Let us remember the spirit of Aragalaya


As I write this column, all over the country, preparations are underway for what has been described as a ‘final’ push to oust the current Government. What began as a demand for the President to resign has now broadened to a demand that both the President and the Prime Minister should resign. Constitutionally, if the President resigns, there is a clear path as to what should happen for the duration of his term: There is no election, but a current member of Parliament must be elected by Parliament to serve out the term. Till that happens, the Prime Minister, Speaker or the Chief Justice must function as acting President. If the Prime Minister steps down, the President has the power to appoint a new Prime Minister.

Whatever the constitutional details, what is clear at this moment is that there is a deep discontent, almost hatred for the current Government among the public. That feeling is not going to go away by replacing one person with another – but in our view, can only be assuaged by giving the people of this country an opportunity to exercise their mandate and elect a fresh Government. This requires Parliament to be dissolved. Constitutionally, Parliament can vote on a resolution to dissolve itself, but the power to dissolve still lies with the President.

Although there are many calls for a Multi-party Government (some call it an Interim Government), the limitations of such an administration needs to be clearly understood. Whatever the composition of that interim/multi party, it must be found from within the members of the current Parliament. The current Parliament still has a hefty majority from the ruling party, the SLPP and its allies. Although there are breakaway groups from the ruling alliance, as yet, their voting behaviour suggests that they have not completely distanced themselves from the government. More importantly, apart from a very few in the current Parliament, most (in Government and Opposition ranks) have allegations of corruption and abuse of power. No Government that is appointed from the current Parliament will be able to bridge the growing distance between what the public are demanding and the capacities and values of their representatives.

If we consider this moment, as a real opportunity for meaningful transformation – transformation that goes beyond the superficial moving around of persons, then we also need to pay attention to the change in the political culture that is being demanded right now. Today, there are serious discussions around the nature of the State, the relationship between citizens and rulers, and social justice as a policy goal. Yes, we need to address the immediate crisis and bring relief to the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment, but there is a growing realisation that the fundamental causes of the crisis must also be addressed. And, that the fundamental cause is a real crisis in our political culture – one that has institutionalised corruption, abuse of power, nepotism and patronage. While there is no doubt that the Rajapaksa family personified this political culture, laced with a hefty dose of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, other ruling regimes have been no better. As Ranil Wickremesinghe, who best personifies the Establishment and the status quo, has demonstrated in his latest avatar, beneath his veneer of liberalism and democracy lies a strong contempt for the voices of the people and a huge level of arrogance about his privileged position in the world – these too are traits that have proved to be toxic in our political culture.

The transformations in our political culture and social institutions and also our economy, are not possible unless people elect representatives who can bring them about – and certainly, that type of representative is at a premium, currently. There needs to be at least a minimum level of trust between the rulers and the ruled, between citizens and their representatives for us to come out of this crisis.And currently, that trust is practically non-existent. Initially, in the heat of the aftermath of the incidents of the 9 May, both the President and the Prime Minister promised a return to the 19th Amendment or even 19A plus! Yet, the 22nd Amendment that has been presented by Minister of Justice, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is a far cry from what was promised. As he himself has admitted, what is presented is what is possible – and what is possible in the current Parliament is set by a very low bar indeed. This shows the limitations of what this current Parliament can deliver at this point.

So what will happen post 9 July? Making political predictions in Sri Lanka is a risky business; but it is also important that we make an assessment on what is happening on the ground and that we prepare ourselves. Those in power realise that even though they no longer have public acceptance, they are constitutionally on strong ground. They have the power to serve out the remaining term of office.That this will be a disaster for the country does not concern them. Appealing to their better nature, their sense of shame, accountability is of absolutely no point, since that ignores why they want to remain in power: it is their only chance of self-preservation – and that particularly for the Rajapaksa family is of paramount importance. So, the Aragalaya will have to continue post 9 July as well.

As such, current regime and their allies – and this includes all those who represent the status quo and the establishment –those who benefit from the current system and see and experience this crisis as simply a blimp in their path to a life of privilege and power, will do all within their power to neutralise the transformational potential of the Aragalaya and indeed this present moment. They will bring forth various arguments –the impracticality of alternative models of governance and economy; the need for stability, that nobody can address this crisis etc. But the strongest weapon in their arsenal is fear – this they are propagating with all their might.Transformation can be scary, because it requires a certain amount of faith – faith in the possibility and also the potential of what is to come. What the Establishment is doing now is to evoke fear about that possibility and potential and particularly about those who represent that transformation. We as the NPP and one of our partners in the alliance, the JVP have been chosen targets of this fear campaign in recent times. The propaganda machine has been hard at work spreading lies, fake news and selective versions of history. Fighting this ideological assault is as important as all the other fights that we have on our hands today. In the era of fake news and misinformation, where analysis has been replaced by opinions, where noise is more important than nuance, it takes a lot of energy to sieve through all that we are constantly bombarded with to arrive at some kind of measured truth or truths. But each of us has a responsibility to do that – this moment is too critical for any one of us to absolve ourselves from this responsibility.

Finally, as excitement builds over what we can expect on this 9 July, let us also remind ourselves of the enormity of what we are undertaking: Essentially, rebuilding a broken and shattered nation. Let us be aware of the forces against us, including the extent of what they stand to lose if we are successful. Let us remember the spirit of the Aragalaya – we can be forceful, and not-violent at the same time; we have chosen solidarity and collective action each time over individual agendas and egos. It is paramount that we recognise that rejecting violence is not a sign of weakness – especially because we know that violence will play into the hands of those in power. Let us not allow those in power to unleash what they know best – instead let us bring out what is best in all of us who are hoping for a better, more just world for all.

By Harini Amarasuriya