‘Aragalaya’ Losing the Plot?

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The entire world, on 9 July, witnessed with admiration how millions of Sri Lankan citizens, who had been pushed to the brink of desperation for months, stormed the capital city to overthrow an uncompromising, insensitive leader.

They all came armed with one rallying call, to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had vowed only a few weeks earlier that he was determined to serve out the remaining two years of his term, refusing to bow down to growing public discontent over his increasingly unpopular policy decisions.

Not a single protester who took part in the ‘Aragalaya’ – The Struggle – that commenced exactly three months earlier, on 9 April at the Galle Face Green, carried any type of weapon. They were only armed with National Flags and an iron-clad determination to change the political system that pushed the country towards bankruptcy due to decades of fiscal mismanagement, dynastic rule, cronyism, monumental wastage and corruption, and stealing that turned a once prosperous nation into a beggar State that has to plead for credit lines from our neighbours, just to provide absolute essentials such as food, gas and fuel to the people.

The takeover of State buildings, such as the President’s House, Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat, were symbolic gestures that sent a clear message to the political leadership that the people have taken back the mandate given to them at the 2019 Presidential Election and the 2020 General Election. It was an emphatic message that the Government no longer holds people’s sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the events that followed inside those historic State buildings were nothing short of tragic. It is true that the elected leaders kept the doors of those buildings closed to the ordinary general public, shielding from their eyes the kinds of luxury they enjoyed at the public expense.

However, those three buildings – now ransacked and vandalised – are part of this country’s historical and cultural heritage. They contain historic documents, invaluable paintings, mementoes and souvenirs brought here by foreign dignitaries to mark their visits, all of which are part of this country’s heritage and should be preserved for posterity.

Yet, the anarchy that prevailed in the past few days with no State authority present there to preserve the artifacts and furniture, an incalculable damage has been caused within those buildings.

Even if the three historic buildings are taken back from the vandals that currently occupy them, a monumental amount of money will have to be spent to restore them to their former state, which the public will have to bear out of their pockets.

Although images and videos of scores of courageous men, women and children braving the guns and teargas of the Armed Forces and the Police, breaching their defences to storm those three State buildings, met with much admiration from the international community, surely the images of destruction caused to the interiors of those historic buildings would have earned nothing but condemnation and disapproval from around the world.

This also brings to light one of the pertinent lacunas that were present since the beginning of the ‘Aragalaya’ – the absence of focused, clearly defined leadership. The ‘GotaGoGama’ protesters were a motley group of disgruntled citizens. However, any people’s force that aims to overthrow a Government must have a political plan to follow through once their struggle comes to fruition. Otherwise, what will follow is anarchy.

At this moment in time, what Sri Lanka needs more than anything is stability and a strong political leadership that can steer the country through these difficult times. There has to be a clear political and administrative structure in place to find solutions to the prevailing crises. There has to be a proper authority that can deal with international parties on financial and economic matters.

From the hooliganism seen at the President’s House, Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat, and the thousands of people arriving at these sites on sight-seeing tours, it is apparent that none has a clear idea that the country is now sitting on a powder keg with a ticking time bomb connected to a short fuse.

Merely sending Gota home is not going to resolve the grave economic problems before us. The kind of leadership that will emerge out of this chaos will determine whether Sri Lanka will swim or sink in the aftermath of the ‘Aragalaya’.