Mainstream

Home > 2022 > Sri Lankans have risen | Apratim Mukarji

Mainstream, VOL LX No 21, New Delhi, May 14, 2022

Sri Lankans have risen | Apratim Mukarji

Saturday 14 May 2022, by Apratim Mukarji

Sri Lanka will continue to boil until the Rajapaksa clan in toto goes. This message has come out loud and clear. The first month of protests, street demonstrations, encirclements of government offices and slow breakdowns of law and order all over the island-nation over the past one month have now graduated to direct action by the enraged people. And there is no end to all these because the Rajapaksas are not yet truly scared of people’s power. They still seem to be confident in their ability to strike back and regain power.

But their refusal to read the writing on the wall does not mean that the writing cannot be read or it is not there on the wall. For one thing, the Opposition is united in both Parliament and outside in the streets. While in the initial stages, trade unions---traditionally a very strong movement still led by leftists---lent the leadership to the anti-government movement, all opposition political parties, all professions, intellectuals, carried away by by an enraged social media,have all joined in and continue to be doing so. The ball has started running downhill; and there does not seem to be any means potent enough to stop it.

The Rajapaksas still seem to believe that by retaining the presidential gadi (office), Gotabaya in collaboration with Mahinda and other Rajapaksa brothers would be able to buck the tide, calm the people down gradually, and can continue to rule the angry country. But the die seems to have been cast in the opposite direction; and perhaps the Rajapaksa era in Sri Lankan history is destined for an eclipse, if not for permanence.
Facing the situation in unsettled Sri Lanka today, there is no doubt that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has so far refused to go, will eventually have to go. The last resort to cling to power that he has taken on 10 May, by virtually making the military the sole arbiter in quelling the popular movement with the unquestionable power to shoot at agitators, is apparently calculated to cower down the people. But so far, the people have not betrayed any dithering amongst them to continue with their anti-Rajapaksa movement. In all senses, what is happening in Sri Lanka today is a people’s revolution. It’s nothing short of that.

Mahinda and the other Rajapaksas chose their middle brother, Gotabaya to be the new president in 2015, because of his image among the Sinhalas as the man who led the army to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and, in the process, there was no problem for the government and the Sinhalas to understand that in this last-ditch effort to finish off the Tamil rebels, Tamil civilians might also be ‘sacrificed.’ Tamils have consistently claimed that around 40,000 men, women and children were killed while they were forced into the no-man’s land between the army and the LTTE. The government’s and the army’s contention at the time was that they were being used as a human shield by the Tamil rebels. The government and the army kept on issuing total and categorical denials, while Tamil civilians and activist groups, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, have continued to stick to the claim that ‘mass and indiscriminate’ killings by the army of ‘unarmed’ civilians caused the massacre, if mot a genocide.. The international community has since responded to the Tamil diaspora’s call for an international inquiry, and the United Nations had at one time supported this demand. But the Gotabaya government has brushed aside these demands and claims, and has maintained that an internal inquiry has cleared the president and the army of such ‘false and motivated’ accusations.

It was on 9 April 2022 that trade unions, soon joined in by political parties and civil society activists, that began to protest peacefully---and this word peacefully has to be emphasised because until 9 May, all such anti-government protests had been peaceful. Exactly a month into the protests, the tone changed because pro-government people unleashed unprecedented acts of violence against the peaceful protesters.
This implied that President Gotabaya and his elder brother Mahinda---who had resigned in a fake show of obeying his president’s order---decided to choose the hard path to teach the people a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry.

This also meant that the two of them and the rest of the Rajapaksa clan and their supporters had deliberately pushed the country to further chaos and anarchy.
The timeline of the events establishes this point quite sharply. (1) April 2021: Sri Lanka declared its worst economic turndown since independence after its economy struck 3.6% compared to the previous year, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic on Sri Lanka’s lucrative tourism industry. (2) August 2021: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa imposed a ‘food emergency’ to tackle shortages of food and prevent hoarding of staple-food rice and essential foods. The ‘food emergency’ came at a time when banks ran out of foreign exchange reserves to finance imports of essential and more non-essential items. (3) March 2022: Largescale protests aided by social media erupted against the government. The protests turned violent on 31 March, afte some demonstrators tried to storm the president’s residence in Colombo, At least two dozen police personnel were injured in the ensuing clashes. (4) 1 April 2022: President Rajapaksa declared Public Emergency after violent anti-government protests. In the gazette notification, the president said, ‘ Public security, protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and essential services’ were reAsons for the imposition of Public Emergency. (5) 3 April 2022 : The Cabinet resigned en masse from their positions. However, Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to hold his position. Three other members of the Rajapaksa clan also followed suit by resigning, they being Basil, Chamal and Mahinda’s son and political heir Namal. (6) 4 April 2022: Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, a Gottabaya appointee, Ajith Navard Cabraal, resigned mid escalating protests for the unprecedented economic meltdown. The new CBSL governor is Nandalal Weeranghe. (7) 5 April 2022: President Gotabaya revoked the emergency rule ordinance even as his government struggled to quell protests. On the same day, his ruling coation lost its majority in Parliament as forty Members of Parliament walked out of the alliance. (8) 18 April 2022: President Gotabaya expanded his cabinet by appointing 17 new members. He also exprfessed his regret over his government’s handling of the economic crisis. ‘People are under immense pressure’ due to the economic crisis, he said by way of acknowledging---for the first time---his government’s culpability in the matter. ‘I deeply regret the situation,’ he added to lend a touch of sincerity to his statement. (9) 6 May 2022: Pub lic emergency was imposed for the second time in less than six weeks’ time. The presidential spokesperson said the President invoked ‘tough law’ giving security forces---the army and the police---sweeping powers to restore public order. (10) 9 May 2022: Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from his position, just days after tghe president in a special meeting requested him to step down. The president thereafter came out with what he probably regarded as a master-stroke, by in viting all political parties to join in an all-party government. But this poorly disguised ploy fell through immediately as the Opposition in Parlaiment outright rejected his offer.
In the latest scenario, on 11 May 2022, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his immediate family was rescued by a security team from his official resident, Temple Trees, in Colombo, and was taken out to a naval base in the north-eastern Trincomalee Port. Shoot-at-sight orders were issued immediatelt thereafter after Mahinda’s escape; and on the last count, civilians were barricading roads by setting up checkpoints in order to prevent and catch members and supporters of the government from fleeing to safe haven abroad. In short, it’s more like a war scenario where streets remain empty and dark, and the army and police on the one hand and the people of Sri Lanka on the other hand size each other up before the final showdown.

* (Apratim Mukarji’s last book on Sri Lanka was The Demons of Sri Lanka An Unfinished Story (New Delhi, 2019))

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.