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Where does the ‘aragalaya’ go from Galle Face?

6 months ago

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  • Public views on the aragalaya’s meteoric rise and contentious legacy, and how to move towards a more politically inclined beginning 
BY Sumudu Chamara The “RanilGoGama” (formerly “GotaGoGama”) protest site at the Galle Face Green, which was the face of the overall anti-Government and anti-President public movement called the “aragalaya” (struggle), has come to an end, after achieving the maximum extent of results ever achieved by a protest in Sri Lanka’s recent history.  As it demanded, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and also the Government led by the duo, resigned, resulting in a new Government headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, albeit with old faces, including those from the resigned Government. In a context where the demands pertaining to stabilising the country’s economy are yet to be achieved, the question now is whether and in what way the “aragalaya” should continue, regarding which various parties hold contradicting opinions. While some are concerned about the “aragalaya’s” methods of getting the Government to resolve the country’s pressing issues, some have questions about what has happened thus far in the name of the “aragalaya”. They all have various opinions about whether the “RanilGoGama” and the protests at that site should continue. The Morning spoke to several members of the public about this. Taking the ‘aragalaya’ beyond Galle Face Many who spoke with The Morning were of the firm opinion that the “aragalaya” is not, and should not be, over, as the country’s dire situation remains the same. While they had different opinions regarding the way the struggle should proceed, they all shared the opinion that the “aragalaya” should not be limited to Galle Face, or “RanilGoGama”, or to the current social and economic issues. “Why should the protests be over?,” 62-year-old retired clerk G.R.A. Samaratne who participated in the “GotaGoGama” protests, queried.  “Do we have an adequate supply of fuel and medicines now, let alone at reasonable prices? Have the black markets and greedy corporations that rip off innocent people been dealt with? Can the Government assure the revival of the agriculture sector? Do we have a Government or a President that is sensitive to the people’s problems now? Has the Government stopped retaliatory attacks on the protestors and insensitive arrests? Have tourists started coming back? Do our migrant workers send foreign exchange as before?” he further questioned, adding that the answer is a resounding no, which he said means that the “aragalaya” is far from over.  In response to a question about the fate of the “RanilGoGama” protest site, Samaratne said that although the protests were exemplary and he disapproves of what has befallen the protest site, there are practical issues that need to be acknowledged and addressed when moving forward.  “The ‘aragalaya’ protests were definitely the best I have seen in my life. The people have never been this united and enthusiastic. I don’t think that it was a failure. It achieved its main objective, which was deposing the former President, even though it led to an unexpected, undesirable outcome, which was the appointment of Wickremesinghe as President.  “However, despite how strong these protests were, I noticed two issues. One is that despite the state of the country, it is always a limited number of people or certain groups that actively participate in the protests. In fact, had everyone who was affected by the economic collapse taken a stance against the failed Government, we could have continued the protests indefinitely and throughout the island. The second issue is that there is only a certain extent of pressure that physical protests can exert on the Government. Politicians live in mansions, amidst heavy security and an unlimited supply of all essentials thanks to the people’s tax money, and they can live like that for longer than the people can protest.” Meanwhile, 40-year-old public sector employee Udaya Fernando (name changed on request), shared a similar opinion about the need for the “aragalaya” to continue, adding that the nature of the “aragalaya”, i.e. protests at “RanilGoGama”, however, needs to be changed.  He added: “The ‘aragalaya’ was the best people’s movement Sri Lanka has seen, and there is no doubt about it despite what the Government’s lackeys say. However, I think that we have achieved what we can achieve through protests. In fact, I think that what we achieved, i.e. resignations of a former President and Prime Minister, teaches us a lesson. The lesson is that no matter how united or determined the people are, as long as there are politicians who prioritise their political and personal agendas over the interests of the people that sent them to Parliament, the change we can achieve is limited.  “Having learnt that lesson, although it is unfortunate that the ‘RanilGoGama’ protest site ceased to exist, I think that it is perhaps time to take the people’s movement to the next level through an innovative approach.” When queried about what would be a suitable novel approach to proceed with the “aragalaya”, he said that the people’s needs that were represented by the “aragalaya” should enter politics in order to change Sri Lanka’s political culture, which he said is crippled and anti-people, in order to prioritise the people’s interests above all other concerns.  “Politics play a big role in the dire state of the country. To a great extent, politicians are responsible for the collapse of the economy, and it is because of them that we now have Wickremesinghe, who did not have enough votes to even become a Parliamentarian, as the President. Therefore, I think that the next stage of the ‘aragalaya’ should start in the political arena. Some may blame the people for electing unsuitable politicians in elections, which I think is reasonable.  “However, the ‘aragalaya’ showed us that that is merely a part of the problem. We all see how politicians keep protecting the Rajapaksa family, Wickremesinghe, the Heads of Defense Forces and the Police, and high-ranking authorities who have been repeatedly rejected by the people. Therefore, it is crucial that those who represent the ‘aragalaya’s’ interests, which are the people’s interests, enter Sri Lanka’s politics, and bring about the changes that the people need.  “It may take a lot of time, effort, and patience. However, if it is the politicians, political culture, and political decisions that put the country in this situation, then, therefore, the change should begin from within Parliament.” He expressed confidence that if a leader of the “aragalaya” was fielded to contest in the next General or Parliamentary Election or even in the Presidential Election, he/she would garner more votes than any politician in the country has received before, because hunger, distress, and insensitive politicians have pushed the people to their limit. Keeping the Galle Face protests alive There were a number of people who said that the “aragalaya” should continue at the “RanilGoGama” at Galle Face, with or without the establishments the court ordered to be removed, so as to keep reminding politicians that the people have not abandoned their quest for a better Sri Lanka. They also said that even without tents and other establishments, protests can still continue at the “RanilGoGama” protest site. In this regard, 38-year-old engineer Omantha Sahabandu said: “To the best of my knowledge, the court ordered the removal of the temporary establishments such as tents, and at no point said that the people cannot protest at that place. There is also a protest site which is allocated for protests. I think that the protests should continue in the same place. Even when there were tents at the ‘RanilGoGama’, only a handful of people actually stayed in those tents, while the others came and left whenever they could. I think that the people can and should still come and protest there in order to remind the politicians that the ‘aragalaya’ is not over.” When questioned about the plans by those involved in the “aragalaya” to continue the movement through discussions with politicians and other activists without continuing protests, he said that while it is important to take more a formal discussions and agreements-based approach to bring about legal and policy level changes to change the country’s situation for the better, exerting pressure on politicians is important.  “We are past the point where we can trust the politicians’ words or plans. Actual action is the only thing that can convince the people that the present Government, although not a new one, is capable of doing what the former Government could not.  “Therefore, we cannot allow politicians or the new Government to think that they can dilute the ‘aragalaya’ by giving hollow promises or temporary reliefs. It is crucial to exert pressure on them, and that is why the people’s presence at the ‘RanilGoGama’ is important, even though it may not be as strong as before. It is important to show the Government that the people are still furious because the new Government and the President are yet to do what they promised.” One way of exerting pressure on the Government is by keeping the “aragalaya” alive, according to 25-year-old private education institute student Samantha Perera (name changed on request) and by using the power of the number of people that supports the “aragalaya”.  He explained: “I am neither for nor against staging protests, especially at the ‘RanilGoGama’. I think that it can do no harm, although it has, in my opinion, achieved the highest results a protest has achieved in Sri Lanka’s history. However, the methods employed by the ‘aragalaya’ can be improved. For example, more than the protests’ fury, politicians fear voters’ disappointment in politicians. We can use the huge followers of the ‘aragalaya’ to strengthen the next steps of the ‘aragalaya’.  “One of the positive outcomes of the ‘aragalaya’ was that it attracted the unconditional support of many people. I am talking about ordinary, working-class people, whose only agenda was to support a system change that can build a safe future for them, not about those who supported this movement only until Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation or Wickremesinghe’s appointment. This particular group of people, I believe, constitutes a significant portion of the population, which is big enough to exert pressure on any politician contesting future elections.  “I think that the next level of the ‘aragalaya’ should focus on getting politicians to do things that are in the people’s interests. I think that such an approach will achieve far more results than the protests at Galle Face because an election has to be held within the next two years.” The ‘aragalaya’s’ questionable aspects Meanwhile, some opined that the “aragalaya” has done more damage to the country than good, and is a waste of the youth’s energy and time. Some also claimed that during the time of the “aragalaya”, i.e. from early April to early August, the country’s economy lost the contribution of those who engaged in the protests and that the Government had to spend considerable time and resources to deal with the protests which could have been used to address the country’s economic and consumer issues. “The ‘aragalaya’ overthrew the Rajapaksas, and I give them full credit for that. But the result was the comeback of an unpopular politician who is the epitome of incompetence, and is now proving to be worse than Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” 50-year-old trader J.R. Samarasinghe said while questioning the ‘aragalaya’s’ achievements. He claimed that this is because the protestors did not have an idea as to what should and could take place immediately after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and that those who led the protests should take the responsibility for causing the country to be headed by a person who has failed as a leader for decades. Claiming that it does not matter how great the protestors’ intentions were if the results they achieved are bad, Samarasinghe said that it is better now that the “aragalaya” has stopped wasting the people’s time and has decided to deal with the politicians directly.  “I am surprised that it proceeded until the court had to issue an order against temporary establishments at the site, given what its actions led to following 9 July,” he opined.  Meanwhile, 48-year-old private sector worker Harsha Perera (name changed on request), said that the physical protests with no clear vision or leadership wasted enthusiastic youths’ energy and time and that therefore, physical protests coming to an end, at least at the Galle Face, is a good development.  