|The Aragalaya was an archetype of a successful struggle against autocracy and for democracy. It liberated in one hundred days, and without firing a single shot, the country from the rule of a clan or tribe that dominated the state, had carved up the pie of state resources among its members, and collapsed the economy with its cumulative weight and irrationality in economic decision-making
Someday, 9 July will be declared a national holiday by a grateful Sri Lanka. 9 July 2022 will be in history textbooks and taught to schoolchildren. The Aragalaya spirit will be celebrated and the Aragalaya generation upheld as a role model for young people. Those who participated will be able to recount their experience with pride to their grandchildren. Those of us who lived through it, will be grateful we did.
The Aragalaya was an archetype of a successful struggle against autocracy and for democracy. It liberated in one hundred days, and without firing a single shot, the country from the rule of a clan or tribe that dominated the state, had carved up the pie of state resources among its members, and collapsed the economy with its cumulative weight and irrationality in economic decision-making.
President Wickremesinghe, unelected by the sovereign people, is persecuting the Aragalaya. He is intent on decapitating it. History will view the Aragalaya far more generously than it does President Wickremesinghe. The Aragalaya and its activists occupy a higher moral ground and enjoy greater legitimacy than he does. The Aragalaya is a heroic narrative and its participants (with a few exceptions) are heroes. Ranil Wickremesinghe has never been a hero.
When so powerful a protest movement sweeps an autocrat or autocracy from office, the leader who succeeds the deposed dictator is almost always someone who gave leadership to the struggle or arose from it. Examples abound from Lech Walesa through Cory Aquino to Vaclav Havel. In Sri Lanka, the outcome has been its exact opposite. Ranil Wickremesinghe was not identified at all with the Aragalaya. He was appointed the PM by the autocratic President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At the height of the struggle on 9 July, the targeted regime had been designated “Gota-Ranil rule”. The present President was the secondary target of the struggle.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has commenced the counter-revolution. Counter-revolutions do indeed follow revolutions, especially unfinished ones, but they either spring from one who has accumulated some legitimacy from having been part of the revolution (Napoleon Bonaparte, Chiang Kai-shek), or has their own conservative political/institutional base, or has quite simply won an election. Wickremesinghe fails to fall into any of those categories.
Ranil vs. Ratta
Stability requires a moratorium on prosecutions and an amnesty for all those arrested, except on charges of violence against persons (such as the atrocious Nittambuwa killings).
The Wickremesinghe administration has already undermined its own propaganda of defending democracy from “fascist” radical leftists, by arresting Rathidu Senaratna, much better known as Ratta, a lucid young leader and rational voice of the 100-day Aragalaya from its non-party opening phase at Galle Face Green on 3 April, right through to the (temporary?) end in late July. He has never been known to be member of the FSP, IUSF, JVP, SYU or even the JVP affiliated NPP. He is vastly more suitable to represent the youth as a legislator than anyone in parliament today. More: an organic leader with an independent perspective, I see him as a potential Gabriel Boric.
It wasn’t Kumar Gunaratnam, the founder-leader of the revolutionary left FSP or Anura Kumara Dissanayake the leader of the JVP, the largest Left party on the island, who made the most radical statement of this moment—and by ‘radical’, I mean it in its original sense, of grasping things by their very root (“radicare”). It was the Sri Lankan of the most exalted international achievement who did so.
“Speaking truth to power” is among the high-risk virtues of a good Christian, and His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith did just that when he told the BBC’s World Service Radio that President Ranil Wickremesinghe lacked a popular mandate and therefore “had no legitimacy” as a President. His Eminence even called Wickremesinghe “the so-called President”. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w172yfc2f4f81nj)
In case the state’s intelligence agencies still engage in the self-delusion that this is the idiosyncratic perspective of the Cardinal in a “divided Church”, this was followed by a thunderbolt: a denunciatory statement signed by over 1,640 members of the Catholic clergy. The unprecedented statement was occasioned by the enormous folly of the authorities’ targeting of Fr. Jeevantha Pieris. If the Wickremesinghe administration thought that the young priest could be isolated, it was manifestly mistaken. The statement read:
“…All of us have been supporting the recent Aragalaya (people’s protests) and many of us have joined in the protests. Fr. Jeevantha has been one of the prominent persons involved in the Aragalaya…”
The indictment of the new President is unequivocal:
“The appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president and subsequently president, has led to increased repression of protests, protesters and those supporting protests. Declaration of emergency sent a chilling political message of intolerance of dissent and this was followed by draconian emergency regulations, that can severely restrict and violate freedom of expression, assembly, movement and lead to arbitrary arrests and prolonged detentions. The president’s decision to declare emergency has been ratified by parliament, indicating that both the executive and legislature are now on a repressive path.”
