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Curbing the excesses of the “aragalaya” 

14 Jul 2022

The “aragalaya” (struggle), which drew commendation from people of diverse backgrounds due to the cause it represented, shows strong signs of getting out of hand. There are now doubts as to whether it is on the path to reverse the progress it achieved through months of effort. On Wednesday (13), protestors occupied the Prime Minister's office, while a protest was also launched near Parliament. Later, uncorroborated media reports said that attempts by the law enforcement or Defense Forces personnel to gain control of the Prime Minister’s office had been thwarted by the protestors, while the protestors near Parliament had broken through the first line of barricades on the road leading to Parliament. In addition, a group of protestors also surrounded, entered, and asked for an interview from the State-owned television channel Rupavahini. During the interview, those who represented the “aragalaya” demanded that the television channel broadcasts only matters pertaining to the “aragalaya”. These acts, even though they are committed in the name of the “aragalaya”, are clearly excessive, and are beyond the limits of the peaceful and meaningful protests that the country saw so far. They are also not in line with the struggle’s original objectives, i.e. deposing the President, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers and the Government that put the country in the worst economic and social crisis it saw since Independence. The “aragalaya” was necessary, because the said parties proved incompetent and insensitive in resolving these crises. The fact that it represented the sentiments and needs of ordinary Sri Lankans without succumbing to narrow agendas of any one party is what made it a people’s struggle and leaderless movement. The “aragalaya” seems to be getting out of hand in a context where it has achieved some of its main demands, while it has secured others.  Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa have resigned, while present acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has promised to resign after the formation of an interim, all-party Government, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also promised to resign, although his promise is questionable given the fact that his resignation was to be announced on Wednesday. In addition, certain Ministers that were a part of the crisis creating Government have resigned. At the same time, several steps are underway in the existing legal and Constitutional framework to fulfill the protestors’ demands. The present Government, or what is left of it, including the Prime Minister, who is now serving as the acting President, and the Speaker of Parliament, are holding talks with regard to the formation of an interim, all-party Government and appointing a new, interim President, which are expected to take place within the coming few weeks. It is in this context that the protestors proceeded to occupy State-owned buildings, the newest one being the Prime Minister's office, demanding that the Prime Minister also resign immediately. The protestors, who are expected to push for actions that change the country's situation for the better, seem lost. They have ignored the fact that the country cannot function without a President or a Prime Minister and a Government to take crucial decisions, especially at this critical time, and that the changes they are demanding are taking place in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, although slowly. Most importantly, they have failed to understand that any occupation of Parliament will only further delay Parliamentary proceedings, which are necessary to take decisions with regard to a new Government and a new Head of State. However, it should be mentioned that those going to extremes and are engaging in the unnecessary occupation of State-owned buildings do not represent the overall “aragalaya”. However, they do that in the name of the “aragalaya”. In fact, several prominent members of the “aragalaya” have opposed this continuous occupation of State-owned buildings with no clear purpose, alleging that various groups are trying to take advantage of the “aragalaya” while putting its main objectives at risk. Unfortunately, the protestors of the “aragalaya” seem to have divided into several fractions, as a result of it, lacking leadership, which one may attribute to it being leaderless. Most importantly, in a context where the Government, as well as law enforcement and Defense Forces, are looking for a way to break the unity among protestors and to take more stringent actions against them, they may actually use these developments to justify the use of excessive or disproportionate force against peaceful protestors. The Government has already beefed up security at various places of importance, and have paid attention to the theft of valuable items at and damage to the buildings occupied by the protestors. Various parties, including members of the “aragalaya”, the general public, political activists, religious leaders and legal professionals including the Bar Association of Sri Lankan (BASL) have urged the protestors to refrain from occupying and damaging more buildings and to return the occupied buildings. The BASL has stressed that these acts do not constitute peaceful protests. Although it is reported that the “aragalaya” protestors have decided to hand over the Government buildings they have occupied, including the President’s House, the Presidential Secretariat, and the Prime Minister’s Office – they don’t mention the Temple Trees which is the Prime Minister’s official residence – with immediate effect by withdrawing from and vacating the premises with the aim of restoring peace, this is yet to materialise. The “aragalaya” has been commended and supported by people of all backgrounds from the beginning. That is because it had people-friendly objectives and was peaceful. However, if groups of protestors continue to engage in acts that serve no real purpose but to reverse the progress that it has achieved, the “aragalaya” will be remembered as a movement that led to a state of anarchy, not a fight against incompetent and selfish leaders.  

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