Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • July 2022
    M T W T F S S

Time Lankan Rulers Feel the Pulse… Patience Running Out

Posted by harimpeiris on July 12, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Economic Times of India on the 11th July 2022)

Will go down in the annals of Sri Lanka’s history as a momentous day. On that day, in a country where schools and government offices were closed for a couple of weeks because of the lack of fuel and the lines outside fuel stations ran into several kilometers and the wait for fuel was about three days, close to 200,000 people converged at the “Gota go home” protest site on the historic Galle Face green at the city centre of Colombo. For a country of 20 million people, 1% of them on the streets of the capital city is quite formidable. From Galle Face, the protestors marched to the presidential secretariat and the President’s (former Governor General’s) house, the official office complex and residence of the head of state and government of Sri Lanka.

By early afternoon, both buildings were overrun by protestors, who overturned barricades, ignored teargas hurled by the police and security forces, to storm and take over Sri Lanka’s seat of executive power. The sheer weight of their numbers, close to perhaps 200,000 at its peak, overwhelmed the thousands of assembled police and paramilitary Special Task Force personnel. The security forces had a stark choice, either stand down or engage in a Tiananmen Square type massacre, because anything less would not have worked.

Very wisely for a military that provides troops to UN international peace keeping operations with human rights mandates and receives advance training and security cooperation from both India and the United States; as well as for a country engaging in negotiations with both the IMF and as owners of its international sovereign bonds, the option of a blood bath of civilian protestors at the centre of the capital city was never really an option.

About 80 protestors and police sustained injuries — none life threatening. The only violence that occurred happened later at night at Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s private residence, where STF officers badly assaulted six journalists, on live TV, including a young female TV reporter of the fiercely independent News 1st TV channel. As news of the attack spread, the crowd outside the PM’s residence grew, the house was overrun and torched. The whereabouts of the President and prime minister, both of whom were evacuated earlier, is unknown.

The real question is where does Sri Lanka go from here? From Greece to Iraq, Libya to Syria, governments have lost their seats of power, and continued for some time as regimes on the run and under siege. Sri Lanka is South Asia’s oldest democracy having received universal adult franchise in 1932, only a few years after all women received the vote in Britain and, accordingly, as a nation, seem to be loath to extra constitutional means of changing governments.

Sri Lanka has never had a successful military coup and always transferred power after democratic elections, even during the height of the civil war. That the change has to come from the people power protests on the streets is actually an indictment on Sri Lanka’s institutions of democracy, which have been insufficiently robust in dealing with this national calamity.

The problem is, however, more political than institutional. It was only as recently as November 2019 and August 2020 that President Gotabaya Rajapakse received an overwhelming mandate as President and a near two-third majority in Parliament for his party, which under proportional representation was thought a near impossibility. Appalling governance and corruption almost from the start have brought Lanka to ruin.

It takes a particular kind of genius to bankrupt a country, an outcome which did not even occur during 30 years of a long drawn-out civil war. This also ironically from a mandate sought to create “vistas of prosperity and splendour”. The President has informed the Speaker of Parliament (verbally) that he intends to step down in a few days’ time and the prime minister likewise says he is ready to resign if anyone else can show he commands a majority in Parliament. Why not immediate is anybody’s guess. This is because the President’s party, even after defections, is the largest party in Parliament and the other opposition parties cannot seem to agree on a common alternative. Party leaders have proposed an interim solution, where both the President and the PM resigns and, as per the constitution, the Speaker of Parliament takes over as interim President until the Parliament elects a new President and conducts fresh elections within an agreed time frame. Would Sri Lanka’s legislators now heed the voice of the people and reach a minimum consensus on basic interim governing arrangements and crucial immediate economic reforms or fail to do so. Time as well as patience is running out.


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