Ranil’s attention diverting tactic

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The aragalaya continues 50 plus days and counting, albeit in a more subdued manner. Protesters continue to clash with Police regularly, and a bankrupt State does not seem to have any shortage of tear gas to fire at protesting citizens. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who started his latest attempt at running the country invoking Winston Churchill, also invoked W.G. Grace in Parliament this week. Apart from highlighting his partiality to the British Empire, many of us were left wondering what on earth he was trying to say. Basil Rajapaksa resigned from Parliament as glibly as he entered it – hinting that this was simply a temporary glitch in the Rajapaksa dominance of the Sri Lankan political landscape.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to continue – indicating more a sense of injured pride and a fragile ego than any real understanding of the world around him. Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to have obtained a fresh lease of life, looking relaxed and happy in Parliament relieved from his responsibilities. The most frequent question we are asked when we meet with people is: ‘So what’s going to happen next?’

Levels of anxiety are high among every sector of the population with whom we talk. Certainly, the Prime Minister’s constant warnings that the worst is yet to come do not help. It is clear that Ranil Wickremesinghe is intent on frightening people as much as possible so that they would be cowed into accepting anything offered as a ‘solution’ by him – since the alternative seems too bleak to bear thinking about. It is also a move to divert people from the need for political reform: keep focussing on the economy, keep talking about how bad the economy is so that the calls for political reform gradually dissipate. Also, when people are anxious and uncertain about the future, they are likely to not want major changes – since that may bring on more uncertainty. Thus, Prime Minister is doing what he was asked to do by those in power: maintain the status quo.

Certainly, this tactic seems to work with a section of the people – especially those who benefit from the status-quo remaining as it is. Yet, if there is anything that we should learn from this moment, indeed from the last two and a half years, is that we need meaningful transformation of our social, economic and political institutions. At different points in our history, the desire for transformation has emerged in different forms – some violent, others electoral. Yet, each of those efforts at transformation failed for various reasons. Violence only resulted in strengthening State repression and its anti-democratic impulses. And efforts to effect change through elections have generally centred around pinning our hopes on ‘saviours’ who are regularly trotted out as the solution. Even today, the search seems to be for a ‘person’, the next true ‘leader’ who can get us out of this mess. Anyone in the political landscape currently, who is minimally untainted by the past, seems to be a potential candidate.

However, we must recognise that our problems go beyond that of not having leadership. The crisis we are facing now is an indication of the failure of systems, of processes and of institutions. As a member of the parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), I meet regularly with public officials. One of the subjects we regularly discuss in our meetings is the process of policy making and implementation and the system of checks and balances. For instance, how did a disastrous fertiliser policy get implemented in the face of opposition from officials, experts and people? How did we ignore all the warning signs of an impending crisis of foreign reserves and debt repayments? We listen to officials who show us papers upon papers that they have submitted to those in power, warning of the crisis, with recommendations on ways to avert the crisis – most which have been simply ignored. How is this possible? And how can those who are responsible for this simply get away with it?

It is abundantly evident that systems of accountability, checks and balances are absolutely essential for a functioning democracy. This is why the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively put in place a dictator, has been such a disaster. But the answer is not simply to transfer the powers of the Executive President to a Prime Minister – and certainly not someone who has not even been elected to that position. This is what is being proposed in the 21st Amendment that is currently under discussion. What we need are systems to ensure that the different branches of government, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary function as a system of checks and balances on each other. We need systems that hold people accountable; we need political reforms that make accountability a condition for holding positions of power. This may seem like stating the obvious and it is – but the tragedy is also the fact that such an obvious truth needs to be restated.

When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe invoked W.G Grace in Parliament and related the story of how Grace refused to accept the umpire’s verdict of being ruled out after the first ball he faced hit the stumps, because “people have come to see me bat, not you umpire” is Quintessentially a story of a man who believes that regular rules don’t apply to him. Because he is greater, more important, more necessary than mere mortals. What exactly was the Prime Minister implying here? That rules don’t matter if the job gets done? That the end justifies the means? That process does not matter? That some people are above rules?

If there is one problem that Sri Lanka needs fixing it is the states of exception that exists for certain people or communities. These states of exception work to protect some and to persecute others. This makes it possible for Johnston Fernando to evade arrest while others cannot do so. It makes it possible for Duminda Silva to admit himself to hospital when he should be in prison while ordinary citizens are shot for ‘evading/obstructing Police’. It makes it possible for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to remain in power even after decisions he made almost certainly sent the country into a situation of intense food insecurity. It makes it possible for the State to allocate four days to debate the violence experienced by Members of Parliament while the stories of scores of citizens who have experienced violence remain unheard. This is the status quo that is being protected. This is the status quo that the aragalaya is questioning and challenging.

The degree of transformation that our country needs is serious and will not come easily. It will require many of us to acknowledge that we occupy positions of privilege and comfort at the cost of others. It requires us to acknowledge that a fairer, more just world cannot be achieved without effort, commitment and sacrifice. It certainly appears that the people of this country desire this change – its time the leaders catch up.  

By Harini Amarasuriya