Sri Lanka may be experiencing numerous shortages, but it is never short of thrilling political dramas, the latest being a clash between a serving General and a political party leader. They were on intimate terms until a few years ago, but they have fallen out and are likely to get embroiled in a legal battle.

NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa is no stranger to controversy and also known for his fiery oratory replete with rhetoric. He, true to form, created quite a stir recently by launching his latest book, ‘Nine: The Hidden story’, claiming, among other things, that Aragalaya or the Galle Face protest campaign, which spun out of control, had been part of a conspiracy by a section of the Sri Lankan military to capture state power at the behest of the US and India. He went so far as to name names and blame Chief of Defense Staff General Shavendra Silva and former war-winning Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka for having masterminded the alleged plot; both of them have denied the allegation vehemently.

US Ambassador Julie Chung has also sought to pooh-pooh Weerawansa’s claim that she played a key role in last year’s Aragalaya and strove to have an interim government formed with Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena as the Acting President after the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. She has dismissed Weerawansa’s book as a work of fiction. India has chosen to ignore the allegation.

Disintegration of nationalist camp
In a dramatic turn of events, Gen. Silva has sent a letter of demand to Weerawansa for the latter’s “defamatory’ statements. Weerawansa has stood his ground, and said he is prepared to meet Gen. Silva in court. This country is notorious for law’s delays, and defamation cases drag on for decades, and if Gen. Silva institutes legal action against Weerawansa, the legal battle is not likely to be over while the two parties are among the living.
What the running battle between Weerawansa and Gen. Silva signifies is the disintegration of the alliance of nationalists who joined forces during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and remained united despite vicissitudes on the political front after the 2015 regime change.
Weerawansa was an ardent defender of both Gen Silva and FM Fonseka during the war, and even broke ranks with the JVP, in 2008, to prop up the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which had a wafer-thin majority in the parliament, and help it secure the passage of the national budget, thereby ensuring the continuation of the war until the defeat of the LTTE.

Generals’ presidential ambitions
The alliance of nationalists suffered its major setback at the political level a few months after the conclusion of the war, with the then Gen. Fonseka falling out with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and challenging the latter in the 2010 presidential race. The nationalists prevailed, but suffered the second setback in 2015 with some of its key members decamping to help Maithripala Sirisena win the coveted presidency.
The 2015 regime change was arguably similar in some respects to Aragalaya in that it was also the result of a coming together of various forces from different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds, against the Rajapaksas and their allies.

The nationalist forces however remained resilient despite all hostile actions by the UNP-led Yahapalana government such as various probes, highly-publicized arrests and prosecutions and finally made a comeback in 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the last presidential election.

Nationalists led by the Rajapaksas were expected to reign supreme at least for five to six years as the Yahapalana camp collapsed at the 2019 presidential election, but they became their own enemies, paradoxical as it may sound. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was widely thought to be a tough leader capable of taking the country in a new direction and helping achieve national progress, bungled bigtime, triggering an unprecedented economic meltdown, paving the way for the emergence of a collective of forces hostile to the nationalist camp, and mass uprisings, which came to be dubbed Aragalaya.

Aragalaya has not yet been analyzed by anyone properly. Perhaps, no one will be able to do so anytime soon. It was an indefinable phenomenon, which was like a political tsunami; it came in waves, making all political parties head for the hills.

It has now been revealed that a number of political parties, including the UNP, had been involved in Aragalaya since its inception, but they had no control over it. Initially, it became political sour grapes for all mainstream politicians, who could not manipulate it. Even the JVP was not well-disposed towards it at the beginning if what its MPs said about it in the parliament is any indication; they had nothing complimentary to say about leaderless protests.

But the JVP and its breakaway group, the Frontline Socialist Party, regrouped, rallied forth, made inroads into the fissiparous, leaderless agitation movement and dominated it so much so that towards the height of the uprising, the two parties were steering it; they even tried to form a common political front but without success.

Vilification of Aragalaya

Why the likes of Weerawansa are so hostile towards Aragalaya is understandable; it caused the collapse of their political project, which was gaining momentum. They were scoring heavily on the political front by taking on the Gotabaya regime and being critical of the Rajapaksa family.

The SLPP dissidents were seen as a formidable countervailing force against the Gotabaya government. They managed to overshadow the SJB and the JVP to a considerable extent, offering themselves as an alternative to the SLPP, and emerging strong in national politics, the way the SLPP and the SJB had done at the expense of the SLFP and the UNP, respectively. But the glorious uncertainties of politics stood in the way of their strategy with an unexpected socio-political force manifesting itself in the form of Aragalaya.

The emergence of an extra-parliamentary oppositional force eclipsed the SLPP dissidents to the point of their relevance in national politics being questioned in some quarters. Weerawansa’s book at issue could therefore be seen as an attempt to delegitimize Aragalaya, and vilify those who organized, participated in, supported and benefited from that epoch-making socio-political phenomenon, which was the Sri Lankan version of the Arab Spring.

What next?

Aragalaya succeeded in knocking nationalists off their perch, but fell short of its goal. The Rajapaksa family retained their hold on power by keeping its parliamentary majority intact, which it used to have Ranil Wickremesinghe elected as President last year. The nationalist camp, however, is disarray. Aragalaya has also fizzled out. More importantly, the forces that came under the Aragalaya umbrella are divided along political lines. They are mostly pressure groups of single-issue organizations without any long-term goals, and political parties such as the JVP and the FSP used those outfits to achieve their ends.

The UNP, the unintended yet biggest beneficiary of Aragalaya, is struggling to make the most of the situation and recover lost ground in a bid to win future elections, but with only a single seat in the current parliament, it has its work cut out to make a comeback owing to a severe erosion of its support base, and its dependence on the SLPP for parliamentary support.

A few months ago, the JVP would brag that its approval rating had increased and it would be able to win the local government elections, which were to be held a few months ago. But it has not been politically active during the past several months. The SJB is struggling to prevent some of its MPs from crossing over to the UNP, and prominent among them is Dr. Rajitha Senaratne.

The SLPP-led nationalist camp is facing disintegration, and its popularity has plummeted, but it has managed to stay on top by retaining control of the parliament. Its enemies including extra-parliamentary forces have also suffered severe setbacks and are not strong and organized enough to put it to rout. The two sides are locked in a back-and-forth fight, and only an election will reveal the true strengths of the two sides.