Part- II

N. Sathiya Moorthy

Not many evening speakers at Gotagogama spoke about anything other than the immediate privations, requiring the exit of the Gota leadership and government. The knowledgeable were already discussing among them on the edges of the protest site, as to the available alternative after Gota’s exit, which they too had concluded was imminent, and self-propelled, under pressure from the popular protest.

They knew that when a vacancy arose for the presidency, the Prime Minister would stand in, before Parliament chose someone to complete the remaining period of the Gota presidency. Hence, they welcomed in the heart of their hearts Gota’s demand for PM Mahinda to quit.

From their perception, it was a good move for the nation as they did not believe, as incumbent Gota did, that he alone could survive a “popular coup.” In their calculations, first they would have a “good/better” Prime Minister in Mahinda’s place, who would then replace Gota temporarily first and permanently for the remaining term of the outgoing President, once Parliament chose him formally. Or, so did they believe. Sajith Preamadasa as the SJB Leader or the Opposition was their natural choice.

Despite continuing criticism that Sajith’s reluctance was the main cause for the current imbroglio in matters of governance and domestic economic management (price, tariff and tax hikes, etc), he had seemingly done his calculations well. Unlike the dreamers on the periphery, the man on the spot, and in a spot, knew, that whether as Prime Minister, and more so later as President, he would not be able to muster a parliamentary majority, which was/is a sine quo non for the purpose of governing the country, one way or the other.

A year and more down the line, incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe, once the cunning fox of national politics after his late relative, J R Jayawardene, has not been able to split either the Opposition SJB combine, which was once his under a different, UNP label. The question of his being able to divide the “ruling” SLPP ally, despite the Rajapaksa (read: Mahinda) leadership’s poor score in private opinion polls, speaks volumes, just did/does not arise.

At the end of the day, was leadership-change the aim and goal of the Aragalaya protestors? Yes and no. Even at the time, the JVP leadership and cadres that had effectively mingled with the masses at the Gotagogama venue were hopeful or at least desired a “system change” as much as they were hopeful of a “leadership change.”

Even more so was the lesser-known and soon-to-be-forgotten Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a breakaway faction of the JVP, founded in the last decade, with one-time militant Premkumar Gunaratnam, with a suspected alias of Noel Mudalige, an Australian citizen, as its leader. That the FSP could effortlessly absorb all of the JVP’s student and teachers wing by itself said a lot, but their power got displayed without authorship and ownership in the diversifying pre-Aragalaya street-protests in Colombo, demanding food and fuel, only to merge in the Gotagogama village melee.

So, who was behind all the violence and arson? You may disagree or dismiss much of what Sarath Weeresekara says on the ethnic front, targeting the Tamils in often unjustifiable terms. But his questions on the Aragalaya violence, the motivators and participants, require answers – in the larger interest of nationhood and national security.

It is one thing for the JVP to capture power legitimately through the ballot-box, on a “social revolution” platform. It is what the party has been doing by consistently contesting the presidential, parliament and local government elections, every time they are conducted. It is another thing for some faceless leader or leaders to try and engineer an “urban insurgency” and worse, as the 9 May arson and others indicated last year, was beginning to look like.

When the JVP consistently indicates that it is for the democratic processes, and possibly their call for a “social revolution” too should flow from the ballot and not through bullet, which other force desired it the other way, if that was/is the goal. It is impertinent and impossible to point fingers unless the government, through the wide-spread and deep-seated investigative machinery at its command, finds out first and takes the nation into confidence, next.

A few months back, more than one government minister went on record that they had intelligence information on a violent uprising in November, for which the plotter-organisers had even conducted training programmes. The government-mentioned deadline has come and gone, but no activity of the kind mentioned.

You can credit it to the intelligence machinery for thwarting such efforts at an urban insurgency of the JVP kind in the late eighties, though you can also discount the party’s involvement, at least for now. The question is if the FSP has the intent and machinery for it. Or, are there other elements professing the Marxist-Leninist ideology that are waiting in the wings to strike when their time is good? Theoretically, they could be from the extreme right, including Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists.

At least, no one is talking about the revival of the LTTE or the entry of new Tamil militant groups, which operated less on the insurgency front, and more as terrorist outfits. Experts would tell you how and why their motives and modus are entirely different from urban guerrillas, though that is what the LTTE attempted in Jaffna town area in the nineties but failed to hold on to territory and urban-hostages for long.

Post-LTTE analyses have claimed that holding territory and wanting to run a governance system without international recognition of any kind was one of its early failings, which saw to its end, ultimately.

So, who did it and why? Was it a grand plan for “regime-change” that was given a broader meaning and title, if only to interest and attract local interests that wanted much more than the former and more of the latter? If so, was it only “regime-change” by another name, in another format, wherein more of the local polity and population were driven by the unseen (foreign?) hand as Mahinda R had openly alleged after losing the 2015 presidential polls, rather honourably? If so, why these elaborate schemes and whispered campaigns on an impending “system-change”?

