A year ago a popular uprising termed the Aragalaya or ‘struggle’ by the hungry and frustrated masses delivered a significant blow to the ruling administration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa which saw the resignation of the once powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. The events that followed witnessed the fleeing of Gotabaya Rajapaksa like a thief at night in July 2022.
Within those short months the popular uprising galvanised into a movement of change that demanded system-wide reforms in governance. The Aragalaya was a once in a generation moment that could have catalysed a much-needed structural change. While it achieved an unprecedented feat of ousting an executive president, the principles it aspired to were betrayed by a handful of opportunistic politicians.
Instead of a change in the structure of governance, the institutions that brought about the disaster that was the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime are still in place. Chief among this is the executive presidency which concentrates power to one single individual while compromising other democratic institutions. The people’s demands for accountability for crimes committed against citizens, including mass atrocities and corruption, have now been silenced by the current administration. Instead of holding the likes of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused of numerous crimes including the killing of journalists, abduction and assault of journalists and activists and involvement in specific war crimes accountable, the current regime has granted them with impunity. Other emblematic criminal cases such as abduction and killing of several Tamil and Muslim men by the Sri Lanka navy and the cases concerning disappearances of combatants have seen no progress under the present regime.
One of the main demands of last year’s protests was to address corruption and wastage. Today the Government relies on the very elements that brought this country to its knees through corruption. Those who were found guilty continue to be in the Cabinet without any hindrance. Any attempts of rectifying the menace of corruption have been traded for the political survival of the administration.
In the year since the Aragalaya ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa, forcing him to flee and seek refuge in the Trincomalee naval base the old regime is making a steady comeback. Today, Namal Rajapaksa the heir apparent to the Rajapaksa family, is talking of ‘rehabilitating’ the youth who participated in the Aragalaya without an iota of irony over his own family’s dubious record of corruption and incompetence that precipitated the worst economic crisis in the history of the country that has now dragged millions into poverty.
The events of one year ago should be a reminder to any leader of the phenomenal power of a popular uprising. One year ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the president of the country, elected with an overwhelming mandate of 6.9 million votes and an all-powerful executive strengthened through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Today, he is in oblivion surviving on the good graces of his successor. This could be the plight of any leader who stifles the will of the people.
The Aragalaya was only a manifestation of the simmering frustration of the masses who had witnessed for decades their future pilfered by a handful of politicians. The postponement of elections and the denial of the expression of the peoples will only heighten this frustration. If another struggle is to be avoided, those in power should allow for the expression of the democratic will of the people and learn from the events of 2022.