The Mysteries that have Confounded Sri Lankans – Part I

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The events that dictated this year are most confounding. First, there were the protests over shortages of essentials. The shortages of essentials and certain imports in themselves are not a mystery. Decades of financial and fiscal mismanagement, consumerism that the GDP could not support leading to living off loans had to unravel at some point. 

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration’s attempt at course correction took too many wrong turns and resulted in queues that ran into days and power outages that sometimes lasted for half or more of the day. If there is any mystery here, it is the continued presence of non-essential imports that never left the shop shelves. When the country was without forex to pay for essentials, then how was it that we continued to have the non-essentials as imported chocolates and confectioneries? 

It is the protests and its outcome that are confounding. The protests that began as simple agitations over the shortages rapidly deteriorated into anti-government protests to riots to anarchy. The uglier it got, the less inclined the Gotabaya Administration was to address it. Consequently, government heads rolled, first the Cabinet, then the Prime Minister and finally that of the President. 

Today, former President Gotabaya is hopping around the neighbourhood. Since then the rioters have been expelled from the protest grounds. Yet, the prevailing calm is an uneasy one. 

In the midst of these developments, six organisations and 316 individuals, that have been promoting the LTTE ideology, were de-listed by the Ministry of Defence under the signature of the Defence Secretary (retired) General Kamal Gunaratne. 

This news coincides with the strict warning former President received from his current host, the Thai Government. Due to threats to his life, he had been instructed to stay in the confines of his hotel room. These threats are not from those protestors who agitated against his governance, but from the LTTE and possibly from Islam extremists. 

Mystery One – Who were these Protestors?

Many believe that the protestors were ordinary citizens, mostly middle class citizens who took to the streets to vent their frustrations over the shortages of essentials and imports such as milk powder. They did not have an ulterior motive and only wanted to agitate to have these supply chains restored. Their protests were deemed peaceful and creative in their communication. 

At first, these protestors clad in black, met in small pockets and were sighted in various junctions around Colombo. Then, simultaneously all these groups, apparently on their own volition, shifted to the Galle Face Greens. If indeed an organising arm was invisible, and all this took place on impulse, then it is amazing that the same thought flowed through all these protestors simultaneously. 

At Galle Face Greens, tents and toilets suddenly propped up as well as stages and platforms. Free food and beverages were generously distributed. It was claimed that these were the contributions from well wishers. 

Was it really though. The tents, for instance, instead of a multitude of brands and colours were uniform in every parameter. This uniformity is very similar to the camps set up by international civil organisations for humanitarian needs as to house displaced persons due to war or natural disasters. The difference was that these tents did not have any insignia. 

A library, legal consultations and even a patch of corn planted in the compound appeared. Could it really be a coincidence that exact features sprang up on protest grounds in other parts of the world where people agitated over legitimately-elected governments such as in Ukraine? 

Artists, sports personalities, religious dignitaries and activists for rights such as LGBTQ began to mingle with the crowds. With live performances of songs and speeches, this became the place to mingle and be seen. Scenes such as Muslims breaking fast and sharing their food with the LGBTQ community were considered signs of a newfound unity. However, if this tolerance would continue, beyond the protest grounds, remains to be seen. 

On the surface, these developments appeared to be spontaneous. The conspicuous absence of politicians led many to believe that this was an apolitical movement. This illusion was shattered after the 9 May 2022 events. It was then that the JVP admitted that their entire arm was on the grounds, managing the protests. Could it be a coincidence that many who participated at the protests now have faith in the JVP? 

Mystery Two – Why was the Situation Allowed to Deteriorate into Anarchy? 

After 9 May, the whole face of the protests changed. Until then, these protests were conducted in English with the simple vulgarities and crudeness typical of an English speaking middle class. This changed. 

While the slogans and graffiti remained in English, the main language shifted to Sinhala. The behaviour of the protestors became increasingly brazen. Women were spotted with obscene gestures drawn on the boards they carried and along with men hung their underwear on Police barricades outside Parliament. 

This was no longer the place for the respected or the respectable. This further deteriorated and drugs and prostitution came into the circulation. The earlier merriment disappeared along with most of the protestors. The replacement was mostly black plastic and a menacing air.  

Yet, the then Government kept a tight grin on their face and disallowed law enforcement from taking action. Here lies the difficult question: was it because the Government had by then lost confidence in its own Police and Security Forces? 

Apparently, when the then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s life was at stake on 9 May and then the lives of Government MPs, President Gotabaya had spent the whole night trying to rally troops to protect them and their properties. It is noteworthy that most of these properties were destroyed while the Police and Army looked on. MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala was beaten to death and his body, stripped naked was left on the main road. All this took place in broad daylight in a very public, crowded scene. 

Interestingly, even independent journalists justified the Military’s ‘non interference’. Many thought that such a military intervention at a time when we are hoping for an IMF bailout would ‘send the wrong’ message to the world. The fact that lives were at stake was discounted. 

According to the grapevine, the top brass refused to take due action for political reasons. The truth or not of this serious accusation will reveal itself once the relevant investigations are concluded and if the findings were made public. 

Mystery Three – Why were the West so Keen to Defend the Protestors? 

Disregarding this shifting personality, these protests were declared as ‘peaceful’ by a larger section of the media, Western diplomats and civil societies influenced by western envoys. Even after over 100 private properties of government MPs were destroyed, the protests were promoted as ‘peaceful’.  

This label did not change when their actions included beating a young MP and an innocent pet dog to death. This status remained even when the lives of both the then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s and then President Gotabaya’s were directly threatened and both coerced most undemocratically to leave Office. 

The incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decisive steps to clear the Presidential Secretariat was deliberately misconstrued by those who marketed the anarchists as ‘peaceful protestors’. Amongst them was also the present US Ambassador Julie Chung. Even after President Wickremesinghe pointed to her errors, she has not apologised nor discontinued misconstruing the events. We must question as to why it is so important for her to send a wrong message to the world.

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(The views and opinions expressed in this column are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CeylonToday)

BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe