• The lofty ideals of the ‘Aragalaya’ are arguably more distant today than when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was at the helm.
  • There was no designated political leadership to sustain the Aragalaya, and Ranil Wickremesinghe exploited it to the full.

This week marked the first anniversary of the infamous events of May 09 last year that led to the attacks on the Galle Face protests followed by arson attacks on houses of parliamentarians, the death of Polonnaruwa district MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala and the resignation of then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Cabinet.

Although it was to take another two months for the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was the events of May 09 that changed the momentum of the ‘aragalaya’ which many suspected would fizzle out tamely. One year later, it is worthwhile to revisit what was won in that struggle- and what was not.

The ‘aragalaya’ was initially a spontaneous expression of public anger against the acute shortages of fuel, gas and electricity prevalent at that time. The scarcity of these ‘essentials’ crippled normal life affecting people’s livelihoods. This provided them with the motivation to mobilise against the government. Notably, they didn’t have to be persuaded by political parties to do so; they readily took to the streets on their own initiative.

What was initially a demand for a regular supply of gas, fuel and electricity quickly metamorphosed into a cry for a ‘system change’. This was a departure from the initial slogan, ‘Gota Go Home’ which only demanded regime change. One year on, sadly, neither has been achieved although Gota has gone home- to enjoy all the perks and privileges that a former President is entitled to.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be argued that the ‘aragalaya’ became the success it was and captured the imagination of the masses because it wasn’t politically driven. Its activists were of many political persuasions, united in the cause of finding a better system of governance for the country.

Nevertheless, it is also suggested that the ultimate objectives of the ‘aragalaya’ were not achieved because there was no designated political leadership sustaining it- and also because opposition political leaders weren’t clever enough to utilise the opportunity that the people had created for them.

The exception to that was, of course, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He exploited it to the full. As a result, he is today Executive President, governing with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet- and the lofty ideals of the ‘aragalaya’ are arguably more distant today than they were when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was at the helm.

When the events of May 09 led to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation and caused Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go in to panic mode, he considered three potential replacements: Sajith Premadasa, Sarath Fonseka and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Fonseka was ruled out early as other Rajapaksa siblings were concerned Fonseka would take revenge for his incarceration and humiliation by the Rajapaksas.

Premadasa, instead of accepting the invitation and then using his position as Prime Minister to leverage some advantage, set conditions including the resignation of Rajapaksa within a set time frame. Not knowing the fate that awaited him then, Rajapaksa declined to appoint Premadasa. Insiders also say Premadasa was apprehensive about taking on the reins of government at a time when the economy was in ruins as he believed it would hinder his chances of a future tilt at the Presidency.

Wickremesinghe it was who accepted the offer with no conditions attached. He had the added advantage of being the solitary parliamentarian of his party, so he had no party to pander to in Parliament, unlike Premadasa.

The rest, as they say, is history. At the time he accepted the premiership no one including Wickremesinghe could have known that a mass uprising two months hence would lead to Rajapaksa fleeing the country through the rear exit of the President’s House. Therefore, to claim that accepting the premiership was a stroke of political genius by Wickremesinghe would be to give credit where it is not due. At last, after being on the losing side for four and a half decades he happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Even if we do not grudge Wickremesinghe’s elevation to the highest office in the land, it is his conduct since then that is cringeworthy. He has shown nothing but contempt for democracy and is hell bent on ignoring the rule of law and the provisions in the Constitution to serve his purpose which, right now, is to win the next presidential election.

His postponement of local government elections for fear that opposition parties will gather political momentum demonstrates what a political coward he is. His brutal crackdown on protests, the targeted use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, his failure to act against the likes of Diana Gamage in her citizenship fiasco all suggest that we have a dictator in the making. A man who craved for absolute power for forty-five years but was deprived of it time and time again is now finally having access it to it and he wants to ensure that he will do so for the next five years, by hook or by crook.

Lest we be fooled, he has not fashioned an economic miracle either. Yes, the bailout package from the International Monetary Fund has been secured but that is about all that has been done. No sustainable program to deliver the country from its current economic catastrophe has been formulated and all Wickremesinghe can do is speak of economic recovery by 2048! There is an indecent hurry though to sell off state ventures and at the top of that list are not loss-making state institutions but the most profitable ones- Sri Lanka Telecom, Lanka Hospital and Sri Lanka Insurance.

A factor contributing to Wickremesinghe’s hold on power is the divisions within the opposition. Even in the lead up to the local elections when it became obvious that Wickremesinghe would go to any extent to stifle the poll, the two main opposition parties, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya were more intent on bashing each other than uniting to take on Wickremesinghe.

One year after May 09 then, an objective assessment would read that the ‘aragalaya’, while getting rid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was overall a failure in that it installed a despot in the making as his successor, with little hope of ‘system change’.

It could still be considered a success if the public can rekindle its call for ‘system change’ at the time of the next elections and enable those changes. However, Sri Lankan voters are notorious for their short memories; so their ability to achieve that remains questionable.



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