The President’s uncle: Bishop Lakshman
Had President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s uncle, the iconic Anglican Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe been alive, he would doubtless have admonished his nephew for angering the island’s Catholic community by attempting to persecute a Catholic clergyman.
Together with Catholic Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, Anglican Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe spearheaded the progressive transformation of the Christian churches and community of Sri Lanka.
Before becoming ‘a man of the cloth’, Bishop Lakshman (my father’s campus contemporary and friend, whom Mervyn always called “Lakshman”), was a political scientist of outstanding brilliance who instituted the CL Wickremesinghe memorial prize named after Ranil Wickremesinghe’s grandfather, for the best results in political science at Peradeniya University—a prize rarely awarded, which I won at graduation.
Bishop Lakshman would have told Ranil in an Open letter or sermon, as he did upon the sacking of 60,000 state employees after the general strike of July 1980 by the UNP Government of which Ranil was a Minister, something quite fundamental. He would have said that the only way that President Wickremesinghe can prevent his lack of a popular mandate and resultant sociopolitical illegitimacy from de-legitimising the entire political order and capsizing it in the current economic collapse, is to hold a snap Presidential election and to include the provisions to do so in the upcoming 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.
As a stellar political scientist Bishop Lak (as he was fondly known) would have noted that coming from this Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency, the 22nd Amendment is irrelevant or inadequate. The 19th Amendment was meaningful because an elected President, Maithripala Sirisena was transferring a considerable measure of power. In the current case, President Wickremesinghe, being unelected and devoid of a popular mandate, has no legitimacy, no moral or ethical right to wield the executive power he has and would retain even after the 22nd Amendment enters the Constitution.
|President Ranil Wickremesinghe has commenced the counter-revolution. Counter-revolutions do indeed follow revolutions, especially unfinished ones, but they either spring from one who has accumulated some legitimacy from having been part of the revolution (Napoleon Bonaparte, Chiang Kai-shek), or has their own conservative political/institutional base, or has quite simply won an election. Wickremesinghe fails to fall into any of those categories
Gunning for Gunaratnam
Ranil Wickremesinghe, his Cabinet Ministers and members of the ruling SLPP are busily spinning FSP leader Kumar Gunaratnam’s recent declarations as evidence of a project to “seize power by undemocratic means”.
Bishop Lak would have educated his nephew in the basics of Political Theory, namely that Gunaratnam’s publicly articulated ideas were not only recognisably those of Rosa Luxemburg rather than Lenin, but also located squarely within an old debate on democracy, between representative or indirect democracy, and participatory or direct democracy.
While Kumar Gunaratnam is indubitably a committed anti-capitalist, revolutionary socialist, his recently stated views which have caused controversy are by no means anti-democratic or undemocratic, but are in favour of one type of democracy, which I would term ‘civic democracy’ –deriving from the Athenian ‘agora’ or public assembly—rather than the other. In contemporary political parlance his recent remarks are for ‘radical democracy’, not against democracy as such.
Had Bishop Lakshman still been around he would have enlightened his presidential nephew that the same debates raged during the English Civil War in and around Cromwell’s New Model Army (the Putney Debates), and educated him about the Diggers (with Gerard Winstanley their main ideologue) and the Levellers.
The difference between Kumar Gunaratnam and the rest of us democrats is that he wishes radical (direct) democracy to be superior to, though not suppress or supplant, liberal (indirect) democracy. Our answer must not be denunciation and suppression, but the incorporation to the extent possible of direct, participatory democracy into indirect liberal democracy or the supplementation of liberal democracy with radical democracy (the Aragalaya Charter). This would socialise democracy somewhat, rendering it a deliberative social democracy.
Furthermore, Kumar Gunaratnam’s views are perfectly compatible with the Constitution that defines Sri Lanka as a Democratic Socialist Republic and may be regarded as suggestions for the state to live up to its name.
First citizen’s first fascism
President Wickremesinghe made a dangerously belligerent speech in Kandy last week after his visit to the sacred Temple of the Tooth. Sharing a platform with the ruling SLPP’s hardline faction’s key personalities, Dilum Amunugama (a public and explicit Adolf Hitler fan) and Mahindananda Aluthgamage, President Wickremesinghe said, referring to the rebels of the citizens’ 100-day uprising, that “for the first time our country faced the threat of Fascism”.
It was no less an authority than the editor of the Penguin/Pelican handbook on Fascism, Emeritus Professor Walter Laqueur, who in his The New Terrorism (1999) said that “the closest parallel” he could come to for Prabhakaran’s Tamil Tigers were “the European fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s”, i.e., Hitler and Mussolini. Surely the Tigers were Sri Lanka’s closest encounter with fascism?