He said: “I see a huge issue with physical protests, at least those staged at the ‘RanilGoGama’ at the Galle Face Green. That is that no one knew what specific demands they had, other than the demand for the deposing of the former President and Prime Minister. It was just a large gathering of people saying the same thing, as if it constitutes a solution. I think that it wasted the time of a lot of gullible youth, who were however very enthusiastic to see a system change. I am glad that the physical protests at the Galle Face are finally over. The protestors who have a vision and a plan as to how to proceed can now start dealing with the politicians, activists, the business community, and the experts in a more meaningful manner. That is the real struggle that the country’s youth should join.” Regardless of what the “aragalaya” achieved, a majority of the people agree that the part of the “aragalaya” that the country saw during the past four months showcased how eagerly they want the status quo to change. Many believe that the “aragalaya” should continue, although there are mixed opinions as to in what way it should be done. Physical protests at the “RanilGoGama” however, are unlikely to be a part of the “aragalaya” again, or in the near future, according to those who spoke with The Morning. Overall, despite what befell the “RanilGoGama” protest site, the issues that triggered these protests are yet to be addressed, the people are still distressed and furious, and the people still demand that the Government does what needs to be done. Timeline of important events  9 April – Protestors of the “Occupy Galle Face” movement gathered at the Galle Face demanding that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Government led by him resign forthwith. They further demanded that Rajapaksa’s brothers, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, also resign During the several days that followed, the protestors occupied a part of the Galle Face Green including the precinct of the Presidential Secretariat, a part of the Galle Face beach, the Demonstrations Site that had been declared by the Government to be used for protests, and the main road in the area. They named the occupied area ‘GotaGoGama’ 12 April – Veteran musicians and actors participated in the ‘GotaGoGama’ protests to show support 14 April – The protestors celebrated the Sinhala and Tamil New Year at the ‘GotaGoGama’ A police officer attached to the Kuttigala Police Station joined the protests while on duty, in uniform, against whom legal actions were taken later 15 April – Former Sri Lankan cricketers participated in the ‘GotaGoGama’ protests. This was also in support of cricketer Dhammika Prasad, who had commenced a hunger strike over several demands including justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks and the economic crisis. The indigenous Vedda community also joined the ‘GotaGoGama’ protests 17 April – As this year’s Easter Sunday fell on 17 April, the ‘GotaGoGama’ protestors including thousands of new protestors and various religious leaders and academics visited the ‘GotaGoGama’ to commemorate the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Protestors used projectors to show various pictures and anti-Government/anti-President slogans on the Presidential Secretariat, which were subsequently blocked by the authorities 19 April – Demanding justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, actor Jehan Appuhami commenced a march from the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya to St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade, which then proceeded towards Galle Face 9 May – A group of ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) supporters including several former and current SLPP MPs attacked ‘GotaGoGama’ protestors and the protest site, despite the heavy presence of Police and defence forces in the vicinity of Galle Face. The assailants marched to the ‘GotaGoGama’ after a meeting at the Temple Trees.  In retaliation, throngs of people from all around the island started assaulting the attackers, and setting fire to and attacking the houses of a number of leading SLPP politicians, which continued for several days. In addition, houses of several supporters of the SLPP and of the then President, such as entertainment personality Iraj Weeraratne and nationalist Dan Priyasad, were destroyed.  Amidst these events, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tendered his resignation on the same day 12 May – United National Party (UNP) Leader and MP Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed the Prime Minister 18 May – Commemorations were held at the ‘GotaGoGama’ in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the war 9 June – Former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa resigned from his post 9 July – A large number of protestors stormed the Presidential Secretariat, the President’s House, and the Temple Trees, demanding former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. The former President announced that he would resign from his post on 13 July, even though he took several more days to do so.  In the meantime, he named then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Acting President, who was sworn in as the President on 21 July 20 July – The Colombo Magistrate’s Court issued an order preventing people from gathering within a 50-metre radius of the former Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s statue at the Galle Face 21 July – The ‘GotaGoGama’ protest site was renamed the ‘RanilGoGama’, demanding Wickremesinghe’s resignation 22 July – A large number of Police and defence forces personnel forcibly and violently removed protestors from the vicinity of the Presidential Secretariat. During this incident, a large number of properties belonging to the protestors were destroyed, while the protestors and media personnel were attacked. This attracted the disapproval of local and international activists 3 August – The Police directed the ‘RanilGoGama’ protestors to remove all illegal establishments, most of which were tents, before 5 p.m. on 5 August 5 August – The Attorney General’s Department informed the Court of Appeal that no action would be taken to remove illegal structures at the ‘RanilGoGama’ until Wednesday (10) without following the due procedure   Wednesday (10) – Protestors declared that they have decided to leave the ‘RanilGoGama’ protest site and that the ‘aragalaya’ would be continued in different ways  
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