After all, as if on cue or otherwise jubilant but tired, the mass of people gathered at the Gotagogama venue began dispersing the minute news of President Gotabaya’s flight out of the country (to Maldives en route to Thailand) became known. Then, as they appeared suddenly, the system-changers determined to stay put at the protest site, too evaporated, but only after some not-so-sympathetic nudging by the security forces. The Aragalaya had won, but it did not win, either.

This takes us to the one last question for which the Wickremesinghe presidency promised to find answers. By ordering full-fledged investigations into the multiple arson cases, including the one that torched his family home, the President did raise some hopes in certain circles and fear of possible exposures in others. Following the government’s promise and initial progress in such investigations, SLPP parliamentarians and others who had moved the courts for compensation for their torched property even withdrew the same.

Then, there is the equally forgotten report of a three-member committee of veteran leaders of the armed forces, appointed by the present government, to probe allegations of command-failure bordering on abject insubordination, top-down, when the Aragalaya protests began taking a violent turn.

The finding may at least partially explain the unwillingness of the local field teams to step in when requested by the police force to quell some of those incidents of arson. Even noticeably muted news reports from the sites of arson, however belated, said that the army units posted not far away from the houses of incumbent ministers refused to interject when requested by family members or even the local police, when the property was going up in flames – and the perpetrators took their time, doing their act.

Where from here?

All these raise multiple questions.

1. Why has not the President / Parliament appointed a commission to probe the circumstances behind the Aragalaya protests and the shape it took – or, was seen as taking? On the equally serious Easter serial blasts of 2019, there were at least two Presidential Commissions and a parliamentary probe (as if the Legislature did not trust the Executive, in which current President Ranil was a powerful Prime Minister under less-popular and more meddlesome President, Maithripala Sirisena? Why, there is even a Supreme Court verdict now, fixing legal and financial responsibility on Sirisena and his top aides under the non-codified tort laws.

2. Does the government expect / fear that an honest and unbiased probe could expose the culpability of the Rajapaksas, then in power and who still have the capacity to upset President Wickremesinghe’s apple-cart? Or, will such a probe go beyond it all, also to “expose” a foreign hand or hands, about which some of the erstwhile ruling front ministers and parliamentarians  have been talking about from time-to- time?

3. Why is there no visible action on the three-member veterans’ probe that found then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen Shavendra Silva as not only not raising to the occasion, but also over-looked or side-stepped the directives/orders of Defence Secretary, and one-time colleague, Gen Kamal Kunaratne, and more so, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, otherwise only a ceremonial post, with limited administrative powers in the matter? Does Gen Silva has another version to offer than what has been “selectively” reported by a section of the national Press?

4. What happened to the multitude of police investigations into the series of arson incidents targeting the properties of politicians, including present President Wickremesinghe? While the government had detained a former Tamil parliamentarian for leading/participating in the arson-attack on the Wickremesinghe home until the courts granted him bail on this count too (he also had other cases against him), why is it that it has not taken one of those cases to the courts, even if only to test the mood and method of the judiciary, bottom up in fixing criminal culpability in the midst of mass movements of the unprecedented Aragalaya kind?

Coming as they do in the midst of reports of increasing desertion from the armed forces and anxieties about the deserters joining or forming criminal gangs, and guns-for-hire, the nation cannot ignore or side-step any of these very many signals that may symbolise something more than the obvious.

Last year’s presidential hopeful Dullas Allahaperuma, a dissent MP of the “ruling” SLPP, told Parliament recently that as many as 27,000 soldiers have deserted the three Services in the last two years. If this could pose “dangers”, there is no CDS for weeks now, leaving a wide gap in the overall military administration, if not preparedness.

The obvious possibility is that going beyond ransom-killings and kidnappings, apart from politically-motivated target-practices, there is the real danger of these deserters offering their services of the nature to overseas clients. It was a possibility mutedly discussed through the end of the ethnic war and beyond, when some western nations recommended an imminent down-sizing or disbandment of very many brigades, if not Regiments, lest Sri Lanka could turn or could be turned into a “highly securitised nation.”

Of course, the West also did not have answers to what the nation could do with all those retirees, for them to provide for their dependent families.

Gota’s decision as then Defence Secretary to recruit their services in civic projects like urban reconstruction and beautification, starting with capital Colombo, and also constructing IDP homes after the war, failed to impress. Certainly, the soldiers who did not challenge those orders, were clear that they did not sign up for a national cause of eliminating terrorist LTTE, only to end up constructing and repairing the city’s sewers.

Those votes, incumbent President Mahinda did not get in Elections-2015 after winning them effortlessly when their one-time boss, Sarath Fonseka, since created “Field Marshal” challenged the other in the post-war presidential polls of 2010. Mahinda won in 2010, lost in 2015.

It may be a small compromise, when compared to the multi-level, multi-layered tough-of-war that was going on between the President and the Constitution Council (CC), reporting to Parliament, over the repeated extension granted to the nation’s top cop, Inspector-General of Police (IGP), and his unavoidable replacement by an “Acting IGP”, another first of its kind on the security front, whether internal, external or both!

Between all these lies the answer to the ultimate question: Was Aragalaya a budding revolution that went awry, or a botched security management, but for which, the mass struggle might not have reached where it did and achieve what it achieved, whatever be the undisclosed and equally unclear goals and promises? 


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