Going by the book on Sri Lanka’s successful war by Prof. Paul Moorcraft, British military historian and senior lecturer at Sandhurst, incoming Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called off a hit on Prabhakaran by the Sri Lankan Army’s Special Forces LRRP team lying in ambush on 21 December 2001. I recall that very well, because at lunch, the captain who headed the US Green Beret team that visited Sri Lanka annually (except in 2001, due to 9/11) for Balanced Style, the joint training program operation with SL’s Special Forces, asked me with utter shock in 2002, how that could happen.
To President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Aragalaya or its rebellious Jacobin leftwing looked more fascist than Prabhakaran’s LTTE, or the LTTE did not look fascist at all – because the Aragalaya militants were “the first time”, according to him, that the country had faced fascism.
Arguably—and I had made the argument at the time—the JVP’s second insurrection of the late 1980s was characterised by the xenophobic ideology and barbaric killings that were redolent of ‘National Socialism’ or ‘social fascism’ (as Charles Abeysekara and the Social Scientists Association called it). However, for President Wickremesinghe this was not a brush with fascism of any variety, because the “first time ever” was this time around—in the Aragalaya.
Terrorism or totalitarianism?
The President’s aggressive remarks in Kandy were followed by a report in the Sunday papers that: “The Government is considering the proscription of any groups, organisations or political parties that engage in acts of violence, use of undemocratic methods of trying to seize power or take control of state buildings...Attempts to seize and occupy government buildings or administrative centres and cause damage to public property could be viewed as ‘terrorist activities’...Ministry of Public Security has sought legal advice on the possibility of proscribing any organisation or political party that aids or abets such activities…”
This is a tankerload of toxic tosh. Civil disobedience is not violence. Taking control of state buildings is not violence, unless accompanied by violence. Violence is not the same as force: forcing a barricade or gate is not violence; hitting a policeman is.
Attempts to seize and occupy government buildings or administrative centres and cause damage to public property can be “viewed as terrorist activities” only by someone who doesn’t know what terrorism is, which is odd in a country that witnessed two civil wars in which terrorism was practiced, though it was not the only method used.
Terrorism is the organised use of armed violence aimed intentionally at non-combatants, i.e., uninvolved civilians, for political aims. There was no such phenomenon in the Aragalaya.
Who decides whether someone is trying to “seize power by undemocratic methods”? Going by His Eminence the Cardinal’s remarks to the BBC about “no mandate…lack of legitimacy…so-called president”, one could stretch the point a bit and accuse President Ranil Wickremesinghe of the same thing, because sometimes there is a gap, even a contradiction, between the Constitutional and the democratic.
What we experienced and the world witnessed was a magnificent illustration of People’s Power. Of course, there were violent excesses, crimes, but these were not on the instructions of any political party or organisation, but the passions of a mob, which often pools within semi-spontaneous mass protest movements. Far from constituting proof of the subversive intentions of this or that political party, these violent excesses are evidence of the lack of control that these parties had over a protest of such magnitude, especially at its provincial periphery.
As for “proscribing” any organisation or political party that aids or abets activities such as occupying building and damaging public property, it means that the authorities can define as terrorism something that is perfectly prosecutable under normal law as merely a criminal act; proceed to identify some participants in the bloodless, victimless act of occupation as members of a political party; assume that their behaviour was the direct result of an instruction by that political party; visit collective punishment on that party or organisation by proscribing it as a whole and then arrest and prosecute its members as belonging to a proscribed organisation or do the reverse by banning an organisation because one of its members slept on the Presidential bed or sat in the President’s chair.
Why should the citizenry swallow “bitter medicine” prescribed by a collection of characters who, under the Rajapaksas and Ranil Wickremesinghe (2015-2019) caused the crisis through profligate borrowing from the private financial markets?
Our most brilliant public policy expert Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya recently told Kusum Wijetilleke that the root cause of our economic problems is the historically decreasing and unconscionably low tax collection from the wealthiest, compared to the Asian average.
A failure until now, who led his party for over quarter-century into electoral oblivion in 2020, Ranil Wickremesinghe was never elected president because the citizenry never thought him fit to lead the country. He is leading it now because of a flaw in the Constitution and the backing of a devalued ruling party dominated by the reviled Rajapaksas. It is a victory that would have done Pyrrhus proud.
Wickremesinghe was never liked or trusted by the people and he in his turn never understood the people nor the ethos of the island. His zero-mandate illegitimate presidency has as much chance of lasting until November 2024 as a snowball would on a Sri Lankan road.