians have their favourite Police Chiefs in respective Police Stations. In such a situation, the IGP had argued “how could he safeguard politician’s houses. He has stated that his powers and responsibility have diminished with political influence.”

Nevertheless, the general consensus of the country is the IGP cannot escape by giving hollow excuses blaming politicians. It is the Chief Police Officer’s responsibility to maintain law and order in the country; and he should have risen to the occasion and taken appropriate action. Otherwise people question, what’s the advantage of having a police chief at all?”

Despite the attacks, ‘Gota Go Home’ protests at Galle Face Green continue for more than 50 days. Protesters demand that Gotabaya Rajapaksa should resign as the President. Meanwhile, the new Minister of Justice, Prisons Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, told the anchor-man of the Derana 360 programme:  “Constitutionally the President cannot be removed as people wish unless the President voluntarily resigns.” Say, the President resigns voluntarily, what would be the new scenario? The Justice Minister explained “Within a month, someone in Parliament needs to be appointed as a suitable candidate for the Presidency. At present, the majority of parliamentarians are from the SLPP. What  would be the guarantee  that whoever becomes the new President would be any better than Gotabaya Rajapaksa?”  The Justice   Minister said, he has always been with the youth who protest, and he is confident that he would be able to come to some settlement with them.

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By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando