Protestors chime in on the effect of Wickremesinghe’s appointment on their demands
BY SUMUDU CHAMARA United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as the Prime Minister caused considerable change in Sri Lanka’s existing political situation, and attracted both criticism and admiration from all types of groups. While some were concerned about Wickremesinghe’s ability to save the country from the prevailing economic crisis, some expressed concerns about whether Wickremesinghe’s resurgence would bring the answers the people, especially protestors, expected from the Government. While Wickremesinghe’s comeback has given the Government, especially President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, some kind of relief, it seems to have affected the ongoing protests in a completely unexpected manner. Many claim that following Wickremesinghe’s appointment, certain groups of protestors at several protest sites in the country, including at the most famous protest site “GotaGoGama”, have been divided, and some have even broken away from the mainstream anti-Government movement.Demands and prioritiesSome protestors remain confident and hopeful about the future of the ongoing protests, and they are determined to continue the protests until their demands are fulfilled. According to them, some protestors leaving the protests, especially “GotaGoGama”, following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, does not reflect the attitudes of the majority of protestors.P.T.A Wijesinghe, a 44-year-old protester, told The Morning: “There is no reason to keep any doubts as to whether the struggle is over. It is certainly not over, because the people’s demands have not yet been met. In fact, only one thing can bring the people’s anti-Government movement to an end, and that is the fulfillment of the people’s demands, the main one being the President’s resignation.“The protest was started for a noble cause. I say that this is a noble cause, because most people are more concerned about the benefits the country will get from a proper change in the political system than about the benefits they will get personally. Their priority is changing the existing, corrupt political culture, and this mission is not limited to any specific politician. It is not about the Rajapaksa family or any other politician, even though the two Rajapaksa brothers are the main concern at the moment due to their roles in the political arena. “Therefore, the Government can change positions and people as much as it wants. However, people are expecting something more than replacing one corrupt and incompetent politician with another. The priority is creating a political culture that does not allow corrupt people to become public representatives and destroy people’s futures. That starts with getting rid of the present administration, and that is why the Rajapaksa family is people’s main concern, not because their removal or resignation ensures an exemplary political culture.“Due to that reason, I personally think that the ongoing protests should not end until the Executive Presidency is abolished and constitutional reforms like the 19th Amendment to the Constitution are made. Also, the protests should continue until steps are taken to take back the public funds stolen by politicians.” Stressing that Sri Lankans are now more sure about the changes they need than ever before, he noted that abandoning the ongoing protests due to the belief that changing the Premiership will lead to other changes the people demand is tantamount to betraying the aforesaid noble cause. What is more, he said that certain parties being complacent with Wickremesinghe’s appointment as the Prime Minister is an insult to those who were injured, killed, and arrested during protests. New Prime Minister and Old PresidentEmphasising that even though Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation, which was demanded by the people through the “MynaGoGama”, proved to be some kind of a victory, Chanaka Srimath, another protester, opined that this decision would not end the protests. He noted that even though a handful of people seem to be thinking that Wickremesinghe replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa is the solution the country needs, that is barely a solution to any issue in the country, and therefore, ceasing protests in the hope that Wickremesinghe will resolve all the pressing economic issues is foolish.“All those who genuinely understood the reasons why the protests started, how the economic crisis started and worsened, and participated in protests to force politicians to make an actual change, will agree with me when I say that only the President’s resignation and a public apology from the President for his incompetence can stop these protests,” he opined.He explained why the former Prime Minister’s resignation is not an adequate reason to end the protests: “The Prime Minister plays an important role. The former Prime Minister’s resignation was a crucial decision, especially because he too played an extremely important role as far as the prevailing economic and social crises are concerned. However, that is merely one part of the solution the people demand, and the President too should resign. “The fact of the matter is, regardless of who is appointed as Prime Minister, that person will have to work under the same President. Therefore, we cannot expect any significant change from a new Prime Minister until the President’s executive powers are abolished.”In this context, he said, the protestors’ demands should not change, because a new Prime Minister does not necessarily mean the necessary changes are going to take place.“We have seen Wickremesinghe’s conduct during the Yahapalanaya Government’s tenure, and he clearly failed to protect the people and people’s democratic rights several times. In such a context, giving up on protests, especially due to the reason that he too will have to work according to the President’s wishes, is unbelievable,” he opined. A small fraction of protestorsAccording to several protestors at “GotaGoGama” and other places, those who are said to have abandoned the protests due to Wickremeisnghe’s appointment as the Prime Minister are merely a small fraction of protesters, and do not represent the people-led movement against the Government.One protester, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Morning: “According to my understanding, most people who have decided to stop supporting the ongoing protests did so due to personal interests. Even though they showed that they too are independent protestors like the rest of us, I am certain that they left the struggle either because they realised that Wickremesinghe will not fulfil their personal interests, or because they realised that Wickremeisnghe will fulfil their personal interests. However, the position of those who genuinely wanted to change the country’s political, economic, and social environments has not changed at all.”Another protester opined that neither the people nor the Government should be too quick to measure the success of the ongoing protests based on the few that leave or left the movement, but on those who keep the movement going. He emphasised that the majority of the people, who he said experiences the results of the Government’s short-sighted decisions, are still with those protesting at “GotaGoGama”. Leadership in leaderless protestsSpeaking in this regard, Kasun (name changed on request), another protester, said that while the ongoing protests remaining people-led, or leaderless, is important, there should be some kind of a leadership that directs the people to make their own prudent decisions.“We do not need leaders to tell people what to do. However, I am of the opinion that some kind of leadership is necessary for people to do the right thing, and to not succumb to personal or temporary advantages. I am sure that the groups that are breaking away from the ongoing protests following the appointment of the new Prime Minister did or are doing so because of some kind of benefit. If the ongoing protests had some kind of a leadership – which does not have to be a specific person or a specific group – these people would have understood and prioritised the overall objectives of the protests.”Opining that this is a good example that despite countless challenges created by politicians, some Sri Lankans still believe that the comeback of a failed politician could somehow change everything for the better, he stressed: “That is why the same group of politicians keeps coming to power every five to six years, despite having failed in their previous tenures, and this is what the protests are trying to change.”Until the people start demanding things from politicians instead of begging, he said, the situation will not change. He further emphasised that changing the people’s mindsets with a focus on making them aware of their rights as voters, citizens, and taxpayers should be an important part of the massive change Sri Lanka is trying to achieve through the ongoing protests.The majority of protestors are determined to continue their protests regardless of the new Prime Minister’s appointment, or what he has promised. Although that is a promising sign, what is more important is achieving the changes the protests seek as soon as possible. As the protestors who spoke with The Morning affirmed, the ongoing people-led movement should continue to prioritise changing the existing political culture, rather than changing politicians’ positions.