Aragalaya: A utopian fantasy or a long march to real reform?

Tuesday, 2 August 2022 03:20 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


It seems like a long time ago, but the reality is that it’s been just 150 days since the urban middle class and their semi-urban cousins stepped out of their comfort zone to hold a candle in protest against power cuts and shortage of milk, cooking gas and fuel. Most Sri Lankan hearts and minds were filled with love, amazement, pride and hope as we braved both darkness and fickle weather to register our dissatisfaction with inept governance. 

While we had hardly cared when the farmers were protesting about their crop failure, it appeared that the country felt enough collective pain to step out together. We unitedly believed in the big changes needed to oust our corrupt thieving leaders who had bankrupted our nation. We knew we needed to raise our voices and demand that we be heard.

A people’s movement, the likes of we’ve never seen before, inspired us all to put aside our differences and unite for one cause. #Gotagohome was that war cry in unison. It was the overarching manthra that cried out a badly needed ‘system change’. It was a purely personal conviction by individual Sri Lankans and not one which was manipulated nor instigated by any hidden hand as it is now widely theorised and conspired. This unity in purpose, which was termed ‘Aragalaya’ showed us the strength of racial and religious harmony and the power of equality. It showed us the importance of freedom of expression, the strength of peaceful protests and the value of an impartial justice system. It demonstrated how almighty politicians can be brought to their knees with no bloodshed or violence, when people stood united.

We stood together as Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and Burghers, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Atheists, young and old alike, rallying round common goals—get rid of the Rajapaksas and demanding a system change to reform governance in our beloved country. We achieved much in ‘sending many home’ and then we got stuck. Why? 

This “System” which we speak of changing is within each one of us as much as it is a collective conscience. We forget that. We think it is the government. We think it is the politicians, who WE have elected. We don’t want to change, but expect others to do so. Getting fuel from the backdoor is a case in point. The Trishaw Mafia will not exist if there are no buyers. Gentlemen bikers riding against traffic doesn’t help the cause some of them are fighting for. The blame games have begun again with many looking for short cuts to maintain status quo by hook or by crook. With managing these personal challenges, the old alliances, suspicions and fears have risen again, and we start looking for saviours and villains, motivated by our own selfish interests, and default insecurities that we seemed to have put in the back burner for a few months, to fight a collective battle.

Our love for a person or purpose does not seem to last long, and seems to fluctuate with the dollar price and personal pain or gain only. Rationality seems to be in short supply in this paradise isle, with emotions often playing havoc irrationally. 

Let’s reminisce our love-hate pendulum

6.9 million who loved GR, started hating him within a year. His idolised brother, MR, was chased out like a common criminal. Saliya Peiris, PC, who was deemed presidential material was labelled by some a ‘political lackey’ overnight. Hirunika was the ‘brave woman’ turned ‘basket woman’ in a flash because she used ‘foul-language’. Those who cheered and loved the fearless Antharé Brigade marching towards a barricade soon went back to accusing them to be the bane of the country. Hundreds of youths who paused their lives for the sake of all of us, for over 100 days are now labelled hooligans and compared to the Taliban militants by some of the very same men and women who loved and nurtured them for months. Last but not least, Ranil Wickremesinghe, rejected by the majority of Sri Lankans is suddenly seen as the only saviour of the hour!

What is this love-hate syndrome that engulfs us? I largely blame irresponsible media, paid digital media and WhatsApp messages that are ‘planted’, shared widely with zero fact checking. Rumour mongering to be ‘in the know’ is a cancer in our society. Bot farms financed by those with vested interests manipulate this well orchestrated love-hate syndrome. 

Let’s retrace our recent history briefly for better insight

In 2015 we voted in the Maithripala/Wickremesinghe unity government hoping they would put right the wrongs done by the Rajapaksa regime. Unfortunately, the bond scam ensured. Worse calamity befell us with the Easter Sunday bombings, and we looked again to the Rajapaksas to save us, quick to forgive and forget their atrocities and proven sins, so we could personally benefit from their ‘efficient’ leadership. 6.9 million people gave them two-thirds majority, with all the power it offers, knowing full well their past actions. We stood by and did not question the media narrative, as many innocent Muslims were demonised, harassed and tortured, just as we did, and allowed our then Jayewardene Government to do, to the Tamils in 1983. Sadly, our worst fears of racism seem to raise its ugly head again. 

Was the Aragalaya simply a fantasy or a utopian mirage? 

But again, it appears that as our ship starts to sink deeper, in our desperation, we seem to look for saviours and feel we must call out some villains, while we lose sight of the long-term goal – the system change, for ‘people first governance’. 

As our rose tinted glasses clear and as masks fall off and true faces are revealed, we start to be suspicious of each other. But why do we feel we have to put each other in boxes, look at things as being either/or, and take sides? We the citizens have much in common... we condemn violence; be it by elements of the Aragalaya or state sponsored, we want petrol, gas, food and medicines, we don’t want to stand in long queues, and most importantly we want to save our nation for our children.

We are desperate again...the economy must come first we say. Give Ranil a chance we say. Ranil is experienced and is able to communicate with the international community we say. We really don’t care that he abused our democratic systems and wangled his way into the government. We need to come out of this mess. But at what expense? What happened to our call for System Change? Ranil has become our new saviour. We are quick to forget, focused on our own selfish interests once again. Why does this sound familiar?

Don’t we see...this is precisely how we got into this mess in the first place. Never mind if he stomps on our democratic rights, on our fundamental human rights, uses the disproportionate force of the military with the power he now has to get what “he” wants. “We are in a desperate situation noh?” “We have to keep the peace to ensure the economy can be fixed noh?” “If not him, then who?” we ask. So, we again are unable to see the wood for the trees, we want to be saved by this new hero, and so we will compromise on our values. System change can wait we say, there are more urgent matters to deal with. We are divided again, blaming and raising suspicions about each other. And so the story keeps unfolding as it has done for 75 years. 

While we know the immediate future is bleak, the economists have clearly outlined what is needed in the short to midterm to get us back on track. Yes, we need stability, but stability cannot be forced upon us and demanded through military force and fear. It is obvious that the government needs an economically strong, socio- political strategy. Ranil and his group of self-serving parliamentarians have to walk the talk of putting the country first, tightening THEIR belts first, minimising corruption and merry making, setting an example to the public, who are told to tighten their belts because doom is near. The hopeful me prays that Ranil will consider this challenge ‘the legacy’ he leaves behind, to do what’s best for the country, and not be held a political hostage by the very people who seem to be manipulating a political comeback. After all, we have no option but follow the constitutional process for the change we desperately wish for. Which means, these 225 stays until an election! Unfortunately, it’s a Hobson’s choice we are facing now. 

To manage this bleak passage, I believe we the people must engage in a dialogue of our own. We need an overhaul of the narrative and the messages we tell ourselves and each other. 

Here’s how I feel it should go: 

We the people deserve a country that celebrates our diversity, one led by democratically elected leaders who uphold our rights, and are accountable for their actions. Impunity, whoever it is perpetrated by, is dealt with by the law. We need a charter of rights and responsibilities. We will not give up our call for a democratic principled government just so that the economy can be turned around. We must stand by this, or there will be no country to save in the future. 

We must stick to the original call of the Aragalaya for system change, as we work on the economy. We also need to clearly understand that the Aragalaya is not the end, but only the means, which some of us fail to accept. 

- Keep the pressure on Ranil to create a ‘genuine’ all-party government.

- Keep the pressure on our leaders that we will be watching, and will no longer turn a blind eye to corruption, abuse of democracy and human rights, divide and rule tactics, or disproportionate and unwarranted use of military force.

- Prosecution of looters cannot be confined only to those who broke in temporarily, and those who looted while in residence must also be prosecuted.

- Develop a new people centric constitution and reduce the powers of the executive. 

- Reform the corrupt, bloated, inefficient public service and the SOE’s.

- Provide a timeline for elections, at least by early next year as we need to elect a better set of representatives for ourselves in the parliament, while paving the way for new blood to get in there

It seems many of us will forgive and forget just about anything and anyone if they will ensure:

1) our own safety and prosperity, even at the expense of our fellow citizens, and 

2) our economic survival at the expense of our values, principles and democratic rights. 

Let’s not be divided and compromise on our values this time. We can do this if we stand together, sticking up for each other, holding ourselves and our leaders to higher standards, and voting accordingly. No doubt our politicians are corrupt and to be blamed. But are they not a reflection of us? 

It is the best in us that began the Aragalaya. Let’s continue to keep that fire in us burning bright, until we achieve what we set out to achieve. Making changes to a system is a marathon and definitely not a sprint. 

I am a firm believer of Gandhi’s words – “Be the change you like to see”

Aragalayata Jayawewa!

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